Art Turning Left: How values changed making 1789 – 2013

Tate Liverpool
8th November 2013 – 2nd February 2014

Reviewed by John Owen

This exhibition was the first of its kind, dealing with the ways in which art has been influenced by left-wing ideals from the French revolution in 1789 – as the left-wing representatives faced those that supported the dying monarchy teetering on the edge of extinction – to the present day. It also included workshops, discussions and courses for those interested in ‘doing’ rather than simply ‘viewing’.

The declaration of the rights of man, written by Thomas Paine, was a bible of the revolutionary people of France, Paine himself was forced into exile and persecuted all his life. Not until the chartist movement did the people get the full story.

The Death of Marat (1793-4) by Jacques-Louis David, greets visitors and makes its statement on the issue of martyrs to the cause, a theme taken up by many other artists. How do you represent the people and revolution?

I myself had a good day, I’d travelled in early to the beast of the city to give my weekly job search spiel to the Obergruppenführer workplace advisor. Only to be told they were ill, a smile emerged and my mood was set for the day as I collected my hard earned bus fare – after cycling in to the place. Here I was, along with two others, feeling subversive as we got in on Mike’s ticket. A good egg, he even got the expensive tea drinks in, very communist of you brother comrade sir! But back to the review.

We discussed the critics of the shows in the national media, our host had seen it before and thought we should concentrate on 3 central questions:

Can pursuing equality change the art?
Can art speak in collective voice?
Do we want to know who made the art?

Additionally, we had to apply these questions to how art can affect everyone. We had a good debate on the meaning and purpose of the art before we ventured into the exhibition but this did not detract from our viewing pleasure. Most of the work was pictorial though some videos and sound pieces added to the overall feel.

How do you depict the 200 year struggle for revolutionary change and get it all into one building? I noticed the school kids from the Blackie had an input, so it wasn’t just great pieces over everyone’s heads. An office for making radical art in the middle – just like ours I thought – where brilliant minds and creative people thrash out the meaning of life from Hegel to Heidegger, from Sartre to 60s poster art to who was going to make the tea and go for the milk.

I could have spent many hours at this thought-provoking spectacle, Liverpool itself has a lot to offer the world besides the epoch making music of the Beatles, as a jukebox for change and music is just one exhibit. How cool.

We also have both kinds of French Connection, not just the posh clobber shops in Liverpool One, but the people influenced by those radicals who espoused the cause of revolution and, with its Irish population, the republican ideals surfaced largely in the union movement adding pep to the talk of organising.

My only beef is that the very masses that need to be part of this spectacle are economically deterred by the entrance fee. Shame, but that’s most of the art world too!

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