Gorillas, Galleries and Cage Fighting: How Visual Culture and Media Are Still Significant in Modern Politics

If a history student were to be asked about how visual culture and media can influence politics, they would surely think of examples such as British propaganda in the world wars, or the striking posters used in Nazi Germany. There is widespread agreement on the significant impact of this visual culture and media on people’s beliefs, and therefore the politics of the time.

What is less clear is how much of an impact art can make in the contemporary world. There are countless artists who make political comments with their work. The question is, can this work still genuinely influence politics? With the wide range of ways in which we are fed visual media, particularly through online sources, it is arguably much harder to influence and control opinions and politics in the modern world.

However, with a little research, we can find examples of contemporary artists who have made a genuine impact with their artwork.

Think of Paula Rego, the Portuguese artist who, with her powerful ‘Abortion Series’ (1998-9), has been credited with influencing the decision to hold a second referendum on legalising abortion in Portugal in 2007, after the first one failed in 1998. The series captures the reality of abortion, humanising the experience in a graphic yet beautiful way. Lesley Hoggart, whose research focuses on reproductive health, abortion policy and sexual health, credits Rego’s complex work with having a role to play in the important advance in reproductive rights in Catholic Portugal (The Lancet, 2019).

A painting from Paula Rego’s ‘Abortion Series’. (Credit: Paula Rego.)

Another interesting example to look at is the work of Grayson Perry. With 174,000 followers on Twitter, exhibitions in numerous galleries, a 2008 ranking of 32 in the “100 most powerful people in British Culture,” and appearances on This Morning, Loose Women, The Graham Norton Show, and Celebrity Gogglebox, there is no denying that Grayson Perry has the opportunity to reach a large audience with his art.

One of Grayson Perry’s banners on display in Durham Cathedral in 2016. (Credit: The Northern Echo.)

In his Channel 4 mini-series, All Man, Perry examines the concept of masculinity. He puts himself in typically masculine environments, from cage fighting to the Durham Miners Gala, council estates to the Square Mile, then makes art to capture what he experienced. Tackling subjects such as the gender roles in childhood, family values, the stigma around mental health and the high suicide rate among men in the North East, this mini-series has the potential to challenge views on significant issues, much like Perry’s work has done for many years. He explains in the documentary that the aim of the artwork he is creating ‘is to provoke a conversation,’ which he is definitely successful in achieving. The series won multiple awards.  

A final example of note is the Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist activist artists. Their form of visual culture and media challenges inequalities in the art world itself. Their website explains that they ‘use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture.’ Active for over thirty years in many cities across the world, the Guerrilla Girls wear gorilla masks and name themselves after famous dead women to maintain anonymity. Whilst there is still a long way to go in the group’s aims, the Guerrilla Girls co-founder, who goes by the name Frida Kahlo, recognises that over time, public opinion has changed, and people in and outside of the art industry are realising the importance of diverse voices in the history of art.

DO WOMEN HAVE TO BE NAKED TO GET INTO THE MET. MUSEUM? (Credit: Guerrilla Girls, via guerrillagirls.com.)

Whilst the impact of Rego, Perry, and the Guerrilla Girls’ work might be quite different, with Rego having a role in clear legislative change, and Perry and the Guerrilla Girls having an influence through a slower process of challenging views and ideas, the significance of all three cannot be denied. The political impact of contemporary art may not be as obvious as the propaganda posters examined in history classrooms across the country, but it would be wrong to ignore the power that visual culture and media such as art still holds in influencing and impacting political opinions and change in the modern world.

Georgina Crowther

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