There is good art, there is mediocre art and there is bad art. In the same ratio – about 3:65:32 – there is good political art, mediocre political art and bad political art. There is also a slender sub-genre of this last category, known as so-bad-it’s-good political art. And of this, I am a connoisseur.
This week I encountered the best example of this I’d seen for quite some time. I’ll spare the numpty who painted it the blushes of a namecheck, but the picture was a faux-naïf (?) riff on the Last Supper, earnest as you like, in which Jesus and the disciples are throwing up their arms in Nazi salutes. I didn’t think to enquire as to the price, but the grin it’s kept on my face since has been priceless.
Call me arch, but I love this stuff. Give me your fourth-rate Banksy knockoffs showing IDS pissing in a flowerpot. Give me your cod-Situationist sloganeering. It keeps me smiling.
If only I could write the same of German artist Hans Haacke’s 'Gift Horse', which was unveiled on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth this morning. If you haven’t seen it, Haacke’s sculpture is the skeleton of a horse, captured mid-prance. It’s political, that’s for sure, but which sort of political?
It makes sense here, sort of. It sits in a square full of effigies of men on horses, and occupies a spot originally earmarked for an equestrian sculpture of William IV, which due to a lack of funds was never completed. It’s apparently also a nod to the horse in George Stubbs’s 'Whistlejacket', on display a few metres away in the National Gallery.
It’s hardly Henry Moore, but it’s OK as public art goes. I was even quite nice about it in my earlier coverage of the Fourth Plinth for Apollo Magazine – though this may have been more by virtue of its not being by David Shrigley, whose hideous 'Really Good' will take 'Gift Horse’s place on the plinth next year. I think I even called it a ‘worthy contender’ or somesuch. Mea culpa. But all things considered, it just about passes muster.
Until, that is, you notice the strip of stockmarket ticker-tape tied in a bow around its leg. ‘I am a serious comment on the state of things,’ it says, ‘because capitalism is bad.’
This one flourish takes 'Gift Horse' from the decent side of mediocre to the plain embarrassing. It doesn’t even have the decency to be so-bad-it’s-good. Instead, it whacks you over the head with symbolism. Haacke is aiming for an Ozymandias-style comment on capital and society; what he achieves is the equivalent of a biro’ed anarchist symbol on a GCSE maths textbook. Look on my works, ye mighty, and cringe slightly.