Prof Matt Hills
Professor of Media and Journalism at the University of Huddersfield, and co-director of the Centre for Participatory Cultures based there.
He is the author of a number of books including Fan Cultures (2002), and has published widely on popular culture and media fandom.
Section 5: Campaign and Political Communication
- Why facts did matter in the campaign
- Less a soap opera, more a fantasy drama?
- The rhetoric of the EU Referendum campaign
- A (very) brief period of Habermasian bliss
- The toxicity of discourse: reflections on UK political culture following the EU Referendum
- Britishness and Brexit
- Neither tackling lies nor making the case: the Remain side
- Break-point for Brexit? How UKIP’s image of ‘hate’ set race discourse reeling back decades
- Referendum campaign broadcasts on television: A generational clash?
- Interaction and ‘the floor’ in the televised debates of the EU referendum campaign
- Comedy clubs offered a better quality of debate than the political stage
- Notes for editors: what the campaign press releases tell us about Vote Leave and Britain
As part of the Britain Stronger in Europe (BSiE) campaign, a group of prominent, internationally-acclaimed artists announced their support for the Remain campaign. Among them were sculptor Antony Gormley and Michael Craig-Martin. The participation of leading figures in the UK’s art world – Craig-Martin curated the 2015 Royal Academy Summer Show, for example – lent a specific weight to the campaign, but one that was radically at odds with Remain’s key narratives. Along with other artists, “limited edition” prints of Gormley and Craig-Martin’s works were even made available as merchandise at the BSiE shop.
We may, now, be muddling through as a divided nation, with each major political party itself dangerously fractured. But deep-rooted cultural divisions between art and commerce, artistic imagination and corporate number-crunching, ultimately informed the underlying practices of the Remain campaign.
If “Project Fear” was based largely on dire economic warnings, with celebrity capitalists and corporate announcements forming a populist plank of Remain’s strategy, then “Project Art” offered a compensatory strand of campaigning, as if someone belatedly realised “it can’t just be about the economy, stupid”. These artists’ pro-Europe statements circulated through niche sectors of the cultural industries, and their works were made available for social media circulation (Craig-Martin hosted a downloadable version of his vibrant ‘Britain in the EU’ poster on his official website).
In a piece published on the day of the Referendum, Antony Gormley argued that the “imaginative project” of European membership was a vital part of the UK’s successes. For Gormley, staying in Europe was about meeting the imaginative challenge of climate change, as well as supporting a just response to the current migration crisis. The creative imagination displaces any emphasis on neoliberal corporate-economic aims here, just as Craig-Martin’s BSiE statement reacted strongly against Remain’s emphasis on the economy:
“But the question of the UK leaving the EU is not simply about the economic implications. The EU… has guaranteed democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties, and human rights across every member state. We should remember that this represents the spread of fundamental British values across Europe.”
This sets out a very different narrative to that of “Project Fear”, stressing cultural and humanitarian interconnectedness between Britain and Europe, and suggesting Europe’s indebtedness to Britishness. We may not be an economic leader, after all, but our power remains one of less tangible, humanist values.
Craig-Martin’s cultural capital is not just that of a leading figure in the art establishment; his status is also significantly linked to having mentored the YBAs (Young British Artists) such as Damien Hirst, and his previous work has commemorated the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary (2013) and supported the London Paralympics (2012). Furthermore, his use of dazzling day-glo colour combinations carries a British eccentricity that is articulated with the transnational familiarity of consumer objects (iPhones, trainers, memory sticks etc). In On Being An Artist, Craig-Martin dismisses any nationalistic, small-minded approach to ‘British’ art, suggesting that a “British artist is an artist who works in Britain, no matter where he or she came from. I should know [Craig-Martin was born in Dublin] … [And f]ar too much attention continues to be focused on … young [artists in the art world]. Again, I should know”. Speaking as a self-consciously Older British Artist within the BSiE campaign, Craig-Martin challenged those of his generation not to deny the benefits they had experienced (via EU membership) to their children and grand-children.
Implicitly, though, the BSiE mobilisation of art world support and its high levels of cultural capital installed a kind of popular/high-cultural binary at the heart of official manoeuvring. Economic scaremongering predominantly targeted populist appeal – highly ineffectively as it turned out – whilst a more positive, creative and values-oriented appeal remained unhelpfully restricted to niche appeal.
Andrew Smith, writing for The Conversation, concluded that this group of BSiE artworks was rather lacklustre. Rather than dismissing “Project Art” as ‘bad’ work, I would argue that these prints represented an attempt, however belated and marginal, to counter and complicate Remain’s dominant semiotics. But this effort to mobilise cultural capital was part of an overly divided and divisive strategy – one that split the realms of art, imagination and human values apart from neoliberal economic concerns. Remain evidently wanted the cultural values of art and creativity arrayed behind it, but seemingly also presumed that such arguments couldn’t reach the populist vote. Art-as-merchandise was the commodified outcome; limited edition collectibles for middle-class, well-educated supporters rather than any art-oriented attempt to win over a wider public. We may, now, be muddling through as a divided nation, with each major political party itself dangerously fractured. But deep-rooted cultural divisions between art and commerce, artistic imagination and corporate number-crunching, ultimately informed the underlying practices of the Remain campaign. The UK’s Art Establishment, and figures such as Michael Craig-Martin and Antony Gormley, functioned as a badge of honour and a superficial branding choice, rather than being integrated into mainstream messages. BSiE could have been so much more artful.