Political Art in London

Why isn't our art critical of our politics?

London is the political centre of our city and would consider itself one of the cultural capitals of the world. Undoubtedly our city is full of art, but to what extent does this reflect our current politics?

One exhibition that has caused a bit of a fuss recently is the Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Royal Academy. Wei Wei is a particularly prominent cultural figure in China, particularly after being illegally detained in solitary confinement for 81 days. This exhibition is the first major survey of his work in the UK and reflects Ai’s personal experiences as well as tackling issues of free speech and expression.

Such issues are not only relevant in the highly controlling political system in which Wei Wei lives. Questions surrounding the enforcement of law and surveillance are relevant globally and Wei Wei’s work provides an interesting perspective on this. Just down the road at the Marian Goodman Gallery is an exhibition by William Kentridge on a similar theme. Kentridge’s multimedia exhibition explores historic politics, including the rule of Chairman Mao over China.

What struck me when considering the political art in this city is the fact that, although much of it explores very raw issues, hardly any of it is deeply critical of our own politics. A less recent exhibition in London was Disobedient Objects at the V&A. This was a look at a huge range of objects that have been involved in protests and rebellions, such as banners, posters and short films. This is perhaps one of the few examples of a large public institution allowing complete freedom of expression on any issue, from radical anarchism to the ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign.

An interesting current piece of public art is ‘Gift Horse’ by Hans Haake which stands on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Haake presents a skeleton of a horse with a ribbon tied round its leg that displays live London stock prices. This piece comments on the connections between power, money and history, which are things at the core of London as a city, and could easily be interpreted as an anti-capitalist work. I find it really pleasing that a deeply critical work has been given a public platform, but the interpretation offered by the Mayor of London at its unveiling is perhaps a little skewed. He stated that the skeleton represents the vital infrastructure, ‘the tube that must run beneath the surface of any great and beautiful city. The tubular structures that have received such fantastic investment thanks to our chancellor,’ and seems to believe that the piece is a positive comment on ‘the greatest economic recovery this city has ever seen’.

Despite the huge volumes of political commentary and critical art that surrounds us, are the issues at the core of our own political system really challenged? As Londoners, we are lucky to be surrounded by a wealth of art and to have liberties such as freedom of speech and expression. However, perhaps we should give a moment of thought to the inevitable level of censorship and limitation of what we are exposed to, and not assume the best of our liberal right wing democracy.

Molly Foster VII