Text by Marcus Barnett
For a gallery as institutional and nationally vaunted as The Tate, its latest exhibition in Liverpool, Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789 – 2013 displays audacity. Not just in the depth and breadth of its collection spanning centuries, but also in the veracity and seriousness of its political exploration. Open until the 2nd February, Art Turning Left traces the artistic formulations and movements associated with the Left, from when Enlightenment radicalism first expressed itself physically to the present day, and onwards.
From the very start emphasising a humanistic, egalitarian and tough analysis of the periods it aims to examine, Art Turning Left returns to the temporarily-unpopular beliefs of collectivism, the march of progress, and the centuries old struggle for a world in which all humanity’s interests and desires are served over ‘saviours, Caesars and tribunes’, as the second stanza to the Internationale put it over a century ago. Covering three large rooms, over three-hundred works of art that have been involved in this struggle – against sexism, for Palestine, against Nazism, for international workers unity, against cheap fast-food restaurant bosses, and so on – are placed with respect and care. An impressive library hides in the corner of a room, displaying works by William Morris, Engels, Brecht, Jameson, Zizek, and others, awaiting your active interest.
As the curators are intent on reminding us, practitioners of art have changed their way of creating due to political circumstances and political dedication, and this has affected art history. This dual interest in the political stance of artists and artistic movements, and the way in which political consciousness influenced the creation of art, questions the necessity of ‘knowing’ the artist, and collective creation – the art-creator-as-revolutionary-tool versus the art-creator-as-Artist – , as well as the universality of art’s effect and its capacity to tackle everyday life usefully – illustrated perfectly in Allan Sekula’s delightfully Godardian short stories and photographs of fast food in This Ain’t China (1974), on display – and the distribution of art.
Whilst the highlight of the exhibition for some will undoubtedly (and not undeservedly) be Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793), this work can seem slightly magisterial, with a statesmanlike air – despite the worthy curatorial observation that David allowed his work to be reproduced, in order to serve the Republican cause in different places at once – in comparison to some of the deeply moving, and absorbing works of twentieth-century art that doubled for political praxis. Upon entering, one immediately is drawn to daunting works by Lissitzky, celebrating both his pre-war futurist streak and his designs for the new worker’s order in Russia. These are closely followed by the Atelier Populaire’s confident and witty sloganeering, from the screen-printing workshops of May 68’s occupied universities. The post-war mingling of the avant-garde with an anti-Stalinist, dynamic Marxism is given an uncommon – and welcome – revisit with the works by the Equipo 57 and free-form art created by anarchic Situationist art conferences, whilst the Guerilla Girls chime in with media-savvy advertising attacks on blatant gender and racial inequalities within the high-tier galleries.
Through the confident, stylised-formal woodcuts by Gerd Arntz decrying the misery and subjugation of capital, the harrowing drafts for Brecht’s War Primer – that even show Liverpool docks under a bombing raid – and the King Mob’s neo-Dadaism, the exhibition avoids cringe-worthy condescension of the past. The familiar smirking and derision at the foolish novelty of people who once, stupidly, believed in changing the world, is heroically absent, and also smoothly swerves any of what Milan Kundera derided as communist kitsch – little time is dwelt highlighting propagandist parade and clumsy authoritarian slogans. Art Turning Left is daring, it takes ideas seriously, and discusses the matters of history, progress and practice in a studious but democratic and inviting manner. For this reason, it is a deeply refreshing and welcome exhibition, in an art world that can seem increasingly lost from radical political and social thought and practice.
Image: El Lissitzky, Sportsmen (Sportier) 1923, Lithograph on paper, 510 x 430 mm, Tate, courtesy of Tate.