Power, politics and art

| August 17, 2019

Well beyond any aesthetic value, the power of art – in its many forms – lies in its ability to stimulate, connect and evoke feeling in the audience. It is this power that has enabled artists to create works that comment, reflect and challenge audiences about contemporary issues – sometimes in subtle ways, but often bluntly.

We see this in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) that brutally depicts death and carnage associated with the Spanish Civil war – such a powerful piece that members of the then Bush Administration covered the image when announcing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

There is also Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait on the border line between Mexico and the United States (1932) that directly focuses on her thoughts on the exploitive nature of capitalism and Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair (1964) reminding us of the brutality of the death penalty. Closer to home, street artist Mini Graf’s Equality series continues to challenge gender stereotypes.

It is for this reason that Picasso proclaimed that ‘painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war’.

Each of these artworks project more than just an image: the artists are engaging the audience to look past the visual aesthetics and be challenged to contemplate the world around us.

It was for this reason that German philosopher Martin Heidegger commented that the role of the artist is to create a threshold moment that forces reflection from ignorance to contemplation – and once crossed, we may never be the same again.

This is not to say that the artist expects the audience to agree with them but rather to meditate on what is actually happening around us.

Not only do the artworks engage us here, they also collectively act as historical markers – again something as relevant today as it was in Picasso’s time.

‘Not Welcome to Bondi’

This issue of art and politics has been the focus of much mainstream media over the last few weeks – driven by a controversial work by stencil artist, Luke Cornish (E.L.K). Cornish created a mural on the Bondi Beach seawall depicting 24 Australian Border force officers standing in a line with the words “Not welcome to Bondi”.

Designed by the artist to create awareness around refugees and asylum seekers, the number of officers stencilled represent the 24 suicides that have occurred in Australian detention facilities since 2010. As the controversy began, Cornish stated:

It’s art. It can’t all be butterfly wings and bubblegum paintings. It needs to make people think. That is the whole ethos of street art. It is political by nature and it is ephemeral by nature too. So I’m not going to be upset if I go down there and it has been painted over. It has served its purpose.

Cornish is no stranger to controversy covering topics from the war in Syria to the impact of the Afghanistan conflict on Australian veterans.

Outrage and new political correctness

One of the favourite topics of conservative commentators is that ‘political correctness’ has gone mad. Over the years, this has been a favourite trope of the Murdoch stable from Janet Albrechtsen, to Miranda Divine’s rant against gender neutral language in the Australian Defence Force, and Andrew Bolt’s concerns about ‘political correctness’ taking over fairy tales.

Such commentators often deride their political opponents as being driven by a ‘culture of outrage’ but are quick to be outraged themselves. When former SBS sports commentator, Stuart McIntyre wrote some ill-conceived tweets about ANZAC soldiers, the response from commentators, including Andrew Bolt, was quick and ruthless.

Likewise, when Yassmin Abdel-Magied, former Queensland Young Australian of the Year, referred to the suffering of refugees on ANZAC Day, her comments were met with outrage by conservative commentators. One even stating that she was tempted to ‘run her over’.

And it was outrage that we saw here.

Former Waverly independent councillor, Miriam Guttman-Jones, was so outraged that she organised a rally against the mural outside council chambers. ‘Outrage’ was also the inspiration for Liberal Councillor, Leon Goltsman, who on the Alan Jones (2GB) show described the mural as ‘violent and offensive’ and accused it of being ‘anti-democratic.’

Counsellor Goltsman also who moved an ‘urgency motion’ to paint over the mural “with something more appropriate” and investigates “new methods for approving murals on the sea wall”.

It is important to note that the Bondi Beach seawall has been open to artists to submit artworks since the 1970s. As Waverly Council’s website notes, the wall “…has featured a mix of street and contemporary art with strong social and political messages throughout the decades.”

While most of the works go relatively unnoticed, this was not the case this time.

While the work was ultimately defaced by an anonymous act of vandalism no doubt caused by such comments, the ‘outrage’ caused by this artwork shows the continual creeping of a new ‘political correctness’ in some elements of the conservative media and our political body.

When the work of artists becomes the focus of censorship, we create dangerous precedents – and we do not need to look far to see regimes with such tendencies. We do not all need to agree on either art or politics, but it is time for all of us to cross the political divides and confront the illiberal elements that seem to be emerging in parts of our liberal democracy.

This article was written by Professor James Arvanitakis and Alix Beattie, a Western Sydney University PhD Candidate researching street art and graffiti with a focus on female artists and how audiences interact and engage with the art forms.

Mural image courtesy of Luke Cornish (E.L.K.)