Do hard times make for great art?


Street art is becoming increasingly politicised, with its creators addressing our politicians and the economic crisis. Is the art mere agitprop or can it engage on a deeper level?

THOM YORKE, the Radiohead singer, once remarked that it’s difficult to make political art. Creating and generating it is one thing, but guaranteeing the effectiveness of its message is another. Art and politics occasionally overlap, but art’s subjectiveness contrasts with the democratic, group mentality of politics. When the Celtic Tiger was swishing its fat tail across the land, complacency meant political art was minimised.

Now that the tiger has limped off, bony and defeated, a new group of Irish artists are trying to reflect the sense of fear and discontent with the Government’s running of the country. As an antidote to the materialistic greed of the boom years, much of this agitprop-style art is freely available and found outdoors. It seems that one potent image in a well-chosen location turns more heads than many manifestos dropped through letterboxes.

“We’re bombarded with so much information every day that it’s hard for people to understand all of the things going on around them, politically and socially. Sometimes you can condense a feeling or a viewpoint into one image,” says Will St Leger, a street artist. “A piece doesn’t necessarily have to be political, but it has to have a message.”

One now iconic piece of such art in Dublin manages to do both. Sprayed on a grey power station along the banks of the Grand Canal is Bertie-occhio, an anonymous stencil of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern sporting the lengthy nose of Pinocchio. The most famous work by its artist, ADW, also features Ahern, sporting a (Celtic) tiger face of green, white, orange and whiskers.

Not all guerilla art that has gained attention is outdoor, or even stencilled. In 2009 a Dublin teacher, Conor Casby, made headlines when he hung oil paintings of Brian Cowen in two Dublin galleries. The infamous Biffo on the Bog,smuggled into the National Gallery of Ireland and the RHA, pictured the Taoiseach on the toilet, clutching a roll of lavatory paper. Two weeks before this St Leger’s Brian Clowenappeared on a wall in Dublin. It featured Cowen with a clown nose stencilled on to an unemployment-benefit application form. The red paint ran, giving the impression that the Taoiseach had been punched on the nose – coincidentally articulating a response some people probably felt towards Cowen.

Recently, St Leger also built his own Small Dáil, which he placed outside Leinster House. It came with an accompanying eviction notice, demanding that the politicians vacate the building in order to turn it into a hospital.

“It’s a comment on the revolving-door aspect of politics,” says St Leger, “and that with the current economic mess there’s no room for any party to make changes.” The Small Dáilalso contains empty wine bottles and various tribunal reports, an observation on the backslapping days of boozy political networking.

SINCE THE END of the boom and subsequent spiral down into recession, the nature of Irish street art has changed. Rua Meegan and Lauren Teeling, who recently documented Irish guerilla art in their book A Visual Feast: Irish Street Art,noticed a trend towards more political pieces.

“A couple of years ago there wasn’t much overtly political work around, but around mid 2008 – towards the end of the boom – the nature of the work really changed,” says Meegan. “So much of it was relevant to what was happening in our country. It felt and looked like artists were being influenced by what was going on.”

One new organisation trying to tap into that combination of creative and political expression is Upstart. In the run-up to the general election the collective is inviting submissions from artists, photographers and illustrators to create art to replace traditional election posters; 500 submissions will be duplicated and put on lamp posts on busy roads around the city. The organisers of Upstart, which was founded three months ago, say they want to tap into a collaborative, “we, not me” mindset, according to Peter O’Brien, a cultural activist involved in projects in Dartmouth Square and open-air cinema events.

“We really want to push for something that has a bit of meaning in this election,” he says. “In the last decade we went too far down the economic, material world. Culture is in a vulnerable place, which makes people vulnerable too.”

By using public spaces – and ones usually reserved for politicians’ faces – O’Brien hopes that the work will offer an alternative to the visual rhetoric of campaign posters, and an antidote to media doom and gloom. “Election posters are ugly – they’re essentially litter – and we want to show them up. When people look upwards during the campaign and see some paintings or poems or photos it’s the equivalent of a spark of life. I think art can build us up again.”

After the election the posters will be sold for charity, and all of them will be archived online. Upstart’s motivation is not just about conveying a message or aesthetics but also about debating the role of the arts.

“People don’t even realise how massive that role is. We use music when we feel bad or watch a film to switch off. Art is not just about the artist: it’s about every one of us tapping into it.”

The artist ADW also believes that art can offer something akin to escapism. His main motivation is humour and “bringing a smile to someone’s face”. Painting since his schooldays, ADW only began working outside in the past three years.

“Painting on walls is just an alternative canvas,” he says. “We are living in very strange and often stressful times, so I believe artwork should be a remedy to the gloom that is constantly shoved in our faces. My work to date has been varied, but the most well-known images have been political, which is a sign of the times.”

TECHNOLOGY, ACCESS TO materials and anonymity contribute to an artist’s ability to say what they want politically, in spaces of their choosing. As the proliferation of socially engaged street art increases, mainstream art hasn’t kept pace. The work of significant figures such as Robert Ballagh and Patrick Ireland/Brian O’Doherty encompasses politics, and artists such as Nevan Lahart represent a younger generation. But the bulk of contemporary art that is engaging with political discourse and encouraging protests is happening outside, on walls and on street corners. With the general election approaching, there is certain to be an increase in the amount of politically motivated art.

“I’ve already noticed more street artists working in the last few months,” says Rua Meegan. “Artists respond to what’s happening around them, so with the election on the horizon I certainly hope we’ll see more art that reflects that.”

Art has the power to create change but risks accusations of passivity when compared with public protest or traditional political engagement. St Leger believes that, while creating art to ask questions is important, it should be furthered by accompanying direct action.

“Politics is a dialogue we have daily here; we’re very politically aware. There’s only a certain amount you can do as an artist, and we’re facing a real crisis here. I’ll still keep making art, but I’m also going to get behind an independent candidate and become an engaged citizen.”

Upstart is accepting submissions until February 4th. See for details. A Visual Feast: Irish Street Artis available via