The Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition isn’t just a loose restrospective of Peter Kennard’s work—each of the five rooms makes a political statement.
As soon as you walk in, you’re confronted with five canvases depicting medals. But instead of the shimmering gold of “glory”, a bandaged head hangs from one and a head in a black bag from another.
The union jack and the stars and stripes remain, but a chargrilled corpse dangles from them. Peter made them in response to the reality of the Iraq war.
Running through the exhibition are the political events and movement’s Peter’s work has related to since he was politicised in 1968. It’s fascinating to look through it and ask, can political art make an impact?
Peter told Socialist Worker, “Political art by itself does not change anything. “I’ve always considered myself to be the ‘visual arm’ of different campaigns and protest groups.
“You can see that those groups certainly use it if you look around at this exhibition.
“My art is part of that and is very direct, but you can’t measure the effect of it.”
But for Peter his work is about more than just making a political statement. He said, “What it does show is that art can be about everyday life and that it’s not just for the rich.”
The arts are under assault from the Tories—and the threat of privatisation at the National Gallery is an example.
Peter said, “I’ve signed the open letter. What you have in the National Gallery is a group of people who are committed to the place and have a great love of art. But their skill as workers is not acknowledged.
“This is happening everywhere, where they’re trying to privatise security and other jobs.”
He argued that art and culture should not be restricted to a spectator sport within the gallery walls—it should run through our lives and involve mass participation.
“There’s still a sense that art is there for the elite,” said Peter. “Venice is full of political art, but it’s just so obscure. What’s the point in that?
“The point of art should be to reach out to people. That’s why it’s good to have the exhibition here in a museum, instead of a gallery.
“But more broadly than that, I want to show work wherever I can. You can see examples here, whether it is on posters or T-shirts.
“That’s why the internet is important, because anyone can share and download the art.”
While Peter’s work focuses on photo montage, the range of methods used is much broader.
In the third room, charcoaled and photocopied hands scrape through the financial pages of newspapers.
Peter explained that it was intentionally ambiguous, and tries to show the impersonality of the financial figures. One of the most interesting parts of the exhibition is where you can see his production process.
Peter said, “I’ve never shown the originals before—it’s not what people are really interested in.
“I now work digitally, but it’s good to show how it was done before. You would be working with ten different sizes of photographs and trying to piece together cut outs.”
Peter argued that there’s a flourishing of political art today.
“Younger artists are much more concerned about making their art political,” he said. “They’ve been radicalised through their own experiences, partly by having to pay high art fees.”
He’s always on the lookout for new ways art can connect with a broader audience. He said, “I run workshops for excluded kids, who can work on the computer and manipulate images. But they’re images of everyday life.
“When I had a show at the Festival Hall I also worked with homeless people. They had an enormous subject matter—their lives.”
“It’s a question of access,” he said. Peter praised the potential of street art. It’s very political and involves people—such as in Egypt—risking their lives.
“Even escalators have adverts these days.”
For Peter street art is a way of “grabbing back public spaces that have been privatised”.
“I hope this exhibition will make people look at war from a different perspective,” he said.