This is the year where Donald Trump was elected American president, Brexit becomes a grim and horrendous reality and in the France the far-right, Martine Le Pen, stands a chance of at least getting into the final round of voting in the presidential elections. To say that the political shit is hitting the fan is an understatement, but at times like this art from ‘high’ to ‘low’ kicks back in various ways as it subverts and attacks the powerful. After all; good satire punches up, and if it hits the target then it’s succeeded.
Satire, and the political allegory/attack has been with us for centuries going back to the time of James Gillray, but it’s George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, that serves us with the modern template of not just warning us against the horrors of an authoritarian state, but of how art can serve as a way to rewrite current (and future) events to the point where it can seem like Orwell’s book becomes a template for political leaders around the world, from Thatcher and Reagan, to Trump and May.
The first thing I ever saw in any art which attacked a political figure was way back in 1977 with the very first issue of 2000AD, which featured a story, Invasion!, about a fictional invasion of the UK by the Russians (called Volgans to stop annoying the Soviets) and future Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher is executed on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In fact, Thatcher drove on a lot of art during her time in charge; from the alternative comedy of Rik Mayall and Ben Elton, to music, film and comics; some of which proved highly controversial. St. Swithin’s Day is a comic written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Paul Grist that originally appeared in short lived British independent, Trident, in 1988 before being collected in 1990. Controversial as it features the attempted assassination of Thatcher, it poked various Tory MP’s where they don’t like to be poked and created some tabloid headlines; but by the end of the year she was gone.
Subsequent political leaders have also been the subject of barbs, but not even Tony Blair reached the tirade which flowed towards Thatcher. Things have changed in terms of how satire is used as a weapon with the rise of the internet, but on the other side of the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan’s election sparked a similar rise in artistic protest and his version of the neo-liberalism Thatcher started spread to the US – and although the artistic backlash seemed less intense on this side of the Atlantic, Reagan was a target of artistic backlash, especially from America’s first wave of hardcore Punk bands like the Dead Kennedys who organised a ‘Rock Against Reagan’’concert. It was, however, Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip which took Reagan on throughout his entire presidency, and indeed, has taken on and satirised every American president since up to Donald Trump.
And it is with Donald Trump and the clusterfuck that is Brexit that art is having to face up to a massive upheaval in what is considered ‘normal’. In part, be it the time of Nixon in the White House or Thatcher or Blair in Downing Street, artists of various types knew essentially what they were dealing with as these people may have been some of the biggest bastards in modern Western political history, but in Trump we’re seeing a Fortunate Son become president of the most powerful country on the planet. In the UK, we’re seeing a shift backwards into an age where the present is being shaped by those who dream misty-eyed of an imperial past where the Empire could do no wrong.
Art will react to it. Russian Punk band Pussy Riot have already reacted to Trump, while there appears to be a state of shock still in the UK’s artistic community (though singer Lily Allen and of all people, ex-footballer and BBC presenter Gary Lineker have stepped up) to Brexit, there’s rumblings that finally, people are up for a fight. Today, the world as we know it changes when Donald Trump is sworn in, and the socially liberal Western model of politics as we know it could well end as we enter an age where cruelty, ignorance and anti-intellectualism is reshaped into the ‘new normal’ by people that make good from disaster. Artists won’t tolerate it, as after all, what happens today shapes tomorrow for not just artistic freedom, but for our children’s freedoms. We as a people shouldn’t take a bad decision sitting down as that’s the true essence of artistic freedom and democracy.