Public debates about the lines that art may or may not cross raged in 2014. In September last year, Exhibit B – a performance art installation – was cancelled at London’s Barbican because of accusations of racism and threats made against individuals involved in its production. Meanwhile in October, the Clacton-on-Sea council removed a Banksy mural from a public space following complaints that it was racist – a work that was critical of town’s support for anti-immigration policies.
It is perhaps timely, then, that Thames and Hudson have published an impressive account of how modern art has engaged with politics and society over the past 20 years. Anthony Downey’s Art and Politics Now casts a wide-ranging review of political art from the 1990s to the present. The book has a truly global coverage, discussing work by artists from almost every corner of the world and who address local, regional and global events and issues – at times location-specific, other times universal.
The author, an academic based at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and specialist in Middle Eastern and North African art, examines the ways that contemporary artists engage with the complexities of modernity such as the impact of globalisation, environmental catastrophes and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others themes.
Downey stresses the difference between art and activism – while the artists may be motivated by strong political beliefs, their aim is to open discussion and explore the complexities of issues that we face daily, rather than trying to persuade the viewer to one narrow position. For example, Jeremy Deller’s ‘It Is What It Is’ installation is the remains of a car destroyed by a bomb in Baghdad, which toured the United States with an Iraqi artist and a US military reservist – viewers were encouraged to pose questions to the participants to open discussion about the USA’s involvement in Iraq.
Much of the work included in the book deals with violence and at times is violent in its execution – we are shown artists who tattoo themselves (such as Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal) or self-mutilate (such as Australian artist Mike Parr). It is not the book’s aim to assess the longer-term impact or success of the works featured, but it gives a good account of the ideas explored, media used and reception the works received when exhibited.
Art and Politics Now is a strikingly produced book. The headings and captions are set in a typeface called ZXX, which was developed as a ‘disruptive typeface’ and cannot be read by intelligence services’ optical recognition, and the text is printed on bright yellow pages reminiscent of hazard warnings. It features over 200 artists and is accompanied by over 400 illustrations, with works by well-known names such as Steve McQueen and Ai Weiwei and also less familiar names to a non-specialist.
There are extensive notes, an index and suggestions for further reading, although in such a dense work I would have benefitted from a list of images to make it easier to locate specific works. Nonetheless, Downey’s text is thoughtful and accessible, refraining from asserting his own political views on the art, and discussing its intentions and public response with clarity. If you would like a broad, thematic introduction to how artists across the world are challenging some of our most controversial issues of our times, Art and Politics Now is a smart starting point.
Published by Thames & Hudson, Anthony Downey’s Art and Politics Now is available to buy online here.