David Garner’s Art for Our Times
Over the years much ink has been spilled, and wasted, on the issue of the compatibility of art and politics. I say wasted because the merest glance at the history of art reveals an abundance of work of the highest quality either directly occasioned by political events, or with an explicit political message: Michelangelo’s David for a start, commissioned by the city fathers of Florence to celebrate their liberation from the tyranny of the Medicis; or David’s The Death of Marat, or Goya’s Third of May, 1808, or Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, or El Lissitsky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge or Grosz’s satires on Wiemar or Heartfield’s anti- Fascist montages,or Rivera’s murals, or Zadkine’s Rotterdam War Memorial or Whiteread’s Closed Library holocaust memorial .
And, in a different way, were not Rembrandt’s Beggars political and Hals’ Alms House Regents and Blake’s Angels and Courbet’s Stone Breakers and Manet’s Olympia and Seurat’s Bathers and Van Gogh’s Peasants and Leger’s Cyclists and Builders and Warhol’s Electric Chairs and even (for those who actually got the point) Carl Andre’s Bricks? Indeed it is worth pointing out that Raphael’s Madonnas and Holbein’s Henry VIIIs and Rubens’ Baroque swirls and Van Dyke’s swagger portraits and Gainsborough’s gentry and Constable’s rural idylls and Bouguereau’s 19th century academic nudes and Dali’s post Spanish Civil War works and the Chapman Brothers’ Goya pastiches and paedophiliac mannequins, are also bearers of political values, albeit values more or less diametrically opposed to those of my first two lists. Indeed the problem with all these lists is not how continue them but where to stop for, in the last analysis, all art - even Cezanne’s apples and Hirst’s dots – is political in that it gives visual expression (at least partially) to the outlook on life and ideology of one or other social group; even where the art appears to be profoundly individual, as in Blake or Giacommetti or Emin, it is in reality an individually mediated condensation of a collective social experience.as Paul Klee explained in his beautiful metaphor of the artist as tree trunk transmitting experience from its roots in the soil to its crown above.
However, David Garner’s art does not really need this historical – theoretical justification. Both highly politicised and extremely visually powerful, it is its own argument. Indeed I would say that it is among the most powerful, most vital, most necessary, i.e. best, art being produced in Britain. And the reason is simple: it is because Dave Garner has something important to say and knows how to say it.
Of course it doesn’t have to be political in the narrow sense of the word, it doesn’t even have to be something that can be put fully into words (that’s why it is visual art) but, despite all the formalists and the postmodernists, having something significant to say, about human relations, about the human condition at a particular point in time, is a precondition of serious art. Piero della Francesca had something to say about his God and his God’s relation to mankind when he painted The Baptism of Christ and The Resurrection. Jackson Pollock had something to say about his times, ‘the age of the airplane and the atom bomb’, when he painted No 1, 1948 and Lavender Mist. Garner is a socialist artist and his art is deeply imbued with socialist values and the socialist critique of society.
Here the obvious point of comparison and contrast is with the YBAs (the Young Brit Artists collected and promoted by Charles Saatchi). Not surprisingly the YBAs are hardly Garner’s cup of tea: the media hype, the frivolity, the Saatchi wealth, and how it was made, the London parties, the artists’ embrace of PR and entrepreneurship, the mock laddishness – all these are anathema to him, and rightly so. But it is a general rule that modern art develops dialectically with each new wave or generation, each rebel artist reacting against the previous one, while at the same time incorporating and building on some of its achievements. Seurat reacted against the impressionists’ sacrifice of form for colour and light, but he could not have painted the Seine as it appears in The Bathers without Monet and Pissarro. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon declares war on the whole European art tradition but also, palpably, rests directly on Cezanne and Gauguin.
In this process the artist, necessarily, will tend to emphasise the element of negation, while it falls more to the critic or historian to see also the continuity.
So it is with Garner and the YBAs. On the one hand both as a person and in his art he constitutes a polar opposite to YBA cynicism, froth and commercialism. But the YBAs were not all ‘high art lite’ as Julian Stallabrass called them. At their best – some of Hirst (Mother and Child Divided not the dot or spin paintings), Whiteread, Emin, some of Lucas – they produced some serious, powerful and quite radical work, and, much to Garner’s surprise I suspect, I see a definite continuity with Hirst. Ten years ago, seeking to explain Hirst’s work to a very sceptical audience, I made use of T.S. Eliot’s concept of the ‘objective correlative’. For Eliot the way to express emotion in art was to find an objective correlative, ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’. (T.S Eliot, Selected Prose, Harmondsworth 1965, p.102) and this, I argued, was what Hirst did in works like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (The Shark) , Mother and Child Divided and A Thousand Years (the mini-ecosystem with cow’s head, maggots and flies). Garner does it too. To create an objective correlative for the terrible tragedy of the Aberfan disaster – a daunting task - he took thirty primary school chairs and placed on each a wedge of bitumen mixed with coal dust which, over time, moulded itself to the shape of the chair. To represent what happened to the miners Garner takes miners’ jackets, boots and helmets and jams them on to a huge metal spike.
Another way in which he is heir to Hirst, among many others, is in the deployment of ‘actual ‘ or ‘real’ objects instead of representations of them. Rembrandt painted his Slaughtered Ox and Picasso drew his doves; Hirst gives us real cut up cows, an actual dead shark and living fluttering butterflies. Likewise Garner, to comment on the fate of the miners and their communities, uses authentic materials salvaged from the pits as they closed down. For Poppycock, his witty and acerbic comment on the War, the helmet has has to be a real soldier’s helmet and the poppies real middle eastern poppies. I reproduce this (wonderful) email to make the point and show how Garner works.
Hi John, Almost finished a new piece that will definitely be in the first show. Recently purchased on ebay a British Army helmet that has been used in Afghanistan and Iraq complete with desert camouflage cover. The entire helmet is to be covered with poppies (actual dried poppy pods with stems) they are being shipped from Turkey via Canada and are due to arrive any day unless customs take a dislike to the package.
The piece is titled 'Poppycock'.
All the best, Dave
The practice of inserting the ‘real’ into the representation can, with hindsight, be traced back – at least – to Degas’ use of a real tutu on one of his little ballerina statues. It continues through Picasso and Braque’s synthetic cubism, Picasso’s sculpture, Duchamp’s ready-mades, Rauschenberg and Johns, Andre and minimalism, Beuys and Kiefer ( evident and acknowledged influences on Garner), (Mary) Kelly, down to Hirst, Lucas, (sometimes) Emin, and, most recently and dramatically, Mark Wallinger in State Britain. In the process all sorts of problems have been caused for aesthetic theory: for the ‘definition’ of art and for the concepts of ‘naturalism’ and ‘realism’. Why is Lucian Freud with his paintings and portraits of people considered a ‘realist’, while Hirst with his actual shark, cows, pigs etc, is not? Do Hopper’s paintings give a more realistic (or naturalistic) image of the inner city than Rauschenberg’s combines?
In Garner’s case, however, he uses his authentic materials for what Mike Wayne, in his important Theses on Realism and Film, has identified as core Realist purposes:
11 Theses on Realism
Realism is the exploration of aspects of the conflict-ridden
and contradictory nature of social relationships.
The contribution which realism makes to the development of our thinking and feeling (identification/empathy) is also a contribution to the development of our consciousness of the social conditions that shape our thinking and feeling.
Realism interrogates the dogmas of the day as they are propagated, honed and defended by dominant social interests in every sphere of life. Realism expands the critical faculties of the public sphere and any instance of it is ultimately part of a broader collective praxis.
(Wayne, M ‘Theses on realism and film’ International Socialism 116, pp. 173-4)
Even more, he uses them, in a way that is reminiscent of Brecht and Heartfield, to drive home, intensify and render inescapable the connection between what is happening in his art, in his studio, in the gallery, and actual political and social struggles occurring in the outside world. Here is the crucial link between content and form in Garner’s art, with content – as usual- driving the form and here is what really distinguishes him as an artist in Britain today, namely his socialist politics.
Many artists have been or are socialists in one sense or another but there are few if any in Britain today who are socialist and produce socialist art in the defined and organic way that David Garner does. It is not easy to be a socialist artist. First there are the whole range of external and material difficulties deriving from the fact that both the society as a whole and, within it, the art world are controlled by capital. That the art world is ‘controlled by capital’ is a general truth which applies as much to the National Gallery and the Tate as it does to Sotheby’s and Cork St. but it is worth noting the specific and direct role played in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by capitalist billionaires and millionaires: the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, the Gettys, Saatchi, and now Hirst himself. To this must be added the markedly bourgeois character of all the art world’s key institutions and those who staff them. These are the people who decide whose work gets bought at what price, and influence who gets hyped and who becomes a name, but also, at a much more basic level, control access to most public and private space for the display of work, most space for the storage of work (a largely neglected but crucial practical question, especially for any artist who, like Garner, works on a large scale) and a good deal of the space for the making of work. To succeed, even to show their work and establish a serious practice, the artist has to make her/his way in this world, ‘networking’, making friends and influencing people. The socialist artist enters this rat race in alien territory with an almost physical handicap, and even if s/he does win through runs a huge risk of damage, destruction or cooption.
Then there are the internal, psychic and artistic difficulties. In the main art grows out of lived experience not theoretical abstractions. But we live in a capitalist not a socialist society, and in that sense our lived experience is capitalist and socialism remains an abstraction, an intellectual ideal. Certainly the artist responds critically to that experience and, as Trotsky insisted, there is an element of revolt and critique in all serious art. But critical art is not the same as socialist art. Manet and Cezanne, Picasso and Bacon produced great critical art but it was not socialist art. Of course, from a Marxist standpoint we know that the source and bearer of socialist politics and values within capitalism is the struggle of the working class, but the working class is highly problematic as a base for, and bearer of, art and culture. Trotsky made the case against the possibility of an independent and developed working class culture with great force and eloquence in the debates over Proletcult and the struggle against rising Stalinism in the soviet Union in the 1920s, but it was also summed up neatly by the theorist of Surrealism, Andre Breton:
I do not believe in the present possibility of an art or literature which expresses the aspirations of the working class. If I refuse to believe in such a possibility, it is because, in any pre-Revolutionary period the writer or artist, who of necessity is a product of the bourgeoisie, is by definition incapable of translating these aspirations.
(Andre Breton, The Second Manifesto of Surrealism, cited in C.Harrison & P.Wood ed. Art in Theory, 1900-1990, Blackwell, Oxford 1993 p.448.)
So how does Dave Garner and his art defy the odds and the theories and come to exist? Part of the answer lies in the way his personal biography contradicts the assumptions of Breton. Breton assumed that the artist ‘of necessity is a product of the bourgeoisie’. Not so Garner. He was born, the son of a miner who died of pneumoconiosis, in 1958 in Ebbw Vale in the very heartland of the Welsh and British trade union and socialist movement. He was 14 and 16 respectively for the victorious miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, which brought down the Heath Tory Government and saw Arthur Scargill in his pomp. He was 26/27 for the epic struggle and terrible defeat of !984-85, and 34/35 for the destruction of the mining industry with the Heseltine pit closure of 1992-93. This is an artist for whom the values of working class struggle, community and socialism were bred in the bone and refined, tested and tempered in bitter battles.
Moreover, and this is important, he still lives and works in the area, in the valleys, as a member of a working class community. I do not mean by this that he is any way the untutored naïf or ‘primitive’ or in the least provincial or limited in outlook: he has a Fine Art MA from the Royal College and knows about Rodchenko and Duchamp and Beuys and Kiefer as well as Hirst and Emin, and also about Marx and Lenin and Trotsky – and this knowledge is crucial for his art too. But neither his education, nor his work, nor his artistic career have separated him from his class roots in the way they could easily have done. His work as a lecturer at Coleg Gwent ( which many people would call middle class) means that in fact he lives by the sale of his labour power, is not part of management, serves mainly working class youth in his area and has a standard of living not that different from other skilled workers. I referred earlier to the intense connection between Garner’s art and political struggles in the outside world as one its key distinguishing characteristics. This political connection is rooted, at least in part, in the fact that the physical, economic and social distance between Garner’s studio and those struggles is small indeed. In short, objectively and subjectively, Garner remains part of the working class while also being in the advanced guard of contemporary art practice. – a combination both Breton and Trotsky would have found hard to imagine.
Garner’s personal story here is, of course, part of, and testimony to, wider processes of social change: the rising living standards and educational opportunities of at least a section of the working class; the decline, in Britain and Europe, of heavy industry and old style manual labour: the proletarianisation of much white collar and professional work (nursing, teaching, lecturing, social work etc); the increased acceptance of, and participation in modern art, by wider numbers (still far from a majority) of ‘ordinary’ people. (See John Molyneux, ‘Art for All?’, Art Monthly, September 2000). The work and the rise of Tracey Emin, though clearly very different from David Garner, are products of the same social developments.
But whatever the validity of this analysis, the evidence in Garner’s case – his powerful socialist art – is here for us to see, both in his body of work as a whole and in this exhibition in particular. The subject matter of Garner’s art can broadly be divided into three main tranches or waves: first, the assault on the miners and South Wales; second, the persecution and scapegoating of refugees and asylum seekers; third, the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the demonisation of Muslims. To some in the art world this might seem a surprising trajectory- from Ebbw Vale to the Muslim veil – and one which might move Garner away from the roots I described above. In fact there is a powerful logic and dynamic here. The miners were Thatcher’s ‘enemy within’, to be crushed and discarded. Asylum seekers (bogus, of course) and those dreadful ‘economic migrants’ were the foreign enemy seeking to get ‘within’ and ‘take our jobs’ or ‘swamp our culture’. The terrorists/ Islamic fundamentalists are the enemy without – in Afghanistan, Iraq…Iran? – and within – on the London Underground , perhaps in the Mosque down the road. And in each case these ‘threats’ are invoked not by, or on behalf of, the British people or the British working class, but by, and on behalf of, the British ruling class precisely as a means of strengthening its hold on the minds of its white working class subjects and as part of its centuries old imperial strategy of divide and rule.
This is the logic of expanding working class consciousness: from the immediate and personal experience of exploitation and oppression, through an identification with your oppressors’ other victims and enemies to global solidarity. It was the logic of the miners’ strike beginning, as all socialists who worked in solidarity with the strike will remember, with arguments with miners about womens’ right to work and Page 3, and ended with women on the picket lines, lesbians and gays leading miners’ marches, and solidarity with Broadwater Farm.
It is a logic which David Garner’s art embodies and expresses with compelling intensity. In this exhibition he confronts us with the terrible sign from the gates of Auschwitz and its awful motto ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, to situate imperialist war and Islamophobia historically, to remind us of the trajectory and essence of racism and to insist always on the possibility of resistance. He invokes Jim Crow to remind us of the still menacing racism against black people which forms a kind of platform on which current Islamophobia rests and builds. He shows , literally, how the Muslim identity has been besieged and hemmed in by hostile nails and how the ‘war on terror’ has undermined the civil rights and basic liberties of all of us. Above all his art demonstrates, by means of telling visual objective correlatives, that defending the right of a Muslim woman in Baghdad or Birmingham to wear or not wear the hijab is not only defending her human rights and potential liberation, but goes hand in hand with supporting the Palestinian resistance, opposing Bush and Blair’s ‘poppycock’ wars and fighting for the future of working people in South Wales and everywhere. Truly, art for our times!