This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 195, November 2016
– A response to increased insularity and populist politics as seen through the prism of the art world.
We are under attack.
Let me break that down for you. By ‘we’ I mean those who’s work can only exist in an environment of democratically guaranteed freedom. And by ‘attack’ I mean the gathering storms of politically motivated violence and querulous rhetoric that is breaking out around the world.
Like the names we give to storms; Paris, Nice, Ankara, Brussels and Baghdad are now shorthand for atrocities rather than the cultural and economic centres of their respective countries. And please don’t assume that, because the atrocities committed in these cities were carried out by criminal fascist organisations such as ISIS, they exist in isolation from the increasingly outlandish utterances of democratic politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farrage or even Boris Johnson.
The words of these political leaders and the actions of Daesh are not connected at source but a sense of their ‘sayability’ or ‘doability’ is increasingly permissible in an age of gross violence and indiscreet political utterances some of which strike a chord with people who feel themselves disenfranchised from what they see as the elite political classes.
It is not for this magazine to lecture its readers on geopolitics but the forces listed above will soon impact on artists everywhere and, in particular, the work of documentary photographers or any artist or journalist who’s work concerns itself with challenging the status quo. Many of the jaw-dropping utterances on immigration, protectionism, ‘no platforming’ and fear of the ‘other’ were unthinkable a few years ago. More alarming is that these grotesquely intolerant statements are going unchallenged by many and even accepted by some of us.
Now cut to a bucolic village nestled in the wolds of Gloucestershire. Birds sing, leaves rustle as a gentle breeze touches the trees with the softest of kisses. Amidst all the glorious summer wonder I am visiting this village because it is the home of the Whittington Press. Owned and run by father and son, John and Patrick Randall, the press is situated in a rambling and very old barn on the edges of the eponymous village and specialises in the finest hand printing and typesetting. The equipment of the press is purely mechanical and most of it dates from the first half of the 20th century and requires the attention of dedicated printers with immense knowledge of the properties of ink, paper and engineering. The press also has three original Monotype machines – magically complicated contraptions which cast individual letters into blocks of text directly from molten lead.
The Whittington Press produces small runs of ‘Livres d’Artistes’, books of contemporary engravings as well as specialist posters, leaflets and printed artworks. The quality of their work is exquisite. I visited the press because they are printing a ‘letterpress’ version of my photobook ‘Want More’ which is a critique of consumerist culture and published last year by Art/Books. John, Patrick and I spent the morning discussing binding, paper and typography – it was wonderful and I felt very privileged.
On leaving I had the clear impression that here was an example of the pinnacle of craft/art expression and one that would be the first to go should the political tide edge further towards the polarised fringes of intolerance and even restrictive fascism. Art is the last refuge of the sane. In troubled times we turn to creating things to affirm our lives*. Institutions of free expression must be protected and preserved and we creators of new shapes, words and images have an obligation to keep on creating them. Free artistic expression is the antithesis of fascism and we must see our role in the fight as mandatory – not voluntary.
What a gem of free speech the Whittington Press is! Tucked away with its ancient Heidelberg presses and Monotype machines that can be turned to whatever task the owners of the press desire. On a whim they could write, print and distribute a pamphlet criticising the government’s policy on, well, anything. For my purposes here the Whittington Press is the inspirational and, as yet, very much alive ‘canary in the coal mine’. But is the canary picking up the first signs of an unpleasant odour? For all of us this press represents an exquisitely ephemeral level of democracy and freedom that can only exist in the most finely balanced legal conditions. I think we take this state of hard won democratically guaranteed grace completely for granted. It is now a time for taking stock. Photographers, artists and self expressionists of every hue must become conscious of what we have and how it may be lost.
We must recognise the gathering storm at our fringes; with Turkey, a democracy on Europe’s eastern border dissolving into dictatorship under Erdogan’s increasing despotism and Donald Trump, in the west, speaking the previously unutterably repulsive words of fear and racism we can now clearly detect the rhetoric of intolerance in our own ‘democratic’ politicians. We see restraints against the freedom of speech in Russia, Brazil and China. This is a trend – a tide of fear that will wash the shores of our rarified democracies before long. So it begins. Art is salvation.
*The pictures that accompany this piece were taken during the time of writing (late July 2016). I was staying near Lulworth Cove. For three days I ‘washed my eyes’ by taking a trip to the Cove and taking some pictures. If nothing else the action of doing so was grounding and gave a sense of ‘reality’ in uncertain times.