Throughout his life the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky had an interest in art. He took part in heated debates after the 1917 Revolution in Russia over the nature of art, poetry, cinema and literature. Trotsky debated with the “Prolecult” movement about the meaning and use of art in the revolution.
He raced around the country in a Red Army train painted in the most modernist way during the civil war that followed the revolution. Trotsky’s train was not just a mobile command centre but a moving agitprop theatre/library/cinema – a meeting place for promoting the revolution and using all the arts.
Later, forced into exile as Stalin’s counter-revolution gathered strength in Russia, Trotsky debated with the surrealists so that they voted to affiliate to the new Trotskyist Fourth International. The 1938 “Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art” signed by the Mexican painter Diego Rivera and the French writer and poet Andre Breton was in fact mostly written by Trotsky. He wrote numerous reviews, keeping up with the latest developments in literature, poetry and art. He hung out with Frida Kahlo.
Given Trotsky’s primary focus was on analysing the convulsive political developments in Germany, Russia, Spain and France and elsewhere and building a new cadre of revolutionary Marxists, this list of cultural achievements is astonishing. What is more, though his ideas were not fully developed at the time they are still a useful tool for understanding art today.
To take one of Trotsky ideas on art, in 1938 in the Partisan Review he wrote: “Art is an expression of man’s need for…benefits which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality…always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion. Bourgeois society showed its strength… in the fact that, combining repression and encouragement, boycott and flattery, it was able to control and assimilate every ‘rebel’ movement in art and raise it to the level of official ‘recognition’. But each time this ‘recognition’ betokened…trouble. It was then that from the left wing of the academic school or below it – ie from the ranks of a new generation of bohemian artists – a fresher revolt would surge forward…”
In short, capitalism has a great capacity not only to resist and oppress new challenges but also to absorb and neutralise and this is particularly noticeable in cultural and artistic movements. Last year’s shocking attack on the establishment is today’s new thing.
The shock of the new can quickly become the yawn of the present. In fact one of the few things in capitalism that never seems to change is the search for the new. Often this is trivial and of no importance but sometimes it does warrant a new way of seeing which relates to profound changes in society.
Writing in 1979 the Marxist art critic John Berger expressed a view which spoke not just for him but for a whole generation of artists in the 1960s: “I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property or between art and state property… Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop any further… I find the function of art criticism…serves to uphold the art market…(and which I find) impossible to accept. Thus today I am more tolerant of those artists who are reduced to being largely destructive.”
As it proved, this was also a view soon to be eclipsed. It was a requiem for a passing period when art in many different ways and movements had tried to challenge the establishment as part of the great rebellions of the 1960s and 70s. Looking back on those volatile years, who could not fail to be affected by the mass uprisings taking place around them, such as the anti-Vietnam War movement, the mass strikes in France 1968, the Italian “hot autumn” in 1969.
Nearly all artists at the time saw themselves as part of this generalised uprising. Attempts were made to live and make art outside of and/or in opposition to capitalism. Areas of bohemian art and life sprang up – in Lower East Side in New York in the late 1960s and early 70s, Mitte in Berlin, the then empty dock areas of London. Some even saw Paris 1968 as a direct awakening and response to the art actions of the Situationists in 1966 in Strasbourg and attempted to reboot the revolution by similar actions.
This was a time when the Yippies tried to levitate the Pentagon by surrounding it and chanting “Out demons, out”. (Of course art is not just a reflection of a period. Some of the greatest art is produced in defiance of an era – think of Picasso’s depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War in Guernica or the surrealist movement in the 1930s).
The ferment of the 1960s and early 70s also saw numerous attempts to subvert the market and challenge art as a commodity. Jean Tinguely made sculptures that destroyed themselves while Richard Long’s “sculptures” consisted of walks in a landscape. “Happenings” (later called art events) became a central feature of the art scene in 1960s New York and London in the 1970s in Berlin and Vienna – with the latter city the site of often messy and violent “Actionism” events by performance artists.
All these developments and much more were in part a rejection of the idea of art as a commodity. Yet much of it is now in various forms available for sale, traded, kept and preserved by the vast and increasing art market. The seemingly impossible has happened. The “happening” has been frozen and preserved for the market – all that melts into air has been made solid and into a commodity.
This can be seen in the history of Pop Art, an art movement that started before the 1960s.
Unusually it had two birthplaces, early 1950s Britain and mid-1950s America. In Britain Pop Art had links with the radical art tradition of pre-Nazi Weimar Germany in the person of Kurt Schwitters who was exiled in Britain and who introduced collage to British artists such as Paolozzi, taken up by Peter Blake and Pauline Boty among others.
British Pop Art sought to break down the barrier between high and popular art with a satirical attitude to advertising and commercialism, but was limited to visual art and sculpture. In the US it was always bigger and bolder – compare Roy Lichtenstein’s work to Blake’s. With Andy Warhol it expanded to include art, poetry, film, music, dance, happenings – in fact all life. Warhol set up an alternative world from those on the margins of society in The Factory.
In The Factory Warhol mass-produced prints by teams of people who signed on behalf of Warhol – printing by definition is potentially subversive of the idea of art as a unique work. His prints of poppies were made to be background wallpaper for a poetry reading.
The Factory was a home for society’s outcasts both in subject matter and performers. For example, Warhol’s “Ten Most Wanted Men” exhibition consisted of huge portraits of FBI’s most wanted men. It was a pun on the word wanted – meaning both sexually attractive and outlaws. With his “superstars” of drag queens, drug addicts, rent boys, his films, Warhol’s performances lampooned capitalism and its art.
Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys is a western with drag queens and rent boys stumbling around high on something – a subversive take on John Wayne. Most of Warhol’s early work has this subversive edge from the local street life of New York in a time of unrest and revolt.
But then it changes. There had always been an element of the freak show to The Factory – the art establishment slumming down to visit the low life. First ignored, then embraced, the dead hand of the art market gets a grip by the 1980s. Warhol’s Celebrities move from pastiches of Hollywood – Candy Darling or Holly Woodlawn – to the real thing in Studio 54 and Jackie O. And the art reflects it. It becomes large portraits to put on rich people’s walls.
Warhol still had the occasional poke at the art establishment such as his piss paintings, made by urinating on oxidised copper so as to leave marks – a pisstake on post-expressionism. But his art is tamer reflecting new times – the age of Ronald Reagan and the New Cold War. It is art for the market pure and simple. What was true of Warhol and his team was even truer of post-1980s pop artists such as Jeff Koons.
Britain in the late 1980s saw the rise of the Young British Artists (YBAs) – a catch-all phrase that lumps together various artists with different styles. But they did have a few things in common. The market is no longer challenged but embraced; the aim is now to get rich and famous. Idealism is out and irony is in. With Damien Hirst, the irony of the 20th century morphed into an outright cynicism for the 21st.
Art schools now teach art as a career choice – “maximising your potential” to promote yourself. Alongside this has been the rise of the curator as a person of power to judge what is art and how to understand it – the dominance of art gobbledegook attached to art works. As the 19th century French writer Flaubert noted: “The more words there are on a gallery wall next to a picture, the worse the picture.”
This is not, I should add, an argument for dismissing all art in this new period, but art has become obsessed with itself; the artist has become the art. Anthony Gormley’s entire work is based on casts of his own body. Sometimes this is the artist in the world in order to comment on society – such as Gilbert and George – or to address aspects of oppression and modern life, as with Tracy Emin’s bed or the work of Sarah Lucas (currently on show at the Whitechapel Gallery).
With the huge expansion of the art market has come a drive to incorporate everything. Since anything now can be art, it has become a must-have trophy to say you have arrived.
There is a continuing war between the art world and local authorities over street art/graffiti; to grab it or destroy it. From the 1990s onwards street artists have waged a guerrilla war with police, local councils and their special anti-graffiti teams while hovering over this battlefield are the art vultures who swoop to seize it before it is cleaned away. Banksy has been very adept at playing this system in a witty and subversive way and which can become a farce.
In 2008 a Banksy piece appeared on a wall in Essex Road in London’s Islington, “Very Little Helps” – a satirical attack on Tesco. As soon as it appeared it caused a sensation, with the owner of the wall fighting off local council officials seeking to clean it off with their zero tolerance approach to graffiti. This was followed by art experts giving interviews about the authenticity of the work: is it a Banksy or from the workshop of Banksy? (It is a stencil work!)
Then the owner placed a hard plastic cover of the work, but after ten days it was defaced by a rival street artist who considers Banksy to have sold out by selling art. All this played out on the local news as the arguments flowed over ownership. It became a wonderful art performance on the madness of the art world.
Currently the art market is trying to absorb “outsider art”. This is not just “naive” art made by so-called “amateurs” but by people who have some form of learning difficulty, behaviour or mental health issues and are often in some form of care home. Many do not speak. A flourishing market has recently opened up to exploit these new ventures. Art capitalism has entered an imperialist phase eager to exploit new fields.
But it’s not all the triumph of the dollar. There are signs that the “age of sensation” (the art show that launched the YBAs) is ending. Even in the tired old world of Pop Art there are stirrings of new subversive forms. Mike Kelly has played out pop themes in his work but with much darker and grim implications. He committed suicide in 2013, but the Los Angeles scene he was part of continues with similar themes in the work of Ron Athey, Paul McCarthy and others.
Many artists are looking beyond their own body for subjects – Jeremy Deller’s work is never about himself but always other people in struggle and critical of the rich (see his Venice Biennale which will be on tour in Britain in 2014) or the work of the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Out of the Arab Spring has come a wealth of art associated with the struggle. As Trotsky said, art may not be able to make the revolution but like a swallow it can herald the oncoming of spring and we could be on the cusp of a rebellion against “official recognition” art. The rule of irony and the knowing sneer are in decline.
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