Thursday, 8 January 2015
Charlie Hebdo and artists' dereliction of duty
So suddenly we’re all Charlie and we’re all in solidarity with freedom of expression. Sorry, not buying a word of it. In Britain artists of print, stage, music and whatever passes for indigenous film have all fought shy of the political in their subject matter. With a few honourable exceptions, not least within the cartoon and graphics community and the odd stand-up comic (Jerry Sadowitz reviled for his extreme comedy, ‘outed’ Jimmy Savile in his act 30 years before society caught up to him).
In Britain ever since Mrs Thatcher demanded that our art be self-financing so that market demands shaped content, and also since the arts community miserably failed to get to grips with the ideology of Thatcherism with god-awful ‘little’ films about relationships set against the backdrops of riots or demos, we have increasingly detached our artistic output from having any political message at all. And this was in the decade of the Rushdie Affair let us not forget. The ironic thing is that in an era when public discourse on anything has been eroded by the authorities (Blair happily carried this on from Thatcher), art failed miserably to step in to fill the breach. (Nor can twitter usefully redress the balance for that matter). The fact is our artists have been censoring themselves for the past twenty years, be it for economic or political reasons. And now we are proclaiming that we are all about the right to express oneself freely…
In continental Europe, they just don’t even make the distinction between art and politics. Camus, Sartre and De Beauvoir went on every march going, while Malraux was Culture Minister in the government. Can you imaging an Amis leading a demo, either Kingsley or Martin? Sadly now that Harold Pinter has passed, there is no one to lead our artistic intelligentsia and get them out on the street (although he tended to favour agitation by dinner party). Europe’s refusal to categorise art as political and separate is exactly why you can have a radical magazine like Charlie Hebdo exist in the first place. But as more and more artists cede the political ground through fear of reprisal (or libel), then that leaves fewer arts’ bodies, each operating in isolation and therefore very vulnerable to attacks such as these. If there were a myriad of arts organisations making challenging, provocative, radical art, then those offended by it wouldn’t be able to strike at them all. They wouldn’t know where to bloody start.
You want to show solidarity? Make some flipping political art for a change. I know I have. It’s what I do.