And now for a little bit of politics. Art Turning Left at Tate Liverpool is an exploration of how left-wing politics have influenced artists and the distribution of art, particularly since the start of the 19th Century.
Exhibits in the show range from Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, from an era when the word left was first used in a political idiom, while David allowed his picture to be used to further the Republican cause in France; William Morris’s wallpaper designs, pivotal in the movement to create ‘art for everyone’; and Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles, whose modified Coca-Cola bottles foreshadowed modern culture jamming and brand hijacking.
Art Turning Left isn’t simply about the art, however. We see how mechanisation and technology allowed for a wider distribution of art throughout the classes and how artists have strived to work as collectives outside capitalists systems.
We spoke to Eleanor Clayton, Assistant Curator at Tate Liverpool, the theme and works present in the exhibition – and why not all political art is left-wing, regardless of its intent.
SS: What are the landmark pieces here and why are they present?
EC: “Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat is significant because it was made during the French Revolution, when the term ‘left’ in respect to politics first originated because the revolutionaries sat on the left-hand side of the assembly hall.
“Jacques-Louis David also epitomises the main idea of the show – he was a successful painter in the elite academy before the revolution, but became committed to the ideals of the revolution and active in the revolutionary government. With this iconic work, made of a revolutionary martyr, he ensured that copies were distributed throughout France so that access to fine art would be broadened.”
SS: People might assume that an exhibition about political art might just be the art of protest. Is that the case?
EC: “Many of the works were not seeking to alter how the world was run, or trying to object loudly about particular issues, but were actually made through private decisions to cohere the artists’ production with values they held. Because of this there are many works which, while cohering to certain values in their production method, don’t have a particularly overt political message.
“Of course, there are those who do both, like Atelier Populaire whose designed were collectively made and owned, and were distributed in the street for all to see, but which also have political message of protest.”
SS: Do you have any pieces that might not have been previously considered as political?
“William Morris’ patterned fabrics are now almost synonymous with National Trust and bourgeois middle classes, but the production processes Morris implemented were originally inspired by his desire to bring access to art to the working classes.
“He believed that the industrial revolution had resulted in the alienation of workers, turning their labour into ‘useless toil’. His production methods brought the worker and the creative process close together to enable every worker to become an artist.”
SS: How do you convey the changes in the production of art as a result of left-wing politics?
“The question of how to distribute art differently relates to the quest for economic structures beyond capitalism, as well as the idea that everybody should be able to access art, not just the elite. Artists as diverse as Jacques-Louis David (as above), Fluxus and Chto Delat have tried to resolve these problems through their production and distribution processes.”
SS: How much art has been influenced by right-wing politics?
“There are a few notable examples of artists who hold overtly right-wing politics, such as the Italian Futurists from the early 20th-Century, but actually a lot of the way in which many artists make their work adheres to right-wing principles, from operating within the capitalist commercial art market, to the emphasis on the importance of the individual.”
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013
Until 2 February 2014
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