[Marxism] Modern art is rightwing

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 14 13:52:43 MST 2007

Modern art is rightwing

Contemporary art is individualistic and concerned with freedom - 
characteristics of the right, rather than the left
Ed Vaizey

If asked whether modern art is leftwing - the topic of a debate at the 
Southbank Centre tonight - most people, and especially a Tory MP such as 
myself, would be expected to say yes. The question would seem barely to 
merit a response, much as if it had been asked about the BBC, or indeed 
The Guardian. But the response would be wrong. Whichever way you look at 
it, modern, or contemporary art, is rightwing.

Contemporary art is highly individualistic. It is about freedom of 
expression, the chance to make one's mark and to speak with a 
distinctive voice - all characteristics of the right, rather than the 
left. Contemporary artists are entrepreneurs in every sense of the word. 
The Brit Artists of the 1990s have turned themselves into brands, 
selling a luxury commodity to a group of discerning purchasers. The 
Damian Hirst skull, retailing at £50 million, could not remotely be 
described as a leftwing statement, except in the sense that, like many 
projects of the left, it is massively over-priced and a colossal waste 
of money (only kidding Damian). The state has rarely, if ever, supported 
the creation of art. Indeed, the last time the state - or more 
accurately the left - engaged in that activity was in the Soviet Union 
of the 1930s. And even New Labour doesn't want to go down that route yet 
- does it?

Contemporary artists are busy making money, just like any other 
capitalist in Britain, or the developed world, today. The contemporary 
art market is just that, a market where people invest and even people 
like Hugh Grant can make money. The Frieze Art Fair is a huge trading 
floor - although its enlightened founders, Matthew Slotover and Amanda 
Sharp, recognise their corporate social responsibility by securing an 
acquisition budget for Tate Modern.

More controversially, perhaps, contemporary British art is not engaged, 
in my view, in contemporary political debate. That may be a side-effect 
of the general malaise in British politics and the crowding out of the 
centre ground. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I remember the way 
artists and musicians were hugely engaged in political debate in a way 
their successors are not today.

While Hirst, Emin, Taylor-Wood, the Chapman Brothers, may create pieces 
which speak powerfully about the human condition, they do not 
necessarily speak to us on contemporary political issues. Even the Iraq 
war has not spawned a powerful movement in the contemporary art world. 
(Ironically, and perhaps the exception that proves the rule, the highly 
critical and painfully moving art of the first world war was the product 
of a state initiative, the war artists advisory scheme, which carried on 
in the second world war, and still exists today. Think of Steve McQueen 
and campaign for the stamps bearing the photographs of soldiers killed 
in Iraq.) The most highly publicised piece on the war, perhaps, is a 
portrait of George Bush made up of pornographic material, created by 
Jonathan Yeo.

When artists do once more become engaged on contemporary political 
issues, I predict it will be on issues and causes that the right, not 
the left, has championed. This hugely authoritarian government will, at 
some stage, force artists from their penthouses to speak out on the 
issues like identity cards, arrest and detention without trial, the 
massive increase in surveillance and the gradual grinding down of our 

So I say to the contemporary art world - rise up, speak for freedom, 
speak for your fellow countrymen, and speak from the right.

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