Palestine is Not Your Canvas: Politics and Art
“Palestine is not your canvas” is scrawled across a section of the infamous wall that separates Israel from the occupied territories. It’s a very distinct fuck you to the artists, Banksy among them, who have graced the wall with their, usually critical, work.
The banality of what they’ve done is laid bare in that one sentence. When Banksy first opened his Walled Off Hotel across from his murals, it was a statement: humorous, poignant and sharp. Like a lot of what he does though, it was so iconic that imitators have flooded the wall and it’s now become this kitsch canvas they use to make some sort of political statement.
Initially I was shocked by the writing. Wouldn’t these people want attention drawn to their problem? Why would they send a snippy message to artists creating these beautiful, sometimes very sharp, murals across that horrible wall.?
Confronted by its towering cement shafts, spooky guard towers, and pervasive sense of fatalism it’s easy to hate the trendiness of the murals on the wall done by foreign artists. It’s all very well to paint some mildly clever mural about how we’re all human but the banality of that message is irritating, almost infuriating, when you consider the magnitude of the problem. ‘Can’t we all just get along’ doesn’t cut it.
Even the more beautiful, sophisticated murals have a sort of thinness to them. They are almost tourist draws. Which is good in a way, I mean more eyeballs on that problem can’t be bad. They also beautify something ugly. They become cliché. And the fact that it’s been years and wall art has made basically no difference sort of makes it more of a lame radical pose than anything else.
Political art always rings hollow though. It’s got the shortest shelf life. Once the first piece is out, the rest becomes kitsch. It very quickly becomes shallow propaganda.
Should art be political?
I don’t think it can help it. All art is political in some way. The best art is challenging some sort of established view and is inherently revolutionary. Even Michelangelo’s murals were made to satisfy the notions and whims of some Church official or government dignitary. Politics creeps into everything at some level. The question is how explicit should politics be in art?
Depends on how good the artist is. Picasso’s ‘Massacre in Korea’, a commentary on American involvement in the Korean War was explicit and beautiful, similar to Goya’s take on Napoleon in Spain. Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, is poignant and explicit. Banksy’s Flower Bomb, or his little girl floating up the wall with balloons is first class art. Shep Fairey and his OBEY brand are fan-fucking-tastic. But these are masters of their craft. Political art is not for amateurs.
Take the famous Obama HOPE poster for example. That was one of the best pieces of propaganda probably ever. It turned a relatively unknown senator into a president based on nothing at all except image. If you don’t believe me ask yourself why the campaign won marketing of the year.
What’s the difference between art and propaganda?
Propaganda aims to lie. It is a deception that creeps into your mind. Propaganda is that thing Plato wanted to ban from his republic. Art shoots for the truth. Soviet propaganda showing powerful worker wielding large mallets were hiding the fact that workers continued to be oppressed, and censored. Banksy’s wall art is not propaganda, he’s expressing something he believes to be true. When he beautifies that wall, it’s ironic, it’s hopeful and it’s exposing the ugliness of it.
When the imitators have done it to score political points, it sounds cheap. The message is important, the quality of the work is good but the secondary gain for the artists is evident. Banksy had a career when he did it, he could only lose, and he did it anyway. The rest are trying to build their career by it.
How do you make good political art?
When the message overtakes the medium, art gets shitty. Everyone is not cut out to be a political artist. In fact, the vast minority of artists are cut out to be political. Even then the messages tend to be universal, human, social as well as political.
Artists shouldn’t set out to make political art, they should make art and let the authenticity of the message shine through the medium. Not the other way around.
In the meantime, in the name of all that is decent, don’t use other people’s suffering to build your reputation.
Images from shutterstock