Art and politics have always been inextricably linked, but oftentimes artistic exploration becomes constrained by other interests. Many artists feel pressure to dial down their ideas to be sold in galleries or displayed in museums – and they end up participating within a ‘safe zone’ of rebellion. Street artists however aren’t afraid to step outside the 'white cube' environment...
When street art began to grow artists were willing to risk their freedom to install a work - the threat of arrest was extremely high. These risks ended up paying off, as the political impact was huge – installing works across the urban environment enlarges the artwork’s audience and makes it less easy to turn away from difficult images. By transforming public spaces street artists literally changed the fabric of our environment.
Today, we want to take a look at three artists, and how their artworks have examined the ties between art and politics...
1) Banksy – the most important political artist of his generation.
Banksy has a habit of seizing the moment perfectly, calling his global audience to attention. His most recent intervention, Vote to Love, plays on the politics of the artworld and the branding of his identity.
Vote to Love was inspired by the ubiquitous Vote Leave posters used during the EU Referendum of June 2016 – an image that now results in a pervasive sting amongst some UK citizens. Banksy altered the Vote Leave poster by pasting a heart balloon image over the placard, altering the message to ‘Vote to Love’.
Banksy has also made intercessions following extreme disasters, using humour and whimsy as mechanisms of criticism. After Hurricane Gustav rocked the city of New Orleans in 2008, many worried that the government’s response would be lacking, similar to when Katrina hit in 2005. Banksy headed to New Orleans with his spray cans and soon fourteen images popped up across the city to criticise governmental action. It was during this mission that he created another one of his iconic girls; Rain Girl. Standing under an umbrella that fails to protect her from the overwhelming streams of rain, a girl awaits assistance with a woeful expression cast on her face. Similar to the image of Balloon Girl, Banksy often recalls childhood innocence to evoke a sense of empathy and reunite us in our humanity.
2) Jonathan Yeo – the internationally acclaimed portraitist.
While Jonathan Yeo’s work did not originate in the streets, his beginnings as an artist originated outside the regulatory constraints of the artworld. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in his early twenties, Yeo trained himself to paint and achieved a level of technique akin to academic masters. In fact, Yeo was commissioned from US presidential incumbent George W. Bush to paint his official portrait. When this commission was unceremoniously cancelled, Yeo produced a portrait of the politician using an assemblage of pornographic magazine clippings and displayed it in the Lazinc (formerly Lazarides) Soho gallery.
The juxtaposition of hardcore sexuality against a staunchly Republican figure spurred an exploration into the hypocrisy of the moral superiority of right-wing America. Among his subjects were morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, populist Sarah Palin and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Yeo also chose to explore icons like Paris Hilton and Hugh Hefner that represent the very salacious, superficial and yet utterly addicting tenets of the Western imaginary, like celebrity and porn. These works came to form what is known as his Blue Period.
3) Robert Del Naja, also known as 3D and one of the founders of Massive Attack.
Robert Del Naja is considered to be one of the forerunners of Bristol’s graffiti scene. He parlayed his street art into traditional fine art pieces, expanding the definition of the genre. No longer limited to the walls of the city, street art became more about an attitude than a medium.
International Jihad is an abstract work that teases out the assumptions many make when prompted with certain visual cues. From the start Del Naja has framed our perception by giving the painting a provocative title. At first glance it appears as though two figures are reading a Christian text, while the EU flag symbol hovers above. Though the title references Muslim extremism, can we safely assume these figures are wearing turbans, or are they something else, like papal mitres? The image of the turban is now riddled with many associations, whether they be religious, or related to questions of terrorism and freedom. By contrast, the EU and Christianity have been branded as representative of the moral high ground. Through the mixture of these symbols, Del Naja creates a political Rorschach test of sorts, asking us to question why we see what we see.
Del Naja has also explored the global refugee crisis by working with photographer Giles Duley to pair photographs of refugees with music created by Del Naja’s band, Massive Attack. Similar to his work on canvas, Del Naja’s music frames the photographs in an abstract way – the tone of the music is not specifically melancholy or distressing. This encourages audiences to think critically about the images, instead of ignoring them as images we see in the news every day.
From highly-publicised stunts to quieter visual disruptions, street artists interrupt our expectations and motivate us to think about our world in new ways. Despite the worrying state of current affairs, we’re looking forward to seeing some great new works materialise – after all, it is said that the best art is produced during times of contention.