– Spring/Summer 1999

Red Flag

Ian Hunt

Pavel Buchler, Red Flag, 1997, Manchester Cathedral, commissioned by Book Works, London. Courtesy the artist.

Sporadically, visual artists make gestures capable of illuminating the segmentation of the society they work in; works which are answerable to the divided society that they will be received by, though offer no programme for it. The scope for art to have some input into a productive scepticism in Britain may be becoming more limited, given the new and often chaotic forms of public patronage emerging in the wake of the National Lottery.

There is not that much more tolerance for those who 'carp and complain' under Tony Blair than there was under John Major; or rather, there is an assumption that complainers should stick to their newsletters, get back to their minority concerns and leave the main narrative to those whose proper business it is. Those who wish to remain sceptical without this becoming a mere reflex (there is often nothing more boring than the sound of one's own complaints) are often found operating; in the self-selecting 'art community' - a phrase now twinned in my mind with a surprising locution found recently in a newspaper, which referred to the secret services as 'the intelligence community'. Phone-tapping, avant-gardism - everything is permitted in its little sphere, and sometimes one is annoyed to remember that the constituent parts of society are still the parts of a divided whole.

Artists themselves, gifted with advance knowledge of the flexible labour market and the perilous sense of disconnection it can give access to, have on the whole proved resilient at guarding ideas of freedom other than those modelled on the playpen allotted to them. Though sometimes even that absurd freedom is needed, to remind people of the absurdity of

  1. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, London: Pelican, 1978, pp.748-49

  2. Georg Buchner, Complete Plays, Lenz and Other Writings, London: Pelican, 1993, p.189