The extent to which Tony Blair’s war on Iraq has dominated political life in Britain can be seen by the way it has seeped into almost every aspect of culture.
A few years ago the art establishment decried “political” artists as being hopelessly out of date.
Today artists who reflect the rage felt by millions at the injustice and horror of capitalism are finding a mass audience and winning critical acclaim.
Peter Kennard has been making art that attacks militarism and exposes the injustice of the system since the 1970s.
A new exhibition of his work, entitled Blairaq, opened in London last week. It includes a number of substantial new pieces in which he collaborated with Cat Picton Phillips.
“We wanted to mark Blair’s last week in office with a graphic attack on him,” Peter told Socialist Worker.
“In many ways the act of producing and showing the work is a cathartic process, one by which you get out all the frustration that you feel about the war, and Britain’s role in it.”
The new works are large, some at least 15 feet wide and six feet tall, and are constructed using a papier-mache technique that builds layer upon layer of images.
“We wanted to make really big work,” says Peter. “The scale represents the extent of the destruction.
“We wanted it all to be much more physical than anything we had done before, and we hope that makes it easier for people to interact with it.”
Mixtures of large and small tears in the top layers reveal hidden lives and events. On the top layer we are presented with representatives of the West.
In one work it is a US soldier kicking-in the door of an Iraqis’ home. In another it is a military control room laden with computer screens.
The West is rendered using high definition colour ink jet prints upon newsprint, while Iraqis are shown blurred, out of focus and in grey tones.
In the final piece – the most powerful piece in the exhibition – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are depicted sitting in an opulent room.
They are laughing in their usual self-satisfied way. But their stares draw the viewer to the right of the picture, towards an enormous blood splattered gash.
This large tear in the foreground reveals an Iraqi man cradling another, who is dead or dying.
The newsprint on the top layer of work is visible through the paint – it is all in English, and taken from papers owned by Rupert Murdoch.
The headlines are about the “war on terror” and the threat of Muslim extremism.
The detail of the room Blair and Brown are in is fantastic, and is complete with wallpaper designed by the 19th century socialist William Morris.
“I wanted to say something about where the original utopian dreams of the Labour Party have ended up,” Peter sighs.
The newsprint on the layers beneath are all in Arabic script, a reference to the way the war is presented to us through the eyes of the Western media, and how the stories of devastation and loss in the Middle East may never truly be known – because they are Arab stories, and therefore “foreign”.
Peter is enthusiastic about the new wave of younger radical artists who are embracing political themes. But he is caustic about the way in which their work can be appropriated by the establishment:
“When we were making this stuff we were very aware of the way in which capitalism attempts to appropriate even the most radical art – turning it into something neutral and harmless.
“But no corporation is going to take a look at our work and think, ‘mmm… I think we could turn that into a logo, or an advertising campaign’.”
This is true partly because of the subject matter that Peter and Cat have chosen is simply too politically hot for the media types. But it is also because the work has been specifically designed to degrade over time.
“It’s all made from newsprint, so in a few years’ time it won’t really exist,” says Peter. “This art is about what is happening now – it’s not going to end up being bought up by a bloody pension fund, or a collector.”
But the other reason why Kennard and Picton Phillips’s style will be difficult to appropriate is because of the way that the photomontage technique works.
Images which conflict with one another are placed in close proximity, creating a third image in the mind of the viewer.
So Blair is pictured alongside the destruction of Iraq, and the viewer is invited to make the connection between Blair and the destruction.
Peter said, “The process of making this type of art is intensively political. It utilises the Marxist conception of dialectics.”
Peter is aware that the strident political direction of the work will mean that most people who come to see it will already be against the war:
“I’ve never seen myself as just an individual, making work that reflects only my own concerns. I’ve always seen myself as part of the socialist movement, of the workers’ movement.”
For Peter and Cat, that means putting your art in the service of those fighting for radical change.
“We never conceived that our work would be part of persuading people to change their minds,” said Peter. “Instead, we wanted to make art for the movement.
“We wanted people to be able to come and find their views echoed and validated by the work. To see in it the reasons why we marched and protested.
“Mainstream politicians and the media have conspired in creating the disaster in Iraq. We wanted to create something that makes people think that they are right to oppose the war, that everything that we said about it was correct.
“We wanted people to come away from the work with a renewed sense of confidence.”
Blairaq by Peter Kennard and Cat Picton Phillips is at the Leonard Street Gallery, 73 Leonard Street, London EC2A until 12 July. Kennard will be speaking alongside photographer Jess Hurd at the Marxism Festival on Monday 9 July. For more information visit » www.marxismfestival.org.uk