Although the political compass is changing, so-called radical artists usually stick to what’s comfortable. It’s very easy to be anti-Bush these days, but try being anti-recycling. You’ll be branded a heretic and lose your friends in high places very quickly. Indeed, there is hardly any artistic critique or satire about environmentalism, even though the majority of people in surveys feel deeply ambivalent about being hectored about flying, carbon footprints and so on. Never mind Jerry Springer: The Opera, or even ‘Mohammed the Opera’ (if any artist would dare to do such a thing), Al Gore is practically crying out for his own musical! The artist Mark McGowan is one of the few artists who has managed to spoof environmentalism. He once tried to ‘raise awareness’ about pollution in Britain’s rivers by publicising the fact that he was going to dump a tonne of waste in the Thames. On another occasion, he announced he would leave a tap running in his London gallery to raise awareness of wasted water. On cue, green protesters arrived to try to turn it off. Why isn’t there more of this in our age of supposed irreverence and playful postmodernism?
As many critics would accept, it’s a tough challenge to bring politics into art without losing some subtlety. It is a very rare thing for artists to hit the right political note without their work looking like a simplistic didactic message. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) is a rare example of a painting that succeeds as propaganda and art – telling the world about the Luftwaffe bombing of the Spanish town, while also screaming out the existential misery of twentieth-century warfare.
But, as the art historian Simon Schama notes in his book The Power of Art, much of Picasso’s work and politics afterwards was too closely aligned to Stalinism to achieve the same effect again. The radicalism of an artist in his art does not necessarily correlate to his politics. Salvador Dali, possibly the most subversive artist of the twentieth century, supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Which is why it is hard not to feel a sense of relief when fine artists today avoid bringing politics into their work, especially when you know how bad their politics can be. Thank god for a bit of apolitical postmodernism, one might say.