Are artists political?

Political art isn’t simply propaganda. The political in 20th century British Art can be surprising, intense, beautiful; it can set the streets on fire. Morley tutor Jenny Vuglar explains.

From James Boswell’s etchings of a post revolutionary London with the Coliseum in flames to the symbolic burning of the Houses of Parliament by Welfare State International – British artists have provided dramatic images of political change. And not just images. The first British person killed fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War was the artist Felicia Browne – she was also the only British woman to have a combatant role.

We are used to looking as art movements simply in terms of their visual qualities forgetting the social and political circumstances surrounding them. But artists are people living in society – war, economic depression, political failures, discrimination – they all inform the work of the artist. We are used to looking at surrealism, for example, simply in terms of its visual oddity, the strange juxtapositioning of images but the second principle of the English Manifesto of Surrealism was ‘complete adherence to the historical credentials of Marx, Engels and Lenin’. Sir Herbert Edwards Read described the 1936 Surrealist exhibition as the ‘desperate act of men too profoundly convinced of the rottenness of our civilisation to want to save a shred of its respectability’.  

How to be a political artist was a central debate of the pre and post war period. Did you have to knuckle down to Soviet realism to prove your credentials or could more avant garde forms play a revolutionary role? Was Guernica a one off?

The thirties were not the only period of intense political activity by artists. There is a strong history of political comment in visual form in Britain – from political cartoons to trade union banners – and that tradition has not been lost. The artistic identity is often bound up with the political avant garde and towards the end of the century the various liberation struggles – feminism, gay activism, black rights – find visual form in the works of many artists. 

Political art isn’t simply propaganda. The political in 20th century British Art can be surprising, intense, beautiful; it can set the streets on fire. Morley tutor Jenny Vuglar explains.


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