Perhaps I was being unfair to Gordon Hookey in my review, repeating Wm. Burroughs remark about the Dadaists anti-Nazi propaganda: “like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective sanitary device from 1920.” Maybe the propaganda is the act of charging the regiment of tanks with what ever you have or just standing in their way like that man in Beijing, just before the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
I don’t think that there are enough artists making art about the critical issues in Melbourne. Some people, like the curators of the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, believe that the last 20 years of international contemporary art have been to hedonistic and frivolous. When I look at an exhibition or a work of art I ask myself: “how relevant is it?” Often there is no answer to that question or when there is it is as glib as press release.
Sure there are some Melbourne artists, Ash Keating for example, who are really doing something but I haven’t seen many great works of art about critical issues. Critical issues like human rights, the greenhouse effect and war are ignored by most of Melbourne’s art world; Bus Gallery’s “Apropos” exhibition in 2007 being one exception – I’m sure there are others. Melbourne’s art world plays at being relevant by supporting popular, dramatic and superficial charities like the Victorian bushfire appeal or kids with cancer. (There are now more charities for kids with cancer in Australia than kids with cancer.)
In writing about political art and critical issues I have to note that WorkSafe Victoria in 2009 has managed to use art to push an important message. It does take commissions (and other involvement with the arts) in order to produce good art about critical issues. Along with the frightening mainstream adverting campaign Worksafe Victoria has also been using graphic artists and street artists to get their message across. The Big Mouth campaign targeted a younger audience, the audience that is most likely to be injured at work. How effective this is might be is debatable but the images produced have been desirable. The artist is Jonathon Zawada and the image is a skull with a red bandana and a zipper mouth. Who wouldn’t want that? I picked it up for the stickers. I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of searches for ‘big mouth’ on my stats page. The image has become a rhetorical device to inspire people to do find out about the campaign for themselves.
The street is still the best place to see artistic images about critical issues. Political graffiti is still alive and topical. Even a big multicoloured piece of aerosol art has a ‘no war’ comment. The stencil art has anarcho-syndicalists and situationist influences and politics; appropriating and altering (detouring) slogans and cartoons. “Unmindfully the anti-capitalists joined those demanding that we must earn our living.” Reads one stencil, along with Tom, the cartoon cat, lazing around. Elsewhere a stencil of a little TV with arms and legs that shows us lies. This situationist propaganda is still, almost fifty years later, a potent alternative on the street to the current political morass. Street art does have advantages in that it is about timing and placement of the image; it is also as ephemeral as the current issue.
However, neither the WorkSafe big mouth advertising campaign nor the scattered political street art are great works of art and this still leaves me asking where are the great, significant, powerful works of art about critical issues?