World Press Photo of the Year 2004 – taken by Jean-Marc Bouju, 31st March 2003: an Iraqi man comforts his 4-year-old son at a holding centre for prisoners of war
George Orwell said, ‘What I have most wanted to do…is to make political writing into an art.’
I listened to a poem a few days ago that mocked art that is made to be political. It was a funny poem, but perhaps it was unintentionally funny in that it was itself an example of political art being about venting and doing nothing to encourage people to become politically active.
In Henrik Ibsen’s play Enemy of the People (1882), Dr Stockman discovers that the baths in his town, which are its main source of revenue, are contaminated with toxins from a factory upstream. The mayor convinces Stockman’s friends that repairing the baths would be financially disastrous for the town. ‘At the end of the play, Stockman remains true to his own moral compass but he and his family are ruined…’*
Aside from the obvious point that, given the current climate breakdown, this play written 136 years ago is more relevant now than when it was first performed, I wonder how many people who have seen it have decided to emulate Dr Stockman? Or rather, I wonder how many people have been inspired to be politically active in whatever small way possible after seeing Enemy of the People? Or were they satisfied that they had done their bit by simply seeing the play? Yep, that’ll show the powers that be: spending money on thought-provoking plays! That’ll show the powers that be: writing ranty poems about people spending money on thought-provoking plays! That’ll show the powers that be: writing a blog about ranty poems about people spending money on thought-provoking plays!
I’m not suggesting that we should all be so politically active that we end up with immaculate morals and no money. I just think that some people like talking the talk and letting other people get on with the unglamorous chore of activism.
However, I do appreciate political art for reasons other than its potential to jolt people into action. For example, I recently enjoyed Mark Titchner’s exhibition We Want Responsibility To Be Shared By All, which ‘explores ordinary people’s voices against a world of corporate and political messages.’ Pete ‘the Temp’ Bearder is fantastically talented: I have seen him perform twice, though sadly I didn’t get to see his show Pete ‘the Temp’ vs. Climate Change. He seems unusual in that he is able to monetise his poetry/spoken word and remain consistently politically active. Whatever your artistic or political tastes, you have to admire anyone who can perform an ‘oil orgy’ on the table in the middle of an oil company’s meeting… and with puns!
For years, I appreciated Leon Kuhn’s caricatures of Bush and Blair. Then there’s Banksy, Mark Wallinger, Susan Crile (bleak works such as Bleeding Prisoner, though I think the original Abu Ghraib photos are far more terrifying)…and I still listen to Rage Against the Machine, though given that I do this in the kitchen these days, they simply make me wash the dishes with slightly more vigour.
And there’s Harold Pinter’s poem American Football: A Reflection upon the Gulf War, which prompted Private Eye to start writing ‘Harold Pinter’s Nursery Rhymes’. I love Ibsen and I love Pinter, but goodness me: if ever there was a hilarious poem designed to vent, this is it. And I don’t think in a good way. But who gets to decide what is good in art and politics? And isn’t art just an unnecessary filter when, as Pinter did in his Nobel speech, you can say it as it is?
‘…We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’…’
Me dressed as Blair – taken by Felix Clay for The Guardian at the Hay Festival, 28th May 2008
*Lara Shalson, Theatre & Protest, Macmillan, 2017, p. 55