The third way: how an exhibition in Liverpool sees political Art Turning Left

Susie Stubbs

Tate Liverpool’s latest exhibition asks many questions but provides few answers.

Russell Brand has a lot to answer for. The unruly-haired comedian’s recent interview with Paxman caused an internet storm. In it, he claimed that democracy was irrelevant, and voting even more so. However, what Brand said proved less interesting than the reaction to it. Those who objected did so primarily because a) Brand was an unruly-haired comedian and b) because he failed to furnish Paxo with a handy list of solutions to Britain’s political woes. How very dare he. Why do we mention it here? Well, the idea that you can’t criticize something without first knowing how to fix it is paralyzing – and is a notion thoroughly demolished by Tate Liverpool’s newly opened exhibition, Art Turning Left.

Art Turning Left charges through 200 years of (political) art history. It is an exhibition split into a series of themed areas – or “questions” according to its curator, Francesco Manacorda – that actively encourage debate and viewer participation. “It is a survey of how politics has changed the making of art, how it has been produced, received and distributed over the last 230 years,” says Manacorda, But the exhibition, which places such stellar artworks as a version of French Revolution painting, The Death of Marat, alongside posters created by the Atelier Populaire during France’s 1968 uprising, is not a traditional survey show.

At its centre is a specially constructed space called The Office of Useful Art – it is this space, designed as a working office, that best underlines the idea that you don’t solve problems without first asking questions. “The Office of Useful Art is a live project designed to create a place for debate within the exhibition,” says Manacorda. “But more than that, it uses the exhibition to ask questions such as does making art automatically create equality? Does art deliver new thinking, does it create innovation? The exhibition is like a textbook and the office acts as the seminar room, somewhere we can interrogate the role of art.”

The exhibition is like a textbook, & the office acts as the seminar room

The office is made more credible through the involvement of radical arts organization, Grizedale Arts, whose director argued earlier this month that “art should be useful and not just an object of contemplation”. For an “establishment” gallery such as Tate Liverpool, this must surely be hard to argue; as soon as something is tacked up on its white walls, it becomes an object to be admired, often from behind a restraining rope. “We have a lot of material on display that is not unique or that isn’t a work of art, such as items from the Mass Observation Project, to tackle this,” says Manacorda in response to this point, “but I do think the policing of the boundaries between art and material culture should be more relaxed. If we call an Atelier Populaire poster a work of art we betray our intentions, but if we call it a social history document then we do not. I want people to debate that fine line.”

The Atelier Populaire was established during the Paris uprising of May 1968; students overran the Ecole des Beaux Arts and began producing hundreds of posters that were subsequently distributed in support of France’s 11 million striking workers. These silkscreen prints were made anonymously, a conscious decision aimed at ensuring that their messages, rather than their designers, took centre stage. But the Atelier Populaire was also about individual artists doing something that was hands on, in the most literal sense. They got their hands dirty in the name of a political revolution – and it’s an idea that Francesco Manacorda thinks still holds weight. “This idea, of people wanting to participate in something genuine and create something of quality, but that is not mass produced, is reflected today – there is an unformalized movement of bakers and designers, of people making handmade clothes or running small producers’ markets, who are interested in the actual production of things,” he argues.

Making something real, getting your hands dirty, debating ideas without necessarily coming up with answers: it all sounds not unlike Russell Brand, an angry man interrogating what we have and finding it wanting. If art can be harnessed to do the same – as this exhibition implies – then art really could be turned to useful ends.

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