Political Art in 2020: Empowering and Essential

by Alex Hall

Art has always been an idea. It might be a pondering, an argument or a bold ferocious statement. It’s someone saying, ‘I’ve got something to say, and you better look at what that is.’ It’s democracy in action. It’s important, empowering, and revolutionary. To say that art isn’t political would be to overlook what art can do: make a change.

A huge proportion of the world exhaled with relief as Donald Trump lost the 2020 Presidential Election. The stakes were as high as any in recent history. Not to mention the tweets. There is not one part of culture that hasn’t been affected by the political events of the last four years, certainly not the art world.

Antony Micallef
Anthony Micallef’s take on Trump comes with a health warning.

View art by Anthony Micallef

The relationship between art and political propaganda has been a somewhat abusive one. The liberal fundamentals of art disagree with the concept of using it to influence and sell. However, political campaigners recognised from early on, the intrinsic power of art.

In making an idea a logo, a symbol, it can take on a life of its own. Red baseball caps are now Trump’s. Something mundane and ordinary has become a politically charged with ‘garrulous narcissism, of white male privilege, of violence and hate.' (Givhan) So strongly tied with identity as something you wear, the choice to peddle politics on a cap is powerful. Similar to the KKK hoods, they promote an aggressive crowd mentality. The paradoxical combination of the anonymity within the security of the herd, whilst standing up for individual beliefs. Art is fashion, fashion became politics, and now politics has become identity.
Some artists are activists. Taking inspiration from the aesthetic of propaganda itself, OBEY aka Shepard Fairey designed a posted for the 2008 Obama campaign titled, ‘Hope’ that has now become iconic. His work was adopted as an emblem for the official campaign, impacting people across the globe.

Obey Hope

Obey’s most recent work includes a huge mural in Milwaukee with the message ‘Voting rights are human rights’. His own specific type of aesthetically powerful social critique has come in the form of posters, badges, stickers and now murals. It is a campaign. “Art is not always meant to be decorative or soothing, in fact, it can create uncomfortable conversations and stimulate uncomfortable emotions,”

Obey voting rights

Against the volatile backdrop of voter suppression during the elections in 2020, his work is as vital as ever. As the result of the presidency continues to be contested by a very specific type of person, creating art that stands for the very basics of democracy is radical and essential.

Obey Mandalas

View art by Obey

Over here in the UK we’ve got our own artistic political firepower. Rebecca Strickson has never been one to hold back in her art. Inspired by the traditional trade union banners that proliferated during the Victorian period, her work is intricate, empowering and often furious.

Rebecca Strickson

Strickson’s designs have featured as huge banners across Carnaby Street, on gin bottles, on pins and in galleries across the UK. Her use of rich, vibrant colours gives the sincerity of her messaging an element of joy. The softness of her typography contradicts the ferocity of the contents. Whether it’s ‘Never Tory’ or ‘Fuck Donald Trump’, the result is always a disarmingly pretty middle finger to the establishment. 

Rebecca Strickson Art

View art by Rebecca Strickson

Echoing Strickson’s sentiments on Donald Trump is Jamie Reid. Reid’s ‘God Save the USA’ was right on the nose of last week’s events.

Referencing his best known work that he did with the Sex Pistols, ‘God Save The USA’ features swastikas on Trump’s eyes and a safety pin through his lips. By fanning the flames of white nationalism, Trump has made sure that Reid’s work is hugely relevant now. A mirror revealing the very ugly truth of our world.

Jamie Reid God Save Us All

You might be wondering, why would I want art that features Donald Trump on it? Great question. What Reid has done here is call it as he sees it. As the Trump Administration comes to an end, this piece is a timestamp of what his time in office was characterised by: fascism. History might try and paint him kindly, but art pieces such as Reid’s won’t let that happen. As journalist Matt Frei observed, the celebrations felt ‘more like the end of a regime than the end of a democratically elected government.’ Reid isn’t letting us forget that. 

Jamie Reid God Save the USA

Another one of our artists who is unafraid to explore political themes in their work is Gavin Mitchell. Mitchell’s trademark collage compositions bring disparate images into one cohesive and complex piece. His piece 'Le Vote Ne Change Rien La Lutte Continue' (translation: The vote changes nothing - the struggle continues) showcases his delicate fascination of east meeting west. Although referencing the 1968 Paris Uprising, Mitchell’s layering technique suspends the context of the piece, making it timeless. The message is particularly poignant after recent events, reminding us that there is still change to fight for.

Gavin Mitchell Le Vite Ne Change Rien

Dirty Hans has been no stranger to popular culture. He takes instantly recognisable cultural figures and puts his own dark twist on them. His work has taken a new provocative turn now that he’s turned his attention to politics. ‘Keep Your Distance’ featuring Johnson and Trump in a questionably intimate embrace. Showcasing their flagrant hypocrisy as leaders during a crisis as they don’t follow their own rules, they are the perfect subjects for Dirty Hans’ scathingly satirical piece. 

Dirty Hans Keep Your Distance

In these exhaustingly political times, the role of art helps us stay inspired and engaged. Artist Joseph Beuys had an extended definition of art that included ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ - the idea of art being social sculpture. Art has a responsibility to reflect and critique our politics in order to sculpt and change it. We’re seeing it in action with how our featured artists are inspiring people to vote, dissent, to come together and demand more from our leaders. Its empowering to see art so recently have such a massive impact, a testament to how important of a role it has in our society. Its hopeful, determined and persistent.

The election results show what happens when people come together and change history. If we can imagine a better world with our art, we can create one with our politics.