The jury of the Artémisia prize for female comics awarded the 2017 Humour Prize to Jacky Fleming for her book 'The problem with women'. Jacky lives and works in Leeds and has been making political cartoons centred on the role of women in society since the 1970s. She is still working which is a sign that many of the issues she found herself having to confront are still there.
Although the cartoon remains a potent medium for engaging with politics, the tradition of the political poster is perhaps the most iconic.
Liv Strömquist exhibited her work in the Stockholm metro. Her series of enlarged felt tip drawings included an ice skater, who spoke with an urgency that was at the same time a cover up, 'It's alright, I'm only bleeding', a phrase that echoed one sung a generation before by Bob Dylan, 'It's alright ma, I'm only bleeding', but now a young woman had stepped into the spotlight and she was bleeding too.
Liv Strömquist's subway work was vandalised and there was an outcry and a following debate about whether issues such as menstruation were suitable subjects for public art. Her no nonsense black and white imagery, with blunt text is clearly designed, like Kruger's posters, to operate in a media dense world and they therefore use graphic conventions that will stand out clearly against surrounding competing imagery.
Suzanne Lacy has used several drawing conventions in her various approaches to raising awareness of sexual politics. From diaristic notes to the use of maps to track occurrences of rape, as well as marking the streets; Lacy has used drawing in its many forms to directly engage the public in her awareness raising campaigns.
Suzanne Lacy has a 'social art practice' and is often engaged in collaboration and community organisation, as ways to raise awareness about women's personal and political issues such as rape, domestic violence, ageing, media representation and invisibility within the workplace. As she says, "I tend to see activism as a human endeavour that goes along with citizenship. You can be an activist as a doctor, you can be activist as a psychotherapist, and you can be activist as an artist."
Juliana Huxtable is an example of a much more contemporary approach to gender issues. Huxtable operates using the idea of a 'glitch' or space in which an individual can play out their own lives without having to face constant criticism or having to negotiate a space for their own sexual or racial identity. This idea is a powerful one that uses the internet as a space within which to find a place for the personal celebration of people for what they are.
At the time of their creation, and early acceptance in the 1950s and 60s Tom of Finland’s erotic drawings of finely muscled men were radical. Touko Laaksonen’s gay erotic art that focused on muscular young hunks was unashamedly sexual, without being menacing. This was perhaps the secret ingredient of an art form that had a lasting impression; its 'safe' nature, meant that it could be consumed much more comfortably than other openly gay artwork. In fact the Tom of Finland Foundation has championed Laaksonen’s work so effectively that it’s now exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angles. The fact that these renowned art museums are now showing his work, demonstrating that gay art is no longer outside of the accepted pantheon of good taste. His influential drawings of men in leather and biker outfits eventually became a look that Freddie Mercury and Frankie Goes to Hollywood adopted and brought into the mainstream, along with the Village People and the popular 'YMCA' video, with its gay stereotypes that were taken up by the media, much to the dismay of many members of the gay community, because the media's constructions offered up to the general public images of gay sexuality that were far from the truth. Tom of Finland's position as on the one hand an early visualiser of male gay sexuality and on the other as a maker of gay stereotypes is fascinating as it echoes Hegel's master/slave dialectic but shifts it into a more ambivalent territory, where the master/slave image becomes sexualised as well as politicalised. We must not forget that it was only in 1967 that the Sexual Offences Bill was passed in England, a bill that decriminalised homosexual acts between two men over 21 years of age in private, but it did not extend to Scotland, Northern Ireland or the Channel Islands where all homosexual behaviour remained illegal. The privacy restrictions of the act meant a third person could not be present and men could not have sex in a hotel and these restrictions were not overturned until the European Court of Human Rights did so in the year 2000. The celebration of one's sexuality will always be seen as political if that sexuality is seen as outside of what the mainstream population see as a norm and the establishment of norms is often at the centre of how governments operate, as they seek to establish set and predictable rules of behaviour.
David Hockney's drawings of his friends had a more subtle, but perhaps even more far reaching effect on attitudes to gay sexual politics.
David Hockney: Two boys aged 23 or 24: 1966
The year 1966 was a full year before the Sexual Offences Bill was passed in England. It was still illegal for people to have same sex relationships, but here was Hockney openly portraying the everyday nature of such relationships. However by portraying these relationships as 'normal', Hockney in many ways was able to help with the normalisation of homosexuality within the wider society and as a media art star, his lifestyle, like so many media figures, became as much the subject of interest as his work. If it was ok for a successful artist to be gay, then perhaps this wasn't the awful, fearful end of civilisation that the Nationwide Festival of Light proposed, a late 1960s organisation led by Malcolm Muggeridge, Cliff Richard and Mary Whitehouse and which was fighting a losing battle against what was seen as the erosion of civilised values. Sometimes political statements are quiet, but that doesn't mean they are not effective.
In the late 60s I entered art college, much to the dismay of many in my family, who had been listening to Muggeridge pontificating on the TV. It is hard now to remember how vitriolic he was and how much time and space the media gave him. In particular he directed the public's gaze onto what he saw as the role of education, and in particular places such as art colleges that he thought of as the centre of left wing revolutionary behaviour. This quote is typical of what he had to say at the time;
“So the final conclusion would surely be that whereas other civilizations have been brought down by attacks of barbarians from without, ours had the unique distinction of training its own destroyers at its own educational institutions, and then providing them with facilities for propagating their destructive ideology far and wide, all at the public expense."
On hearing of my move to art college, one of my uncles, I clearly remember at the time, wondered if I had become a satanist, and brought to all the family's attention what Muggeridge was preaching. Just to go to art college at that time was a political statement.
Christina Quarles is a queer, cis-woman, born to a black father and a white mother, as she states, "I engage with the world from a position that is multiply situated.” Her drawings and paintings are informed by the ambiguity surrounding public perception and interpretation of her physical appearance, as well as by wider questions around personal identity as manifold and fluid.
The work of Nadine Faraj uses watercolour's ability to suggest one form flowing into another to depict sexual fluidity. Her images of women have a joyful 'I'm here' sort of vibe, that demonstrates that you don't need to be po-faced when dealing with sexual politics. Ambera Wellmann, is another artist working in a similar territory that also uses biomorphic ambiguity as a metaphor for sexual fluidity. Her images ranging from the almost abstract, to the depiction of sexual excitement as lovers conjoin. She is also happy to bring together various different materials into her drawings, the one immediately below mixing charcoal, pastel and oil paint, which in its own way metaphorically suggests a fusion and hybridity.
More recent art dealing with gender fluidity has, perhaps because of the hybrid nature of the subject matter, been carried in art forms at one time thought of as marginal but which are becoming more and more accepted as fine art practice, including narrative formats such as the graphic novel.
The Chosen One: KannelArt
DeviantArt is perhaps the biggest art community in the world and this is where you will find many of the artists dealing with contemporary issues surrounding gender fluidity. 'The Chosen One' takes the traditional Superman myth and subverts it, the powerful male ideal of the superhero, turned on its head, using the conventions of a media normally associated with teenage boys. In a few panels, the artist behind KannelArt, has unpicked a deeply engrained male mythology and shown us an alternative, shape shifting superpower. What is perhaps the most interesting issue here is the rise of platforms like DeviantArt, which I believe foreshadow the eventual death of the old art market and the rise of more democratic art forms. Things have changed a lot since my old tutor at art college caught me drawing a comic strip and took the piss out of me for being such a 'silly boy'. An awareness of audience is not just the preserve of graphic designers and illustrators, it would seem to me to be fundamental to any form of communication, and if fine art is to maintain any form of relevance to society it will have to continue to evolve and embrace the many and various forms that contemporary visual communication is made in.
The latest DC comics iteration of Superman is bisexual
An art form's ability to tackle political issues is often straightjacketed by a combination of conservatism, aesthetics and funding. On the one hand formalist aesthetic theories state that art should not be didactic, and on the other several of our main art institutions are heavily reliant on industry sponsorship and they worry about being seen to support left wing political views. In an article for ArtForum (APRIL 1967, VOL. 5, NO. 8) Barbara Rose stated that 'works of didactic art are... illustrations of theoretical esthetic positions condensed into a single object, which stands for the entire argument. They represent abstract ideas made concrete in works of art. Their value is relative to the cogency, clarity and originality of the argument they illustrate'. She also states, 'For this reason, formalist criticism, which places value only within the specific object, dismisses didactic art because its content is extra-visual.' We have moved on since then, but there are still pockets of the art world that would like to hold on to a belief in a certain purity and moral aloofness, that would take art into a space outside of the messiness of the everyday world and elevate it beyond worldly things, so that it can accrue a particular type of value, a value that can then be traded as an investment. Both gold and art within the investment world, holding their value because of notions of purity.
Preciado, P (2021) Can the Monster Speak? Report to an Academy of Psychoanalysts Barcelona: Fitzcarraldo Editions An excellent account of how fluid gender politics feels to an individual faced with rigid patriarchal organisations.
Baker, E & Hess, T (1973) Art and Sexual Politics: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? New York Macmillan A classic text that introduced Feminist ideas into mainstream art discourse. The book consists of revised essays which originally appeared in ARTnews, v.69, no. 9, Jan. 1971, and it includes Linda Nochlin's essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"
Collins, P. H. (2015) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment London: Routledge
Russel, L (2020) Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto London: Verso