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Any trace of Emin politics?

As historian considers work that focused on 'socially committed' topics, Diary wonders where the activist artists of 2019 can be found

08 February, 2019 — By The Xtra Diary

An International Brigade battalion banner in Spain, made by Phyllis Ladyman, Jim Lucas and Betty Rea

AND so to Bookmarks tonight (Friday), the radical bookshop at the southern end of Bloomsbury Street, for a talk given by the excellent art historian Christine Lindey. She will be discussing the themes in her new book, Art for All.

In it she considers how in the early and mid-20th century an often overlooked vein of art – pieces predominantly by working-class men and women – focused on topics that she describes as “socially committed”.

Lindey is described by former Tate curator Simon Casimir Wilson as “a doyenne of British art history and one of the most original, accessible and principled practitioners”. And this book shows why she is held in such high esteem.

In Art for All, she talks of the foundation in 1933 of the Artists International (AI) – an attempt to help organise against the rising tide of fascism and nationalism.

“The AI was also influenced by socialist and communist artists’ groups in Mexico, France and the US,” she states in an article about her book for the Culture Matters website.

“Just as the AI opposed establishment politics, so it challenged the dominant Art for Art’s sake aesthetic. Preached by [Fitzrovia-based artist] Roger Fry and Clive Bell, this held that art should address purely formal problems and not be tainted by politics; whereas politically committed artists depicted the realities of working-class life and opposed individualism with collectivism.

“Influenced by William Morris’s socialist aesthetic, they challenged the hierarchy which placed ‘pure’ fine art above the applied arts. Indeed some artists rejected easel painting for being unique, exchangeable commodities, and turned to socially useful public arts such as banners and prints which democratised art.”

The worsening climate in Europe and beyond meant AI’s numbers grew and the 1935 invasion of Abyssinia by Italy led to the group renaming itself the Artists’ International Association (AIA) and seeking to mimic the aims of the popular front movements, uniting all on the centre and left against the right.

As war broke out in Spain, the AIA gained even more impetus – and 200 members took part in a May Day rally through the streets of central London. As Lindey explains, four surrealists dressed themselves up as spooky caricatures of the appeasing prime minister Neville Chamberlain, and danced their way along the route, twirling Chamberlain’s trademark brollies as they went.

Lindey’s work covers 30 artists who used their talents to chronicle and celebrate a world of working-class life so often overlooked by the often rarified attitudes of the British art scene, and her work cannot help but prompt comparisons with today.

One wonders where the socially committed artists are to be found now – and after visiting Tracey Emin’s latest show, Diary can only conclude that the highly successful Young British Artists movement did not bring any long-lasting political commentary to the public’s eyes.

Such thoughts came to the fore when Diary saw Emin’s latest work at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey: her basic vanity and individualism is rampantly displayed, where she has covered the walls of one room with “selfies” taken on her iPhone as she struggles to go to sleep. It was not much to look at, while her “political” utterances are often more bemusing than enlightening.

With the rise of nationalism tainting our political discourse, oh for a new AIA to join the battle of ideas.

Looking through Lindey’s enlightening read, let us hope her talk tonight acts as a battle call, a rally for action, and is heard far and wide.

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