Extracts from my BA Hons Art Practice dissertation essay

The Capitalist Paradigm

My research for my essay required me studying artworks that shock/jolt the viewer from the hypnotic complacency of the spectacle/simulacra (which are, to me, essentially the same i.e. – kitsch, empty, nullifying culture and society that covers over the horrors of war, politics, disparity, capitalism, etc).
They shock by mocking the horrors of postmodern life and by making visible those horrors.

However, such is the Spectacle and Simulacra that it quickly nullifies through fetishism/desires for commodities that consume us, as much as we consume them.
Quickly, we are able to compensate the shock, overcome outrage at the horrors of the world and once again become passive, docile (Foucault) consumers of contemporary life.

This is where the schizophrenia comes into the context of my essay, as we are constantly and simultaneously in two minds, each overcoming the other, so, we do not rise up and become accepting of the status quo.

I went on to talk about how the artists work to critique contemporary culture. Then how they ultimately fail, as shock is nullified and their art becomes part of the spectacle because the artworks are after all simulacra themselves and become commodified.The artists battle it out in the end as to whether they overcome or perpetuate fetishism, consumerism, the spectacle and simulacra…

(Neo-Feudal Culture Derived From Advanced Capitalism) And Mass Schizophrenia, A Dualistic Version Of Reality.

Image List

Figure 1.       Marcus Harvey, Maggie 2009, plaster and acrylic on aluminium, 440 x 366 cm

Figure 2.       Marcus Harvey, Myra 1995, acrylic on canvas, 396.2 x 320 cm

Figure 3.       Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps (kennardphillipps) Photo Op, 2006, photomontage, printing ink on paper, 560 x 547 mm

Figure 4.       George Grosz, Pillars of Society, 1926, oil on canvas, 200 x 108 cm, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

Figure 5        John Heartfield, Adolf The Superman (Published in the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung [AIZ, Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper], Berlin, July 17, 1932)

Introduction

The proposed contextual study will relate to my praxis and the links between the capitalist paradigm (a neo-feudal culture derived from advanced western capitalism) and mass schizophrenia or, a dualistic version of reality. This is expanded upon in Chapter 2.

I have chosen three works of art to discuss by Marcus Harvey (b. Leeds, England, 1963-) and, the collaboration kennardphillipps consisting Peter Kennard (b. London, 1949-) and Cat Picton-Phillipps (b. Scotland, 1972-). Each artist creates very different artworks to one another but observed together they reflect a response to the controversy surrounding social manipulation by corporate media and also portray iconic figures of British society of the late twentieth century. The artist’s responses are executed through large-scale reproductions of appropriated images and attempt to provoke political impact, strong emotions, or outrage in the viewer and to get the viewer to think about corporate and media power over society and advanced capitalist culture.

Marcus Harvey is a figurative painter who has created paintings of infamous figures and provocative scenarios, often using sculptural techniques, most notably with his works, Maggie, 2009 (fig.1.) and Myra, 1995 (fig.2.). He graduated from the Goldsmith’s College in London during the late 1980s Harvey became part of the artist group Young British Artists (YBAs) and featured in the (in)famous Sensations exhibition in London in 1997 (see Appendix 1).

Peter Kennard is a senior research fellow and senior lecturer in MA Photography at the Royal College of Art in London. He studied at Slade School of Fine Art, (1967-70) and Royal College of Art (1976-79) achieving MA in Fine Art. Kennard’s work is a powerful response to social and political events around him. It is often based around his wish to express anger and outrage but also inspire positive action and protest. In the 1970s Kennard moved away from painting to photomontage, which he felt to be a more powerful response to the Vietnam War. His recent works with Cat Picton-Phillipps were created in response to the Iraq War, 2003 and include digital collage. Picton-Phillipps has worked in London for the past eight years with her own gallery and printing business. They have collaborated since 2002, collectively known under the name kennardphillipps.

Marcus Harvey’s Maggie (fig.1.) is comprised of over fifteen thousand plaster cast sculptural objects, containing, vegetables, masks of former New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair (b. Edinburgh, 1953 -), multiple sex toys and other recognisable commodities.

The objects are used to create the black and white painting that represents Margaret Thatcher’s (b: England, 1925 – 2013) media profile as the Iron Lady, as well as British history, identity and moments of change during Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister.

The painting took over one thousand hours to complete, costing around £40,000-£50,000 to make and weighs over a ton (Hattenstone, The Guardian, 21 February 2009).

The late Prime Minister Thatcher’s capitalist economic ideology was first dubbed Thatcherism in Marxism Today (Hall, January, 1979). The conventional view in 1979 was that Thatcherism (a term that they rejected) was simply a continuation of Toryism. Within a decade Thatcherism entirely changed Britain with overshadowing repercussions from the 1980s to this present day.

In the 2013 budget speech, Chancellor George Osbourne (b. England, 1971) repeatedly used the phrase aspiration nation. This idea comes from the conviction politics, economics and social policy of Thatcherism and is a pivotal ideology of Conservative politics.

The concept of aspiration […] was a central part of the Thatcher offer: opportunity for all and the right to buy (your council house). It was a clear dividing line between political parties throughout the 1980s. This dividing line was broken when Tony Blair grabbed the mantle of aspiration in the following decade. (Doron, April 2013).

When growing up in Leeds, artist Marcus Harvey was a socialist and punk who had witnessed first-hand policies of Thatcherism, which had helped destroy his father’s small business and lose their house in bankruptcy. His father suffered a mental breakdown from which he never fully recovered. Harvey despised the wholesale privatisation of services he regarded as essential to the wellbeing of the country, such as the railways. And he couldn’t stand the Thatcherite notion that there was no such thing as society (Hattenstone, The Guardian, 2009). Today, his feelings are more ambivalent. But so much of what he despises, he says, have their roots in Thatcherism.

When you get to middle age and have children and have to pay your bills, you have some sympathy with some of the things Thatcher did. Even though I’m in the art world, I have been nauseated by this rampant pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything else. (Harvey, 2009)

This aspiration nation is a society that values and fetishizes commodities above all else, as predicted by Karl Marx (b. German, 1818 – 1883, Das Kapital Vol.1, 1867). I expand upon this in Chapter 1.

I chose, Myra (fig.2.), as an example of a shocking subject matter that for some has become blasé, for others has become an iconic image to be fetishized and for others still, it holds the power to provoke violent reaction and shock. Harvey produced Myra as a commentary and a means of provoking the obsessive nature of British tabloid media as he thought that the photograph was used irresponsibly.

The Times art critic Richard Cork described Myra as follows;

Far from cynically exploiting her notoriety, Harvey’s grave and monumental canvas succeeds in conveying the enormity of the crime she committed. Seen from afar, through several doorways, Hindley’s face looms at us like an apparition… the sense of menace becomes overwhelming. (Cork R., The Times, September 1997, “The Establishment clubbed”)

Harvey (1997, White Cube interview) commented that; “the whole point of the painting is the photograph. That photograph. The iconic power that has come to it as a result of years of obsessive media reproduction.”

The painting consciously juxtaposes “the tiny handprints of an innocent child and the depraved world of adults, writ large on a gigantic canvas.” (Friedlander J., 2008, p.80-88). Personally I feel that Myra is a powerful comment on the commodification and fetishization of an irresponsibly used tabloid image of a killer involved in some of last century’s most despicable child murders that the marketplace absorbs, reifies and commodifies with ease.

The third artwork I have included also features Tony Blair and also relates back to twentieth century British politics, culture, history and identity. Photo-Op, 2006 (fig.3.) is a digital photomontage by kennardphillipps that combines a picture of the grinning former Prime Minister Tony Blair taking a self-portrait on a mobile phone, originally from the 2005 general election campaign, with a separate image of a blazing oilfield during the Iraq war in 2003. The satire of this image works because it juxtaposes the shock and awe of the second invasion of Iraq in 2003 with the cultural phenomena of the selfie.

Shock and awe (technically known as rapid dominance) is a military doctrine based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force to destroy and paralyze an adversary’s will to fight. The doctrine was devised by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade in 1996 and is a product of the United States National Defense University.

Initially collaborating to make art in response to Iraq invasion 2003, kennardphillipps’ work has been shown online, in galleries and on protest marches. In their online biography, they describe their work as a direct means of communication: “the visual arm of protest” (www.kennardphillipps.com/about). Photo-Op (fig.3.) was produced to create something that reflected and validated enormous personal and public anger and opposition to the war (‘Million’ march against Iraq war, BBC News, February, 2003), which the artists felt had not been reflected in mainstream media.

The stated aim of kennardphillipps for their art is; “we want it to be used by people as a part of their own activism, not just as pictures on the wall to contemplate”. To facilitate this aim they include a free download page of images on their website.

Photo-Op (fig.3.) has previously been exhibited at Tate Britain and was recently described by The Guardian (Jones, October 2013) as “the definitive work of art about the Iraq war”. It is currently shown at The Imperial War Museum (IWM) in Manchester in Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War exhibition (2013) where two exhibition corporate sponsors controversially withdrew it as the main publicity image. This action by CBS OUTDOOR links into my proposition concerning neo-feudalism and is argued in Chapter 3. Another key aspect of this essay is the use of art as a weapon for activism, influenced by artist George Grosz (b. German, 1893 – 1959) of the 1920s Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Grosz said;

I consider any art pointless if it did not put itself at the disposal of political struggle […] my art was to be my gun and my sword. Pens without purpose are empty straws (Gayford, 1997, Spectator, p.no 45 (http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/12th-april-1997/45/exhibitions-1)).

As an example of Grosz’s work I have chosen Pillars of Society, 1926 shown in fig.4. , I find this a very powerful statement by the artist who was known for his acidic caricatures of political figures featuring priests, politicians, lawyers and soldiers (a paradigm of the powerful) of the 1920s German Weimar republic and who was pressurised and threatened with death by the Nazis (Zeller, Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, 2009).

The historical root of both Maggie (fig.1.) and Photo-Op (fig.3.) may be traced to the use of acidic political caricatures. Grosz’s statement also links to “the visual arm of protest” and the support of the use of their art for activism by kennardphillipps. Maggie itself became a centre of a scandal because of, among other reasons, the Harvey’s use of casts of dildos that are meant to symbolise “the cocks that surrounded her” (Hattenstone, 2009). Maggie (fig.1.) visualizes the morbid fetishism of contemporary iconography. It reveals itself in two stages – at a distance and up close, when it literally reveals new dimensions. The dildos become reminiscent of cruise missiles. The artwork becomes a sexualised, machine-like, totem of the surreal power of libido.

This contextual study also links the findings of philosophers, sociologists and psychologists who have written about advanced capitalist culture effecting mental health (for example; Public health in Asia and the Pacific: historical and comparative perspectives, Lewis, Milton James; Kerrie L. Macpherson (2007) London: Routledge. pp. 222–235). I have chosen key quotations and expanded upon this in Chapter 2.

Carefully researched passages from Das Kapital Vol.1 (Marx, 1876) are a basis of my essay along with the books; Walter Benjamin (b. German, 1892 – 1940) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1934), Herbert Marcuse (b. German, 1898 – 1979), Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) and, Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964).

Further literature I have referred to include pages dealing The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, from the final chapter of the book co-written by Theodor Adorno, (b. German, 1903-69) with Max Horkheimer (b. German, 1895–1973) in Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002).

Interests in other literature have emerged during my practice and my research that include; the notion of the commodity trap by Guy Debord (b. France, 1931-94) in The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and, the explanation of contemporaneity (see Chapter 2) in Jean Baudrillard’s (b. France, 1929 – 2007) book Simulacra and Simulation (Simulacres et Simulation, 1994).

I have chosen all of these texts to inform my overview of Marxism and social history of art in the period. They work as references to my introductory statement that advanced western capitalism is a neo-feudal economic pyramid, whose policies and ideologies have lead to a form of mass schizophrenia (see Chapter 2) within society.

Western culture is dominated by mass production and subsequent fetishism of commodities Marx (1876). I will describe commodity fetishism and it’s origins next in Chapter 1.

Conclusion

In addition to extensive research, I have demonstrated how the controls of the advanced capitalist economic paradigm and modern culture induce a cognitive dissonance or mental disturbance upon society as a whole.

The intention and point of my study was to demonstrate an abuse of neo-feudalist power over a perceived docile society. That society in turn has lost touch with its reality and replaced biological needs with manufactured needs.

I have demonstrated how my selected artists sit in relation to historical context and their contemporaries even though there is a divide in their praxis.

I have demonstrated how my selected artworks can be seen to be referencing contemporary themes and politics to a lesser or greater extent. Each artwork in Photo-Op, Myra and Maggie features the appropriation of media or photographs. I demonstrated that a quality of all three of my selected artworks is that they have outraged the public to a lesser or greater extent and the intention of this outrage has been to take a post-modern approach to the subject matter of distinguishing reality from the media imagery and to confront shock, docility and passivity to raise our awareness and free ourselves to construct our own identities.

 My selected artists have formulated a critique of advanced capitalist culture through their work and have contributed to the critique about the power wielded over society. I don’t believe that the artists are offering answers, though I do believe they are posing positive questions.