Socialist Worker

How art changes in different contexts

Beatrice Leal concludes our series by looking at how politicians use and abuse artworks

Issue No. 2037

Composition 8, 1923, by

Composition 8, 1923, by 'decadent' artist Wassily Kandinsky


The authorities get very nervous about what art is acceptable, because art can encourage people to think in unacceptable ways.

Probably the best example of this is the Nazi’s “degenerate art” exhibition in the 1930s. This was a collection of works that were, in their opinion, too Jewish, Bolshevik or ugly.

Adolf Hitler said, “It is my duty to prevent these pitiable unfortunates from attempting to persuade others that these faults of observation are indeed realities and present them as ‘art’.”

In the exhibition were works by Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Edvard Munch and others.

Plenty of other governments have banned art they found threatening – Chagall was also banned in the Soviet Union. It still happens, either officially or by gallery space and publicity not being granted.

A student in the US recently exhibited drawings by Palestinian teenagers from a refugee camp showing scenes from their lives – including tanks, barbed wire and the “security” wall.

Four days into the two-week exhibition the university took it down because it was too “one-sided”.

Images make an impression on us more immediately than words, subconsciously as well as consciously.

Scientists have found that if you see a picture of someone smiling – even someone you hate – before you even realise who they are, the smile has made a positive impression.

Advertisers know all about this – almost everyone in adverts is shown smiling.

A picture of a child being attacked by a bulldozer is a negative image that stays in your head whatever you think about the occupation of Palestine.

Graphics are, well, graphic – and that’s what makes them dangerous.

But if the subversive thing about artworks is the reactions people have to them, the reactions don’t just depend on the image.

They also depend on the circumstances both of the looking individual and of society in general.

For example, Guernica by Pablo Picasso was painted in 1937 in response to the bombing of the town Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

It’s an amazing, moving piece of anti-war art, and it was political in a practical way. It was shown around Europe to raise money for the anti-fascist fighters.

So it should have been the last picture the fascist government would want. But in 1968 the dictator General Franco started a campaign to “repatriate” Guernica (even though it had never been in Spain).

The painting wasn’t a threat any more – partly because it was now seen as a statement against all wars rather than just fascist ones. The war at the time was Vietnam.

While Franco was trying to get hold of the painting as a part of “Spanish national culture”, a group of anti-war artists wanted Picasso to take it out of the US in protest against the My Lai massacre.

Picasso said, “While a painting is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it’s finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it… it isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols.

“Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”

This means how artworks are interpreted changes, since how we think is shaped by the changing world. Guernica had no connection to the Vietnam War originally – but US activists made the connection.

Separated from their context, even radical images can be tamed. Multinational companies have made adverts in the style of Banksy graffiti and Paris 1968 posters, used pictures of Che Guevara and even of the recent anti-war demos.

This is not to say that what art means is only subjective. For instance, a picture of mutilated bodies is always going to be disturbing.

It just means it’s not possible to separate art off from the rest of the world, because we – viewers and artists – can’t separate ourselves off from it either.

So the more conflict there is in society, the more art will reflect that and be seen as part of it.

Happily, Guernica is back to being subversive again. The copy that hangs in the United Nations building in New York had to be covered up when then US secretary of state Colin Powell called for an attack on Iraq in February 2003.

A picture which the rulers of the world thought had been safely tamed suddenly turned nasty and went for them.


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