Ken Sprague: Politics and Art

from a talk by John Green, commemorating Ken Sprague

Ken’s art has the power and strength to inspire. He is the true heir, as a socialist artist, of William Morris."   Martin Rowson, cartoonist



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Politics and art in history
Art and politics in the twentieth century
Why is Ken of interest as an artist?

When I was asked to give a short talk on politics and art as a substitute for Ken, I was at first very reluctant. I know Ken was looking forward to this event as He’s talked to me about it. Those who knew Ken personally, well know what a great communicator and of course superb practitioner he was. I am neither, but have dabbled a little in both. Later, I saw the publicity for the event and gathered I was being asked to talk about Ken and his work. I realised that Ken was, first and foremost a political artist, so thought, why not combine the two subjects, it would make sense to do so.

What I have to say this evening, I’m sure Ken would have endorsed and agreed with much of it, but not necessarily all of it and even disagreed with a few points. But I don’t intend to pretend to be a Ken ersatz, but am glad the organisers were able to go ahead with the event and make this evening a commemoration of Ken’s life and his art.

Forgive me if I take a rather circuitous route to Ken. I’d like to begin with a digression into a brief discussion of how art and politics are related. Most people, I am sure, when they hear the words politics and art, think what on earth do they have in common? Politics, they say, is best left out of art, it should have nothing to do with it! Such an attitude would, though, I’m sure, be based on a rather narrow definition of politics as ‘party politics’, the point-scoring and petty bickering between Labour, Liberal and Tory parties – the tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum circus of electoral politics. Or perhaps, on a more abstract level, some would see it as the ‘science of government’, as the dictionary defines it. But if one goes back to the Greek origins of the word – ‘politeia’ or ‘citizenship’ - it has more to do with the organisation of society, the way we, collectively and individually, structure the way we live. This is certainly how Ken saw it. Although he belonged to the Communist Party for much of his life, he was, in his later years, a member of no party, but would have been horrified if you’d suggested to him he was therefore non-political. Politics has become a rather vacuous word and been taken over by the parties and it’s about time we repossessed it for ourselves. And this is what Ken tried to do through his work.

Ken - roll on the day when our hospitals have all the resources they need and the army runs a jumble sale to buy a missile

Most art – and in this talk, I’ll be talking about it in the narrow sense of the visual arts – does indeed have little connection with politics, either in the narrow or wider sense. But I wish to demonstrate, by using a few selected examples from history, that some of our greatest art and greatest artists have been closely entangled with politics and those artists have often adopted a radical political stance. Indeed their art could not be properly appreciated without an understanding of those political connections.

Politics and art in history

Politics and art have been continuously intertwined almost since art arose in human society. No art work can be set aside from history and circumstance; the social and political circumstances in which it arose will have impinged on its. It has never been an easy relationship, sometimes close, sometimes distant, often in conflict, but rarely totally separate. And the involvement of artists’ themselves in politics also goes back to the very early days of artistic creation. Even in the days before individual artists became recognised as such, in terms of having a style of their own, individuals with an artistic talent were seen as ‘touched by the gods or god’, as different from the mass of the people – they had a power that others didn’t. Ken tells the story of when he was a small boy, but already gifted artistically, he used to draw images of cowboys and Indians on the paving stones to amuse his mates. One day a man walked by, looked at the drawings and praised them, giving the young artist a few coppers. Ken said, this suddenly made him aware of the power of art to impress the wider world and as a source of income!

Often using humour to nail down a political truth, Ken’s work will continue to inspire and amuse. A great cartoonist. Rodney Bickerstaffe (former General Secretary UNISON)

Once art became what we think of art today ie released from its purely ritualistic role, artists were distinguished as individuals with a heightened sensitivity to the world about them – they could see and depict what others couldn’t. They were the journalists and novelists of their time, historical recorders, before there were newspapers and novels and where literacy confined to a very small minority.

Because of the artist’s keen vision and ability to depict reality and the real behind the surface, artists were seen as something special but also potentially dangerous and feared for their talents. They were given privileged status.

Bruegel's Massacre of the InnocentsBreughel was one of the first overtly political artists. Under the guise of Biblical story-telling, he attacked the oppressive imperial Spanish rule in occupied Flanders… His ‘Massacre of the Holy Innocents’ makes no concessions to history. It takes place unashamedly in the Flanders countryside and the perpetrators of the massacre, Herod’s troops, are clothed in the unmistakable scarlet uniform of the Spanish imperial guard. His Christ carrying the cross to Golgotha also has, instead of Roman soldiers goading Christ, they are Spanish. All the people following and protesting are ordinary people. In the right hand foreground is a small mourning group around Mary Magdalene, but they are all dressed in rich costumes, very different from the simple peasant dress of those in the rest of the painting, their tears appear to be crocodile tears and they appear to be separate and not really directly involved in the tragedy taking place before them. One has to be very

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents at Kunsthistorischen Museum, Vienna
higher-resolution image: Wikipedia
careful about historical revisionist interpretations, and Breughel’s paintings are not easy to fully decipher, but we do know that he was a political commentator and so there is a justification for seeking such commentary in his images.

In shortly before his death in 1569 he ordered all his highly satirical cartoons to be destroyed, probably to protect his family and friends. This was about the time that his house was occupied by Spanish troops. Although he is often talked about as the ‘peasant painter’, implying that he was simply a painter reflecting peasant life in medieval Flanders, this is a very superficial reading of his work. Almost every one of his paintings was imbued with symbolism, metaphors and comment.

Innovative and radical painters have invariably been politically radical too, from Breughel to Picasso. If we stray from the visual arts we have playwrights like Aristophanes and Plautus to Shakespeare, and Harold Pinter and David Hare today, novelists like Cervantes, Swift, Defoe, Dickens, Poets like…. The list is endless.

At the height of the Renaissance the chief patrons of the arts were the all-powerful church and leading aristocratic dynasties. They employed the best artists of the time as propagandists of the church and the feudal structures. Their pictures served to praise and celebrate religion as a ruling class ideology. So many of the characters that people the ostensible Biblical events and stories are taken straight from the courts of the period. They are dressed in rich robes and their demeanour is unmistakably aristocratic. The common people were deemed to be unworthy of portrayal. Of course, this reinforced the idea that the ruling aristocrats were god’s chosen on earth.

The Wilson Diptych at The National Gallery

This is most clearly demonstrated in paintings like the Wilson Diptych in the National Gallery. Painted around 1400 it shows St. John, St. Edward the Confessor and St Edmond, dressed in the ermine robes of lords recommending a kneeling Richard II to the virgin, surrounded by angels, one of whom holds high the flag of St. George. Here we see the visual sanctification of royalty as god’s chosen representative on earth.

Shakespeare, in King Lear, says:
‘Through tattered clothes, small vices do appear
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.
Plate sin with gold
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks
Arm it in rags and a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.

This is an ironic comment on his society. And most of the paintings of the period reflect that structure, but rarely with irony. There was little attempt to place Biblical stories in their proper historical place; the images were unashamedly very much of their day, but of the court and the lives of the rulers. This was no accident – the rulers were the only people of importance, and it emphasised their closeness to god, reinforced the principles of a rigidly hierarchical society and of subservience. It was also an era in which images had great power – there were few books, no newspapers. Outside the church, the majority of the population was illiterate. Paintings thus had great importance, they were ‘read’.

Take Goya, a highly political artist. Although the official court artist, he could be scathing and blunt unadorned truth. His ‘Desastres de Guerra’ and ‘Capricios’ show his revulsion of war which have hardly been surpassed even by modern photography, and …are scathing and hard-hitting commentaries on religious obscurantism, the hypocrisy of the inquisition and aristocratic privilege. Goya’s courage and outspoken critique brought him into conflict with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church which threatened him with the inquisition.

Art has always pushed the boundaries of acceptability, challenging taste and tradition and the status quo.

Art and politics in the twentieth century

Since photography, art was forced to change its function. It was no longer needed as a historical or documentary recorder. It indirectly gave rise to modernism and abstract art. But again here, many of the innovators (the Paris school) and leading modernists were political as well as artistic radicals. Picasso and Leger joined the communists, Rivera and Siqueiros went back to Mexico to pint highly charged political murals.

In Russia, right up until the 18th century there had been no secular art, it was all Byzantine. The artist Malevich wrote that Cubism and Futurism were the revolutionary forms in art, foreshadowing the revolution in politics and economic life in 1917’ when the Bolshevik revolution took place. During this period there was indeed a parallel artistic and cultural revolution. A whole number of young artists placed their artistic skills at the service of the revolution in the early years before Stalin clamped down on radicalism and creativity and imposed an empty rhetorical romantic naturalism, mis-named ‘Socialist Realism’. He and the Party bureaucrats, like the church before him, didn’t want unpredictable and uncontrollable artists disturbing the peace and putting dangerous ideas into people’s heads. These artists genuinely believed that a new era of human liberation and creativity was being released. Painters like Lissitsky, Mayakovsky, Goncharov, Kandinsky developed new and radical ideas in all areas: book graphics, comic strips, agit-prop theatre, montage in film and futuristic sculptures.  It has to be remembered that at that time most of Russia’s population was illiterate and visual images and the spoken word had enormous power. The repercussions of their art is still being felt today and their influences seen in much of modern art, graphics and advertising.

Ken was always a dynamic and witty commentator and an innovative user of graphics. More than that, he has always been on the side of the people against the mass-murdering governments of the world. His work and legacy should be treasured. Adrian Mitchell, poet

Ken’s first publicly used work of art was a linocut he did, after tearing a piece of his mother’s kitchen lino from the floor. It was of a soldier on a balcony, taken from a photo of from the Spanish Civil War in 1936 – a battle between a freely elected Republican government and a fascist military insurgency which captured the imagination of artists throughout the world. Ken was only 13 and his image was used on publicity material in the solidarity campaign with the Spanish Republic. This was another of those critical historical moments where art and politics came together and where art was used to serve a political purpose. Here in Britain alone visual artists like Henry Moore, Peter de Francia poets like Auden and Spender and Virginia Woolf, composers like Tippett, Bush and Britten all produced works in aid of the Spanish Republic and the volunteers who went to fight there.

Most people are aware of the role art played in Hitler’s Germany, where it was mobilised to express the concepts of national glory and racial supremacy. The Nazi regime held its famous entartete Kunst exhibitions (degenerate art), where art works of some of the most famous artists of the period were exhibited before their works were destroyed or confined to the cellar. These works included all Jewish and socialist artists and, of course, the abstract and modernist artists. The art to be patronised was monumental – over life-size sculptures of muscle-bound men and big-breasted women and enormous folkloric murals. Significantly, none of those Nazi artists has made it into the mainstream or is even remotely remembered today.

An era which is today not well known despite its artistic importance was the New Deal period in the United States. In the USA during the Forties, there was high unemployment and Roosevelt introduced his New Deal – a form of state intervention to create jobs. As a part of that New Deal, artists were given employment and paid a minimum wage to work together with local communities, producing works of art: murals, photographs, paintings and sculptures. Many of America’s leading artists began their careers as New Deal artists – Ben Shahn, Jackson Pollock, Alice Neel...

During the Cold War – the fifties and sixties – art and culture became important weapons in the ideological battle of ideas between the Communist and capitalist world. Ironically the FBI and CIA in the United States had viewed modern art as a subversive, left wing plot to undermine the traditional values of western civilisation. As many of the early modernist artists had also been communists or fellow-travellers, this view was confirmed. However, as a result of Stalin clamping down on the early modernist radicalism of the twenties and re-establishing old-fashioned naturalism, the FBI and CIA hit on the idea of championing abstract art as an ‘expression of capitalist freedom’ and, additionally, it was realised that abstract art was not dangerous as it had little or no content, it was pure aestheticism. Jackson Pollock became one of their chief exponents. His canvases with their anarchic riot of colour epitomised the complete freedom the western states were championing and no one could question the paintings’ content or the artist’s ideology as none were expressed on the finished canvases. Artists became tools in the Cold War and large sums of money were spent by both sides on promoting art and culture through conferences, magazines, exchanges and exhibitions. Picasso, among others, was even refused entrance to the USA and Britain to attend peace conferences in the fifties, because he was a dangerous subversive. This was a bitter struggle for control of hearts and minds.

In the Communist world, as John Berger put it, ‘truth and purpose in art were emphasised rather than aesthetic pleasure, which was seen as an expression of bourgeois decadence. He goes on to explain that the Russians expect their artists to be prophets. It was true – and this was a difficult contradiction – that artists in the communist countries were put on a pedestal, had numerous privileges and were revered (with the important proviso, that they toed the party line or didn’t stray too far from it). We know that even those artists who remained in the Communist world had a difficult time, but the rewards could be great. Not only in terms of material wealth, but also in terms of commissions and to the extent your work would be seen or heard by wide sections of the population and discussed by all classes and social strata. A number of visual artists and writers who fled to the west, including the sculptor Ernst Niesvestny about whom John Berger wrote a book - Art and revolution, they often found it difficult to settle because in the West they no longer had a central position in society and their works were not taken seriously, they no longer had the impact they would have done in the East and they often sank into anonymity.

Ken Sprague was a splendid character, racy, determined, and in his work he was invariably smiling with people and at life. Jack Jones, former General Secretary, Transport and General Workers Union

Ken, as an artist who wanted his art to engage in the political process, have an impact on people, was often discouraged by the lack of interest in his work.

Of course the rise of modernism coincided with and was a reaction to the rise of photography. Once photography became established as a more accurate and cheaper way of capturing a likeness and as a recorder of historical events, the visual arts as means of portraying individuals or as documents became redundant. One of the few escape routes was into the purely decorative, the aesthetic, where colour and form replaced content almost entirely. Many of the new radical and abstract artists, largely based in twenties Paris, were also radical in their political views (I have already mentioned the leading Russian ones), and these included Picasso and Leger who both joined the communist party, Rivera and Siquieros who returned to Mexico to become leading muralists with strong political concepts, Jean Cocteau, Renato Guttuso in Italy…

Ken Sprague political cartoon - man dragged by tankThen there were the German artists, revolted by the horrors of the First World War, who came back to their homeland radicalised and proceeded to paint powerful anti-war and anti-capitalist pictures: Max Beckman, Otto Dix, George Grosz the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ movement or new rationality, and the Dadaists, who used photo montage, cheap materials like cardboard and newsprint and household rubbish to make powerful political statements and to oppose the idea of art as a commodity.

In today’s world (at least in the leading industrial nations) art and politics have undergone a divorce, debilitating for both. Artists have the dilemma of deciding how to respond in a meaningful and ‘shocking’ way when film, TV, photography and advertising have robbed them of those aspects. Collecting art has become a cosy past-time for wealthy patrons. Individual artists are faced with a fragmented purposelessness, have retreated into solipsistic and self-indulgent playfulness. They are still attempting to push the boundaries of art but this is becoming increasingly impossible as few boundaries exist. Tracy Emin’s dirty bed, A Christ made with urine and blood, an image decorated with animal dung or a pile of bricks as sculpture only titillate the tabloids and confirm the artist as an eccentric outsider, but they aren’t really iconoclastic as Goya’s war etchings were or Picasso’s Guernica. They have become self-referential caricatures of little relevance to society or politics.

Cartoonists still can, but here too the ‘shock’ value has gone. The pillorying of leading politicians or royalty would have caused outrage a few decades ago, but is now tolerated with a shrug of the shoulders.

Ken grew up as a working class boy in middle-class Bournemouth. As was usual in those days, he went to a secondary modern school where the pupils were not expected to be academic achievers. Showing a precocious talent even then for art, one of his teachers recommended he apply to art school. He went on to win a scholarship, but being working class, he was advised to take graphics rather than fine art. Then, as now, it was clear that few can earn a living from painting or sculpting, but graphics was something that could be applied in a trade and would provide an income. So that’s what he did.

Why is Ken of interest as an artist?

Example content imageKen was always trying to combine his deep commitment to justice and his vision of a better world. He sought, as most artists do, harmony in a disharmonious world. He was an all-rounder, he did linocuts, drawings, cartoons, painting and sculpture. His work was imbued with that search for a language which could be understood by everyone and which would communicate his vision of a better world. He has tried throughout his life to tackle controversial issues, whether that be racism, intolerance, bigotry or war. The leitmotif of his life’s work was championing the underdog, the oppressed and marginalised while opposing those who had power and misused it. Edward Said, the great Palestinian literary critic, said the role of the intellectual in society is to say truth to power. And that is exactly what Ken did.

Being a ‘political artist’ – and that is a questionable term which I’m using as a form of short-hand – meant that there was always a tension between the art and the politics. There is no direct connection between the lines that are drawn or the paint used and the political subject matter chosen. Whether something is well drawn or well painted and whether the finished work makes a powerful political statement are not necessarily connected. Art has its own rules and laws, separate from the contemporary world. Ken, like all committed artists, was best when his artistic skills and abilities coincided with a bold message; where he was weakest, was when he put the message first and the art second. The ideal is to be able to translate or articulate a message (or the content) through the means of artistic expression. That means avoiding the literary, the narrative and the ‘in your face’ advertising approach and allowing the artistic resolution to carry the message, The best of Ken’s work does this, the less successful are examples of the former. One of Ken’s problems, as it is for most artists, was that he very often lacked stimulating critics. Most people say, ‘oh I like that’, or ‘I’m not too keen on that’ or, more than likely, they say nothing at all. Most art is ignored by most people, often because they don’t know what to say, they are embarrassed by their inability to articulate a response. Ken would have profited considerably by positive criticism, feedback that would have helped him develop his art in new directions. Not people telling what to draw, but explaining why they liked or disliked something. With humorous irony, he used to tell the story of when he first met Martin Luther King, the great Black American civil rights leader, in London and was asked to design a poster for a campaign of solidarity. King began to tell Ken exactly how he wanted the poster. Ken's sunflowerThat injured Ken’s artistic pride, He responded by saying: Look, if I want to know how to run a civil rights movement I would come to someone like you for advice; as an artist I think I know best how to design a poster and don’t need being told how to do it! He was very impressed by Martin Luther King’s personality and related how you felt his presence immediately you entered the room and were captivated by his radiant smile. Ken tried to communicate this presence with a series of sunflower prints. When King was assassinated only a year later, Canon Collins of St Paul’s set up a Defence Fund to continue King’s work and asked Ken to design the poster for it. The very simple, but stark and effective design (a bare and vulnerable, outstretched hand, like that of Christ’s in many an icon, warding off a bayonet on the end of a rifle) won Ken the British Poster Designer of the Year Award.

I feel some of Ken’s best work has been achieved when the politics has been kept in the background or been more suggested than explained. Some of the poster series he did were successful in this way. The Porton Down series about the government’s biological war research station was very powerful. He used sinister robot-like figures, wearing gas masks and the reproduction of a 17th century image of a rat as a reminder of the plague. These images were contrasted with simple verbal responses by some of those who worked at Porton Down, saying, for instance: ‘I’m only doing a job’. Another successful series was Building Jerusalem....

Ken's Building JerusalemIn his work Ken was strongly influenced by the great English craftsman, artist and socialist, William Morris. Morris had been horrified by the dehumanisation of industrial Britain and what he saw as the extermination of beauty. He saw how repetitive, boring work alienated our humanity and debased the idea of human creativity. He and his fellow pre-Raphaelites attempted to develop an alternative aesthetic approach, moving away from sterile academicism and closer to the people.

The aim of Ken Sprague, who has died of a stroke aged 77 was, he said, ‘to build a picture road to socialism, to the Golden City, or as Blake called it, Jerusalem’ ... obituary, The Guardian
Morris built his Red House in Kent, where he hoped to establish a colony of like-minded artists, to promote artistic beauty and good craftsmanship. On a more modest scale, Ken had the same dream. When he moved from London back to his ancestral roots in Devon during the seventies, he found an old farmhouse which he turned into a centre for cultural and community activity. He built links with the local farming and artistic community and tried to link his work with their aspirations and struggles, as well as with the beauty of the local landscape.

William Morris in a famous dictum said: ‘Don’t have anything in your home which is not either beautiful or useful’. Ken took this to heart and in the farm at Holwel did just that, making wonderful artefacts, collecting old tools, stones and wood to beautify the centre. He even took up Morris’s challenge and designed his own wallpaper which he hand-printed on his magnificent hand press and hung in his bedroom there.

A celebration of the work and vision of Ken Sprague is to be welcomed — he, as much as anyone, deserves it. Tony Benn, politician and activist

Much of Ken’s work was as a cartoonist. In the last years before he died, he told me he would get up each morning and became was so often enraged after reading the papers or hearing the news, that he had to dash off a cartoon to work the anger and frustration off. These cartoons were published in many journals, but many were not used at all. One of those that was not used, I found to be among his most powerful. It portrays a Jew and a Palestinian, both dressed very similarly and behind barbed wire, with a watchtower behind them. They are looking at each other. No caption is necessary. Ken is saying, Look, you (the Jews) suffered the horrors of the holocaust and the concentration camps, what is now happening in your name to the Palestinians. Why must history repeat itself? I think editors were frightened of its powerful resonances and perhaps the fear of being accused of anti-semitism. Laughable in Ken’s case, as he was a great champion of Jewish culture and was one-time editor of the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight and on top of that his wife was Jewish.

For more about Ken Sprague, see the book Ken Sprague: People's Artist by John Green.