Originally published by Apollo Magazine, April 28th 2015.
Art has been fairly invisible in this UK election campaign. Arts and culture do not even feature as a category in YouGov’s latest ‘most important voting issues’ survey. But can art still have an important role to play on 7 May? Perhaps.
Cultural policies may be unlikely to swing undecided voters, but Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories have all pledged to invest in the creative industries nonetheless. This is pretty unsurprising, given that the sector has been a boon to the economy over the term of the last parliament, adding some £77billion to the country’s wealth in a year and accounting for one in 12 jobs. It has also seen faster growth than average over the last five years.
But it’s been up to artists themselves to bring culture directly into the election campaign. Through his Art Party Conference and Art Party film, Patrick Brill (aka Bob & Roberta Smith) has been a vociferous critic of the current government’s education policies for some time. But he’s taken it one step further this year, by standing against the former Education Secretary Michael Gove in his own constituency of Surrey Heath. If – by some miracle – Brill ousts the hapless incumbent, the arts would certainly have a vocal advocate in the House of Commons.
The biggest impact art is likely to have in the upcoming election, though, is on engagement levels. This weekend South London Gallery is hosting a range of events aimed at encouraging young voters, in concert with Arcadia Missa, Black Cultural Archives, CGP London, Camberwell College of Arts, Hannah Barry Gallery and Peckham Platform. ‘SHOW OF HANDS’ has been programmed by young people, with contributions from artists, politicians, musicians, poets and writers. It will consist of talks, performances, screenings and workshops, providing a platform for young people to voice their opinions on politics.
Although political parties have abandoned the huge poster ad campaigns of yore, the Art Fund still hopes to harness the social power of public art. It’s backed the ‘Vote Art’ campaign, that has seen 20 billboards across the country fitted with artworks by Bob & Roberta Smith, Fatima Begum, Janette Parris, Jeremy Deller and competition-winner Alex Smith which all incorporate the word ‘vote’. The works are designed to inspire the public to engage with the general election. The billboards – each situated near a cultural institution – will be supplemented with flyers.
It makes sense for art to encourage engagement with the election in these ways. For better or worse, the political landscape of the next five years is likely to shape the type of art that is made and exhibited in this country significantly. But given the tight and unpredictable nature of this election, art could also play a role in shaping the political landscape of the next five years.