Drawing is political?

‘Drawing is political?’, examines the ever changing context which determines the politics of how we might look at, see, and understand Drawings today. In doing so, discusses the contemporary relevance of the medium of Drawing, in the context of the volume and velocity by which we experience images digitally in contemporary western culture. A fundamental proposition considers whether ‘traditional’ Drawing approaches are merely an antidote to the digital world, or in fact, whether original and authentic drawn responses are now more important than ever?

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‘To Sight Unseen’: Still taken from a digital animation incorporating every image (154 in total) from a single edition of the Metro newspaper, animated at 25 images per second into one continuous loop of imagery.

Over a crowed dinner table, I overheard Artist Deanna Petherbridge loudly and passionately say the words, ‘Drawing is political’. My body froze motionless, rooted to my chair, transfixed by that simple combination of words, expressed so vigorously.

Drawing and politics; two aspects of my life which I passionately and attentively pursue, yet have never dared to put together that simply and forcefully, in one breath. In an equal dose of admiration and intrigue, I attempted to cut through both the background hum of the restaurant, as well as the immediate bustle of our table, to engage Deanna in conversation compelled by this overheard phrase, ‘Drawing is political’.

In our current politically turbulent times, it may be easy, and in some cases necessary, to see many aspects of our lives which we did not previously think about through a political framework, as having some form of political currency. In the period since the UK’s EU referendum campaign, the political intensity of our everyday, has of course been compounded by the subsequent US presidential elections, and multiple global changes that have come into focus as a result of the shifting rhythms of the international political landscape. Over the last ten months, there have certainly been times when I have felt everything seemed to have a political resonance and primacy. In this context, it may be easy to cast aside the proposition of Drawing being political, but I immediately felt that the importance of the connection of these two words, as addressed by Deanna, carried a more profound weight and significance than we might initially assume.

Having managed to engage Deanna in conversation, it quickly became clear that the cacophony of Friday night excitement surrounding us would not allow the duality of a meaningful conversation. As I closely watched Deanna speak and gesture towards me across the table; tilting my head, cupping my ear and squinting my eyes, I only managed to pick up on every fourth or fifth word. A shame in many ways of course, but those initially spoken words, combined with the energy and urgency of Deanna’s tone and emphasis as she expanded on her original point, was enough food for thought. I watched attentively as her head oscillated from side to side, and candle light danced across her forehead, before being absorbed into the artificial light flooding in from behind her silhouette. As I again attempted to lean into the table to hear her, my mind fueled by thoughts from her words waltzed from one deliberation to the next, mimicking the speed and momentum of our waiter, gracefully moving from table to table, in the periphery of my vision.

We are of course aware that Drawing like any other form of expression can be political; can be politically motivated, center on political ideas, assume political content, as well as carry the intention of communicating a political message. But from what I could make out from our fractured conversation, this was not what Deanna was referring to, in proclaiming Drawing as political. She was not reasoning an artists’ intention or the potential of the medium of Drawing to be used to portray political subject matter. What I think she was saying, was more about both the ever shifting context, and nature of our gaze, which determines the politics of how we might look at, see, and understand drawings. This relates to the idea of the contemporary relevance of a drawing, as determined by its relationship to the time of its making, as well as by its materiality; the way it may have been made, and the associated histories of that making.

As I understood it, Deanna hinted at the need for a deep re-evaluation of the significance of the original and authentic mark, in the context of the flood of imagery we experience digitally. This brings into question where this position orientates our sense of ‘self’ within the politics of a new, arguably self-centric generation, who have grown up with a fragmented sense of time and place, as daily, hourly, and increasingly, continuous, mobile phone and internet conscious users. These ideas struck a chord for me, and in some ways parallel much of my current thinking and research about the contemporary relevance of the activity of Drawing.

For me, contemporary notions of Time, have become an important and re-occurring way of accessing ideas about how we may look at certain types of drawings today. A drawing on paper, like any static image, arguably captures a fixed moment in time, which remains fixed. But it may be fair to say that even when looking at a single fixed image, we are now always challenged to deal with moving images, as we constantly experience images within a palimpsest of both remembered and projected imagery, incorporating images we may have seen before, as well as those we may see after that moment in time. In addition, all images propose a different sense of Time of course, which we absorb, accumulatively informing an individual acuity of Time we may inhabit, and which the tides of our actions, behaviours and sensibilities pivot, and surround.

Drawing can be a means of recording personal and emotional reactions or reflections of the world, in an unmediated and instinctive way. Drawing can also anchor thoughts within a continuous linear stream of time, mindfully allowing us to continue threads and patterns of thinking, within the complexities of fractured contemporary living. But are these practices marginalized and less significant, or on the contrary more so, as we increasingly record and communicate our lived experience through multiple fragmented digital means, disseminated with speed and ease through the global and virtual networks we participate in daily. As active contributors, we accept that for every image we release into this constant stream, hundreds may find their way into our lives, as we submissively participate in a power hungry, shamelessly ruthless image economy.

The transformative potential of education, and the creativity involved in developing the right kind of context for learning, at the right time, is one of the main drivers of my life. In this facet of my life, I am an advocate of Drawing as a valuable activity, and an important aspect of creative education. As such, I have a responsibility to always ask myself what the value and relevance of Drawing is, in relation to the particular moment at which I ask myself the question; it’s vital this is an ongoing process. I find myself frustrated by advocates who reflect on, and champion Drawing by only referring to what we might think of as the historical significance, and / or ‘traditional’ attributes of the Drawing process.

These might include the benefits of rigorous observation, economy of means and directness, prioritizing an original and autographic response to the world, through time spent in focused, uninterrupted and unmediated concentration. Characteristics of the ‘traditional’ Drawing process I also value, but in amongst a number of other vital qualities associated with Drawing, which I feel are important to think about when assessing the currency of Drawing in relation to now. As surely these ‘traditional’ attributes of the Drawing process cannot be valued merely as an antidote to the digital world, but explored and where appropriate offered a precedence, within a broader framework of the politics of images, and image making?

In fact, to understand the relevance of Drawing today, we may first need to look at the forms of image making (and their related channel of dissemination) that might not be considered Drawing at all. Including looking outside of the realm of visual art making, bringing in wider political, cultural and theoretical propositions, examining right into the margins of these visual discourses. From what I could make out from our conversation in the restaurant, this might be the crux of where there was a certain meeting of minds between Deanna and myself. I may be wrong, and hugely exaggerating the content of our conversation in my mind, but if so, I can take comfort in that fact that it definitely stimulated a series of interesting, and useful thoughts.

I am currently working on a conference paper and book, which attempt to explore some of the ideas I have described above. I am reflecting on the relevance of Drawing today through looking at the way we experience, process, as well as ‘hold’ images in our sub conscious, considering the volume and velocity by which we experience digital imagery in contemporary western culture. Focusing on a number of aspects of contemporary life, research includes looking into areas such as politics, advertising, film, activism, science, the media, as well as of course, cultural and artistic production. My process allows the medium of Drawing itself to hide in the shadows, while my spotlight is shone in every other direction, exploring a broad range of methods of image making and distribution, before finally turning the spotlight directly towards the medium of Drawing.

These different areas of research reveal different types of images, made in different ways, for different reasons, incorporating different histories, as well as differing associated ways of viewing them. But the more we look at images of different kinds, and from different sources, the more we become aware of their appropriated, manipulated and homogenized nature, which questions by what means, how, and by whom these images may have been mediated. Common to so many images we experience today, is a framing, quality and aesthetic which allows them to conform to generic outputs and methods of dissemination, such as the increasing flow of imagery we experience through social media platforms for example. This begs the question; does this genericism in the imagery we are surrounded by begin to shape and define us as individuals, and if so how? Some would say cognitively, and as a result behaviorally, as surely we progressively have to adapt to be able to absorb an ever increasing range of visual information and stimulus, encountered in multiple visual forms?

Pioneering British Artist Mark Lecky currently has a major survey exhibition at PS1 in New York, untitled ‘Containers and Their Drivers’, which address’s the radical effect of technology on popular culture. Through a number of past works, Lecky has reflected on the nature of our relationship to mass imagery, as experienced through both analog and digital means. In a 2010 ICA debate, Lecky suggested that artists no longer need to generate new and original imagery. Instead they can ‘be led to’ visualize and communicate their ideas through appropriating from multiple sources at the touch of a button, attributed to his somewhat perverse notion of ‘letting culture use you as an instrument’.

This is of course an extreme example; an artist questioning the need for making original and unique imagery at all, but it does indicate a prevalent culture of appropriation and manipulation of imagery, which threatens the value of the authentic image (if such a thing still exists?) within visual art making. Some would argue, as we presume Lecky would, that our accessibility to imagery to use creatively, renders certain types of Drawing approaches, perhaps the ‘traditional’ Drawing methods previously mentioned, redundant.

Others may argue the opposite; that a purity of intention, an earnest truth and soulfulness, can be found in original and authentic drawn responses to the world, and these are now, in our multi- faceted, fractured, ever dispersing present, more important than ever.

Which leads me to my final questions; do artists have a social and moral responsibility to use their vision, skill and abilities to generate original creative material, in the midst of a plethora of divergent image agenda’s operating around us? And furthermore, do artists also have a responsibility to innovate new and challenging ways of disseminating original imagery, as opposed to conforming to existing models of mass media? Perhaps this brings a new focus and dimension to Deanna’s words spoken across the busy restaurant table, Drawing is political?  

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