It's hard not to think about politics these days with the mammoth ideological debates raging about welfare, education, housing, disability, the undeserving/deserving poor, the enforced move to the banlieus… the list runs on.
Usually art critics steer clear of high octane politics, but not so Jonathan Jones of the Guardian who is firing up readers with his own critique of Cameron and his leeches. Good! In a recent post, Jones muses on what a Cameronian Britain could look like and asks how Victorian art could help us picture it. .
"It might help us picture the Britain that is being made if we compare two paintings – one a Victorian favourite, the other dating from the very dawn of the 20th century. The Blind Girl (1856) by John Everett Millais is a work of art with a social conscience, or at least social sentiment. It portrays two children in rags, on the outskirts of a prosperous village: cast out and unprovided-for, the blind girl and her sister wander the British countryside, playing music for pennies. But as she sits exhausted on the ground, the blind girl casts her face upward and heaven's light shines on her.
Contrast this pathetic scene with Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's 1901 painting The Fourth Estate. Not a painting of journalists – the fourth estate in this painting is the working class. The organised working class. United and imposing, they march forward, irresistible, to claim what has been denied down the centuries. In a history of modern society, you could place these pictures side by side to show how, in just half a century, the "poor" became the organised proletariat, and charity gave way to socialism.
"The fact is, the poor are made to look isolated, vulnerable and politically harmless. Look again at Millais's child beggars; the painting, by the way, is in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. He portrays them at the very edge of the human community, cast out of mainstream British society which looks so cosy in the distance. They are set apart by their poverty. They will never threaten anyone else. They will suffer and die. By contrast, the very definition of the working class in Pellizza da Volpedo's painting is collective strength: poor proletarians and educated artisans unite in struggle. The poor are pitiable. The working class is revolutionary."
Given the incessant battle of words over work, I'm wondering if Ford Maddox Brown's painting of the same title might be more appropriate. Workfare Victorian style!
One other thing. If the proposed local government cuts are implemented, and lots of jobs in the cultural sector are shed as a result, then it might be difficult to keep museums like Birmingham Art Gallery open for the public- poor or not- to see Millais's 'Blind Girl'. Just a thought.
JJ is at it again. Santo di Titi's portrait of Machiavelli compared with Cameron's unctuous smile.