A TALE OF TWO MONOLITHS:
WHY ARTISTIC STATEMENTS NEED TO BE WARY OF POLITICAL SPIN.
by Chris Aldhous
Has anyone heard if they’re building a Stonehenge of giant rock-hewn tablets outside the Pompidou Centre yet?
I only ask because we had a bit of a monolith-fest here in the UK recently. Two popped up in close proximity, shouldering their way onto the pages of the national newspapers in the merry mad month of May. But whilst they were both seized upon by the media, they were worlds apart in intent and impact.
The first tablet of truth appeared out of nowhere in the midst of our recent general election.
You see up to that point a sense of trust between the various politicians and the vast majority of the electorate seemed to be in short supply. People sensed and suspected duplicity everywhere, especially after recent years of governments dominated by expenses-fiddling, manipulated scandals, secret alliances of self-interest and cynical news-burying. Too much financial subterfuge, spin doctoring, data-babble and doublespeak.
So clearly someone had to take a stand, make a statement. Unfortunately it fell flat on its face.
The Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, stepped forward to take the moral high ground and stake a party-claim for honesty and transparency. The intention was admirable: the execution was pitiful.
He offered to carve his six key election pledges into a stone monolith with the additional promise to have it installed in the garden of 10 Downing St should he win, so the public could hold him to account should he ever forget the tasks he had undertook to deliver.
It was a strange moment. Less a tablet of truth at his shoulder – more an albatross around his neck. The monolith became a monumental folly. Headline writers rubbed their hands with spiteful glee. And no one attending the grand unveiling even looked comfortable doing it. As if they were about to reveal a statue commemorating a famous person and deep down they all knew the likeness wasn’t really there. Better to keep the shroud over it and quietly move on.
It all smacked of spin-doctor stunt, pantomime politics designed to provide the photo-op of the day.
But it also revealed a darker, more desperate undercurrent of lost faith – public distrust at political dishonesty. Here was a senior politician begging to be believed – and having to prove his sincerity by carving his promises in stone.
So how does this little sideshow start to prepare us for the political horse-trading and policy pronouncements of COP21? You know, the meeting this December where the world’s leaders will come together in another attempt to agree a global deal to prevent catastrophic climate change/reduce GHGs.
It’ll certainly be interesting to see how the UN world leaders choose to rally our support and try to convince us that their words mean business (or rather a change in business) – and that their promises will deliver the solutions our ailing planet so desperately needs.
Perhaps we will get a dozen climate change pledges triumphantly illuminated in neon up the spine of the Eifel Tower (although the carbon footprint of producing that might just undermine the intention of the words).
Or maybe we’ll get something carved into the bedrock of Sacre Coeur, a Montmartre manifesto of guaranteed good intentions from the UN guardians of our globe.
Whatever – I’m sure there’s a dozen top PR agencies at this very moment, blue-sky thinking their way through a dazzling array of possible delivery systems.
But in which ever way the organisers of COP21 decide to frame their final declarations they should be wary of the lessons of Miliband’s monolith and the verdict it was dealt at the ballot box.
For it would seem that spin is all spun out and the stage managing/ massaging of public commitments with unnecessary flourishes of set-dressing is no longer an acceptable form of public communication.
We want honesty and clarity, not froth and fizz.
Which brings me onto the second monolith that popped up last month. This time a young art student submitted a DIY plywood construction to the Anglia Ruskin Sustainability Art Prize.
His monolith took the form of a monumental tombstone/ epitaph to memorialise all those prominent climate change sceptics listed under the heading, ‘Lest we forget those who denied.’
Short, sharp and to the point. Bouncing a public spotlight back on those who often snipe from the shadows. Unfortunately some of those who were named took exception to the monument to their folly and ludicrously labelled the work of art ‘a Nazi death-threat’, stirring up a media storm of protest, but actually only ensuring that a modest piece of art-activism gained national headline status.
So – two monoliths unveiled only a few weeks apart – whilst one was transparently a poor political prop, the other stood in a long line of smart cultural protest stretching all the way back to Goya and Guernica, authored and executed to preserve a moment in time, naming and shaming the perpetrating forces of crimes against the world.
Everyone’s selling stories. It’s a matter of finding the real truth you need to buy into. The one unadorned with dazzling distractions.
The American writer Gore Vidal once described advertising as the one and only true art form that America had ever given the world. He marvelled at the way it could so successfully in the same breath sell you both a soap powder – and a president. Just look at the way they’re packaging up Jeb Bush for 2016.
So six weeks or so after the UK General Elections, we’re wondering how well the strategists feel they did in selling their party’s story.
What was clear from the start was 2015 would be an election that promised very few happy ever afters. The future didn’t get a look in. Debate was instead characterised by a seething undercurrent of doubt, denial and fear that kept things locked in the short term.
With a rueful backward glance, Nick Clegg, the departing Lib-Dem leader caught the mood of the lost battle when he declared:
“Years of remorseless economic and social hardship following the crash in 2008 and the grinding insecurities of globalisation have led for people to reach to new certainties: the politics of identity, of nationalism, of us versus them is now on the rise…This now brings our country to a very perilous point in our history where grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart.’
So no place for utopian visions promising a brighter, better, united tomorrow.
Nowhere was this doomsday scenario-peddling more poisonously clear than in the advertising poster that UKIP unveiled on their South Coast drive for votes,
Showing the impregnable white cliffs of Dover penetrated by a line of escalators carved into the familiar rock, ready to carry a fresh tide of unregulated immigration into the heart of England.
‘Grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart…’
The words continue to echo off the rock face as we prepare to face the collective challenge of ensuring that COP21 successfully unites and compels global decision-makers into turning words into meaningful actions.
To change the world we need to take the world with us. We need to reach out around the globe and into every corner of society and engage people with the ideas and issues at hand.
Iconic images imbued with fresh meaning and energy will be needed to articulate those big thoughts and make them accessible to the wider population.
We need to summon up the forever-memorable. We need to make real the undeniable and all-revealing.
No more melting ice sculptures of mournful-looking polar bears.
We need artists and activists working together to go beyond the first stop statements of pop-up stunts to create artistic arguments that combine the rigour of our scientific champions with the eye-storming creativity of our most radical artistic talent.
It needs to be a storm of creativity from a swarm of passionate, like-minded people that will make it clear that COP21 can no longer be business as usual.