From blood-bathed Boris to a mentally-scarring Maggie Thatcher, we talk to those showing how they see it through political art.
Visual satire is nothing new. The caricatures of Spitting Image fostered a new breed of political piss taking unseen until the 80s – a time of national division, strikes and an absolutely shafted welfare state. Sound familiar?
Before you run to the nearest bucket or toilet to purge your stomach lining, relax, Thatcher isn’t at the helm this time. However, it is no coincidence Spitting Image has recently returned to the small screen.
Don’t get too excited though. One, it is behind a paywall, and two, the comedic novelty of Michael Gove’s ballsack-reminiscent cheeks is not the untapped resource you think it is.
So why pay for something that has not been improved and feels like a footnote of our generation’s winter of discontent?
Martin, the owner of a political art website WeFail, gives contemporary political satire fans arguably more bang for their buck, based on his frighteningly powerful portfolio of work. What’s more, his work features on social media and online, rather than the increasingly older generation-catering medium of television.
So how effective does he believe political art to be? Can it drive political change and bring light to issues, and still be comedic and daring enough to get young people engaged in the system?
How can we turn pessimistic attitudes into more positive and productive ones and get disenfranchised young people back and voting on things that matter?
“Young people are already onto the rigged world they live in. They know voting for a two-party system doesn’t help them at all, it’s a pantomime. I hope they figure out a more radical way of making themselves heard because it’s their planet now and they deserve the right to try and fix it. We broke it really badly, my generation were drunk most of the time so I refuse to take any accountability.”
Your Twitter bio states you paint monsters. What do you find most monstrous about politicians today?
“What isn’t monstrous about all of them? I cant think of one frontbench MP that went into politics and came out with the same amount of money they went in with. It’s all about how much personal financial gain they can squeeze out of it before they’re booted out. That goes for both sides.
“It’s rare to find an MP that just wants the best for their constituents, I mean, look at Mogg. How could anyone vote for that thing? He even made money out of the pandemic, the ghoul. But people will still vote for him. I have no answers.”
What kind of backlash have you faced for your work?
“I’ve faced many Daily Mail readers that hate my art, it’s understandable. I dont engage in arguments as they achieve nothing, nobody walks away enlightened.
“I know that wishing immigrants miserable lives in detention centres is not the right path, and I’m never going to be won over by someone arguing that it’s a good policy, so why bother to argue the details out? Keep moving.”
Where did it all start for you, and what other work inspires you?
“My dad moved us from place to place when I was a kid, so I spent most of my time drawing and painting rather than trying to make a new batch of friends. I spent most of my childhood drawing, then went to art school before dropping out and working minimum wage jobs for years.”
Martin says some galleries in London were concerned about showing his art, as it could provoke a heavy backlash in the metropolis.
What’s more, Martin’s instagram, where examples of his art are publicly available, has previously been taken down without a trace. We can’t say for certain how this happened but Martin suggests that a breadcrumb trail could lead to Tory legislation cracking down on anti-government rhetoric.
Yes, we certainly wouldn’t put it past former Secretary for Culture and Media, Nadine Dorries MP, to be ironically waving the wokery wand.
How do you think satirical art compares to other forms of political protest? Can protest in general exist without it?
“I think satirical art is usually a side plate when it comes to physical protest, most of it’s just poking fun at the political situation of the time and it goes no further than that.
“Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion would say to use striking words rather than artwork, as written word tends to carry more power in protest rather than a drawing. I don’t really think protests need art at all – the French Revolution didn’t have any brilliant satirical images on placards. Actions speak louder than art.”
Unfortunately, despite pissing off Daily Mail readers, and making valid political points about the pointlessness of clapping for carers, Martin doesn’t always seem optimistic about visual satire’s power.
“I have lots of conflicting thoughts with my art. The past few years have revealed that politicians can and will get away with murder, and nothing short of everyone taking to the streets will stop them.
“The Tories are especially thick skinned. They just shrug all complaints off and carry on regardless – now even banning protest because they’re sick of the noise. In that way, I don’t think satirical art actually changes anything at the moment.
“People within my bubble appreciate the art and people outside of my bubble just don’t care about it. I guess plastering it on the House of Commons would get their attention.”
What would you regard as being some of your best and most provocative work, and what kind of reaction have you got from it?
“I think my bloodclap paintings probably caused the most commotion.
“At the start of the 2020 lockdowns when the NHS was on its knees dealing with COVID, Boris did his clapping outside Number 10. I painted his portrait with blood splattering from his clapping hands. It took on a life of its own from there and was used by NHS workers in protests. I was really pleased it was of some help, even if the protests were completely ignored by our government.”
How does the reaction to your work differ between ages and demographics? Do you get a more positive or negative reaction from generation to generation?
“Unfortunately as we age we tend to slide further right, even when those right-wing politicians are destroying our care homes, pensions, killing us with extortionate energy bills, dismantling the NHS – the majority will stand by them and defend their policies to the end.
“Young people want equality, a fair wage, a way to have a roof over their heads and a little money left over, which is apparently far-left socialism now. There are outliers in every generation though, I know of many brilliant pensioners that want the younger generations to have a fair future.”
How would you describe your creative process, do the ideas stem from hatred, humour or something else?
“It’s a mix of both. I set out to document the times we’re living in and unfortunately, in my opinion, these are grim times. Capitalism doesn’t realise that it’s the end of the line and it will fight to survive but really, nobody should be a billionaire. There’s no reason any one person should have so much wealth when the majority are suffering and they’re killing the planet to squeeze out some more cash.”
Craig Humble, founder of the Art of Protest gallery in York, seems somewhat more optimistic about political arts power as a form of changing the dire political tide.
“If the 19th century was about the written word, then today is certainly about the visual when it comes to political protest in general,” he says. “So yes, I think it is a vital part of it.”
“I grew up at a time where gender politics was becoming more of an issue. I was on the streets for both the Stop the War protests and the Poll Tax protests. Yes, the art is important, but it’s the physical mobilisation which made those protests effective. I am not encouraging violence but I mean actually getting on the street. Those two things combined make it work.”
On this point, Craig adds that we cannot let technology and big tech companies make us more passive and less politically engaged.
He says, “We are at a point where governments are completely capital led, they don’t really care about their image these days because of this financial and tech backing.
“I think political cartoonists are usually the most effective in portraying the government to us, they are really good at capturing the moment and getting people on side”.
Satirical political art has a place in both hanging politicians out to dry and contributing to discourse, but as these artists remind us, actions ultimately speak louder than pictures and words.