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Exhibition: Art Turning Left

MIKE QUILLE recommends a show of politically engaged art at the Mersey branch of the Tate

Art Turning Left

Tate Liverpool

4 Stars

Inspired by left-wing values of equality, solidarity and justice, artists since the time of Giotto have attempted to make their work more accessible and relevant to the "lower orders."

In the cultural struggle to democratise class-based societies, by the time of the French revolution many artworks were showing increasing dissent from the dominant ideology of political elites in their content.

But they also began to subvert some of the traditional cultural norms used to control such opposition, through the way they were conceived, distributed and presented.

The Art Turning Left exhibition is the first ever to explore this aspect of politically engaged art.

It draws on work from 1789 to the present that employs all kinds of materials and techniques and which is drawn from many visual art traditions.

Painting, sculpture, photography, film, tapestry, installation, printing and digital media are all on show with a focus on particular aspects of the drive to democratise art and society as a whole.

Of all the artists aiming for simplicity, accessibility and directness in order to communicate better with ordinary people, Bertolt Brecht is probably the most influential.

His War Primer is comprised of newspaper cuttings collected during WWII accompanied by short poems. The jarring juxtapositions encourage reflection on the brutality of war and its connections to capitalism, in a kind of visual version of his theatrical techniques of "distancing." It is an easily grasped, unsettling and extremely powerful deconstruction of capitalist ideology and image-making.

Some artists have questioned the romantic myth of the artist as an individual genius with a unique talent, a notion that has dominated the history of art, reinforcing capitalist ideologies of hierarchy, individualism and competitiveness and ignoring the benefits of working collectively.

Working in groups, they've used methods making it impossible to identify the individual's contribution, sometimes by keeping their identities secret.

The Guerrilla Girls' artworks were produced by an anonymous collective of women, formed in protest at an exhibition in New York's Museum Of Modern Art which featured only 13 women out of 167 artists on show.

Like individualism, another bulwark of capitalist ideology is to promulgate the idea that artists - like our public school politicians - are elevated and special people, with esoteric gifts to be bestowed on the rest of us.

But many artists reject this and increasingly seek to encourage the viewer to enter into a more interactive dynamic with the artwork. David Medalla's A Stitch In Time is a case in point, being a tapestry-in-progress which visitors to the exhibition can contribute to.

While most only ever see art in conventional galleries after it has been validated by cliques of undemocratic, market-oriented elites of critics, gallery owners and curators, dissenting artists have often looked for different ways to present and distribute their work.

One such was Jacques-Louis David, an artist closely involved with the French revolutionary movement. He painted Marat At The Moment Of His Death as an image of a revolutionary martyr and to appeal to a wider public had it copied and distributed round the country, bypassing the usual elite audience for art.

With a huge variety of works on display, this is an ambitious, challenging but very rewarding exhibition. It needs plenty of time, not only for the artworks but also to engage with the wall texts on display which ironically are not always jargon-free.

While some exhibits are more successful than others, many were made for a specific time, place and political purpose and inclusion in an art gallery was the last thing many of the artists were concerned about.

But their output is a remarkable testament to the sheer range, power and integrity of politically committed artists, showing how across time and across the world, artists have struggled creatively to make art and the art world more democratic, accessible and egalitarian.

Such creative commitment to radical political change has never been more needed than now.

Runs until February 2, box office: (0151) 702-7400

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