Banksy to Boris: reactionary art in the age of Brexit

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By Daisy Charles, First Year Maths and Philosophy

Brexit is a strange beast, one whose nature no one yet knows. Brexit seems defined by uncertainty, division, and instability, and in recent years, has influenced artists and dominated the art world.

While it was still visible, the mural which I want to discuss depicted a workman chipping away at one lone star from the flag of the European Union. This single action however causes cracks to spread across the flag, suggesting that the loss of a single ‘star’ can undermine the ideals and foundations of an entire organisation. Although the mural in question is now covered in white paint, it was once Banksy’s powerful contribution to the arts’ narrative on Brexit. It is fittingly painted on a house in Dover, where lorry drivers could wait for days to cross the channel in the case of no deal.

Brexit is a strange beast, one whose nature no one yet knows. It dominates our news to the point of boredom - when will it end and how? What effect will it have on Britain in the years to come? We don't know the answers. Brexit seems defined by uncertainty, division, and instability.

Art is always rooted in its context - entwined in both the messy world in which it was created and the reasons which motivated its creation. Brexit has begun, like any major event, to produce a significant amount of reactionary art. It has inspired artists through its perceived brilliance or idiocy to create and display their message or interpretation, whether this be a warning or celebration.

Brexit art at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh / Livi Player

Art that comments on Brexit is on the whole satirical and critical. An overwhelming proportion of people working in arts sectors voted remain and so there’s definitely a sense of the confusion and shock felt by remain voters which is mirrored in the art they create. There’s a feeling of nothing making sense, of the ludicrous marrying the monstrous.

Some of this art is made for protest marches, and displayed in masses of people. On a London march, there was a depiction of a giant Theresa May giving birth to a malformed child dubbed ‘Brexit’. Another piece of artwork depicted a long pointed nose, with ‘Brexit’ inscribed across it, piercing through the heart of a model man carrying a briefcase which bears the words ‘the economy’. There’s something both horrific and amusing in the sculptures, as well as something utterly uncanny.

There’s one Brexit-inspired mural which is reminiscent of the iconic image dubbed ‘The Kiss of Death’ in Berlin’s East Side Gallery, where Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev is kissing East Germany president Erich Honecker. The modern recreation features Donald Trump kissing Boris Johnson: the absurdity of history is always connected to the absurdity of the present.

| Sitting Show @ East Bristol Contemporary ★★★★

Some Brexit artwork is displayed in art galleries, such as Grayson Perry’s ‘Brexit Vases,’ in the V&A’s Ceramics Galleries. Both vases stand over a metre tall, with one representing ‘Leave’ and the other ‘Remain.’ Both are decorated similarly, with transfer-printed images and sgraffito figures, functioning as a matching pair. Over the vases are projected images representing Britishness, featuring figures from both sides of the campaign and using images from social media.

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With exquisite timing Grayson Perry’s Brexit vases are now on view at the Serpentine Gallery as part of his new show The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! The exhibition sees the much-loved artist considering contemporary social issues, ideas of popularity and art, and positing the odd question about art's accessibility - an issue close to his heart. 'I am in the communication business and I want to communicate to as wide an audience as possible,' he says. Perry's vases represent the split between leave and remain voters. After asking people from either side of the debate to send ideas, images and associations they hold, Perry painted each vase to reflect the cultural icons and values held by either side of the Brexit divide.

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The art that has come out of Brexit is, like all art, motivated by a need to speak and a need to be heard. Much of it is reminiscent of the political art that has come in the years before it, clearly born of intense emotion. For those who voted ‘Remain’ it’s an outlet for the anger, disillusionment and the absurdity of Brexit. For those who voted ‘Leave,’ it’s a celebration of the ideals of Brexit: its patriotism, its ties to the past, and its sense of a national identity.

Banksy’s mural can no longer be seen in Dover. It was whitewashed by vandals - all that remains now is a square of white paint. In a post on Instagram, Banksy revealed that he had intended to update it on ‘Brexit Day’ to a crumpled flag with the man still chipping away at a lone star, now on a blank background. “Nevermind,” Banksy wrote in the post’s caption. “I guess a big white flag says it just as well.”

Featured image: Flickr / Duncan C


Have you seen any Brexit art recently? What are your thoughts?

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