‘No man is an Island. / No country by itself.’ The poetry-cum-cliché is interposed, with the skill of an artisan snapchatter, onto an aerial photograph of Britain’s shoreline; this shot in particular is rather far from ‘green and pleasant’.
Many voices have weighed in on the Brexit debate over the last few months, but surely very few people expected John Donne’s to be among them. Except, it isn’t really, not even in quotation. The actual lines by Donne run: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main;’ which actually seems to give much the same pro-EU message, should one wish it to do so. Regardless, there is no hint in the poster by the German fine-art photographer Wolfgang Tillmans that these words are taken from elsewhere; there are no inverted commas, no footnotes, and no square brackets delineating what has been amended. The words stand there, the coastline cuts into the sea, and both simply are.
Forty-seven year old Turner Prize winner Tillmans is unquestionably an artist of renown. His photographs span a large variety of styles and subject matters, whilst his ‘abstractions’ explore the very boundaries of his form, often to sublime effect. Though such classifications are often crude, more often elitist, he more than most seems to deserve the prefix of fine-art photographer.
To some it may seem strange, then, that he has recently released a series of 25 posters emotively supporting the “remain” Brexit campaign. Although “for-art’s-sake” devotees certainly abound, the idea that fine art might be politically involved is not a new one, and yet very rarely is such a direct statement made. Tillmans himself has explored many current issues, notably being commissioned for the AIDS memorial in Munich, and in this case he cites his experience of living and studying across Europe as one of the reasons for his support of the “remain” campaign. Other motivations include a push against right-wing politicians and a sense of maintaining a ‘European Family’. The posters are displayed on his website, along with a disclaimer that they may be printed and used by any who wish to do so, embracing this “family spirit”, it seems.
The images themselves vary, some texts presenting stirring, broad statements on democracy, some personal anecdotes or directly attacking certain politicians, and some encouraging people simply to register to vote. In terms of presentation there is a running theme of clean-cut fonts on a backing of either block-colour or sweeping shots of skies, seas, coasts, and Glastonbury festival. Admittedly, they do look very similar to the most well-shot, captioned snapchat stories, or to the style of pictures one might find on tumblr, where a line of poetry, wisdom, or even “turn-ons” is emblazoned on images of raging seas, delicate dew-tipped flowers, or the silhouettes of a couple, mid-embrace on a sunset beach. Tillman’s work is, in a sense, a collection of memes in the most definitional sense: units of cultural significance.
Rather than snobbishly dismiss this form, however, taking it seriously can prove far more fruitful. Many examples of this “photograph + text” medium found on the internet are startlingly beautiful, with perfect composition, and expertly chosen fonts and messages. They compact a variety of media into a single aesthetic moment, and though they might sometimes produce sighs of despair upon viewing, (illustrate this with examples) more often than not this simplicity and beauty taps into basic ideas we might have about art and life. Romantic love, misery, wanderlust, inner-peace, all of these can be condensed into a capsule, taken like a pill at the click of a track-pad.
Tillman’s designs are very obviously in keeping with the tastes of an “internet generation” – he comments that ‘Everyone’s grannies registered their vote long ago’, and thus makes his target audience quite clear. And yet, the genius of the transmission of his political messages goes far beyond merely mimicking a youthful style. Simplicity is at the core of Tillman’s success; he delivers his capsules, of pride, of fear, of love and awe, and suddenly the question of Europe is as simple as his pristine fonts. Because of this, though much of what he says may certainly be true, he flattens a complex issue into twenty-five moments of clarity, which is in itself is an artistic achievement to be lauded. Much of both art and politics can seem overly complex, self indulgent, and aggressively exclusive. An aesthetic of simplicity may be reductive, but it is undeniably more democratic than the mystifying field-specific lexis of conceptual art or political manifestos alike. Any problems one might have with such simplifications are but indicators of the problems with democracy as a whole.
That these works are propaganda is undeniable. What they show, however, is that the concept of ‘propaganda’ does not need to have a file of goose-stepping associations in trail, nor even be discrete from that intangible world of fine art. Propaganda is in many cases cause for revulsion, condemnation even, and yet some examples provide a source of artistic and academic enquiry, as can be seen in the fixed exhibition at the Tate modern. The history of modern political art has been fraught with extremism, and thus all art with a “message” makes us wary, but perhaps examples like Tillman’s can somewhat clear its name. And indeed, it is certainly only modern opinion that has so definitely separated politics, instruction, and art; the Georgics were a manual for Augustus to rule, medieval allegory expounded morality and religious doctrine, and both were thought of as “better art” for doing so.
For some, in the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘to reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim’, and thus art with such an obvious message appears crass.. Others might follow Philip Sidney, who would probably have found contemporary and conceptual art rather self-indulgent, saying ‘using art to show art and not hide art […] flieth from nature, & indeed abuseth art’ and recommending that art be used both to instruct and to delight. Like Tumblr posts compared to oil on canvas, both have their merits. Although the concept of propaganda may be vindicated to some extent, and how it weaves artistic media with political messages may even be critically appraised, art such as Tillmans’ still poses some dangers, and we must be wary when something as politically complex as Brexit can be thus simplified. For months politicians and public figures have wrestled with the question of Europe, but Tillmans manages to condense the answer into something – like stone, sky, or starkly beautiful font – that simply is.