Posted on 23 Comments

Art as Satire

I paint commissions. Most commissions requests are pretty standard, say a beloved dog, a favourite landscape or the owner’s house. Some commissions, however, are different. I recently painted two commissions that quite different from the typical paintings of animals/landscapes. My client sent me two images, both were photographs cut out of the New York Times, with little or no explanation. They were both clearly political in nature. I was given free rein to interpret them as I liked.
Painting of American internment camp on Mexican border
Suffer the Children
I find these commission interesting as these are not my usual subject matter. I *usually* paint landscapes or observational people portraits. However, in painting these images I am forced to look at them carefully and consider the wider implications of what I am observing. I don’t research the image beforehand only afterwards, I just observe.
The first image I painted was of an internment camp. So with “Suffer the Children”, the tents reminded me of  the 1970s medical comedy/satire M*A*S*H which was set during the Korean War. In its early years, M*A*S*H was clearly a commentary on the Vietnam War but later on the Cold War in general. It often questioned, mocked, and grappled with America’s role in the Cold War. It was funny and thought provoking.
I knew that the figures lined up in my source photograph were minors. Teenage boys, I guessed from their size. I didn’t know where they were, but I guessed that they were somewhere in the USA near the Mexican border.
It eventually dawned on me that the white squares on their colourful T-shirts were actually I.D. tags, a bit like those luggage labels evacuees wore during Britain in the Second World War. Turns out that these were teenage boys who had entered the USA illegally. This is, in fact, is a secret internment camp at Tornillo, outside El Paso, Texas. I call it secret because no reporters have been allowed to visit although the New York Times wrote an onion piece on its existence. The photos were presumably taken with a drone.
New York Times
Internment camp at Tornillo, outside El Paso, USA (New York Times photo)
When I painted this image and shared it on social media there were the usual “likes” but little commentary. Few comments. No one said how terrible it was that children were held indefinitely in these camps, in the “free” west. Or that similar “immigration removal centres also exist in the UK, where people, men women and children, are locked up without time limit. Perhaps, they think “immigrants” and then lose interest. Perhaps people missed the satire of the title “Suffer the Children”?
I drew a very different reaction with the second commission. This was a photograph of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un standing on a bridge. I know plenty about the North Korean leader and I think that North Korea must be a dreadful place for its citizens to live in, as they are lied to, starved and any disent is swiftly punished with time in work camps. Also know that that we in the west are told a lot of nonsense about the Korean, such as North Koreans only being allowed a choice of 15 “official hair cuts. It all needs to be taken with a pinch-of-salt.
 I initially thought this image had been photoshopped. The two figures either side of Kim didn’t look real. In fact they sort of reminded me of a Pink Floyd Album cover, “Wish you were Here”. If you are not familiar with it , it shows of two men in suits shaking hands. One of the men is one fire.  As the image was made in 1975, those are real flames. Not photoshopped. Which makes the image especially mesmerising.
Man on fire image from Pink Floyd Album
Pink Floyd “Wish You Were Here”
As I looked athe Kim Jong Un, photograph I realised that two suited men were his security detail. The image was as “real” as the Pink Floyd one, but also just as staged. All photography and images of Kim have to be officially sanctioned. North Koreans can’t draw or paint him unless they are official state artists.
This photograph, then is how Kim wants to be seen. As a relaxed and smiling leader on a modern railway bridge. There are no ordinary North Koreans in sight on the train platform in the distance. If I was a North Korean citizen, the act of making this painting, however, may lead to me and my family spending time in a prison camp, Hence the title “Wish You Were Here” (no question mark) is ironic.
Turns out that this was a new railway bridge in Gwangwon Province and photograph was taken less than a day after Donald Trump called off his planned meeting with Kim. North Korea had said that Kim was still willing to meet Trump “at any time”, so the title is doubly appropriate.
Painting of Kim Jong Un
Wish You Were Here? (Kim Jong Un painting)

Wish You Were Here

When I posted this image on facebook and twitter, hashtagging it #statire, it was met with a storm of outraged comments from people who assumed that it was some sort of endorsement of the North Korean state. I was bemused. I wasn’t expecting this sort of reaction. Is it really very likely that a western artist would paint a fan portrait of a dictator?
There were many outraged comments on how Kim Jong Un killed people in work camps and was an evil man. These came mostly from American and Asian commentators. Interesting, in the light of the fact that Trump’s government imprisons children indefinitely and China also detains muslim uighur people in Xinjiang province. I could go on. Hypocrisy is rife. It’s also interesting, it was only British commentators who got the joke or just commented that it was “bizarre”. I’d be interested to see what sort of reaction I’d get if I painted a portrait of Donald Trump or Putin.
There is a long tradition of satire in Britain and Ireland. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society. Hence Jonathan Swift’s famous ‘A Modest Proposal’ which he published in 1729 in which he suggested that the people of Ireland sell their children as food. This outrageous idea was never meant to be taken as face value. Satire is never meant to be taken at face value yet in this social media era things often are, which is why we are all such suckers for fake news, no matter how outrageous it is.
We can scoff at Trump supporters who believed his lies about Clinton and the pizzagate conspiracy but just yesterday a lot of people on twitter in the UK got worked up about a supposed protest by the far right against the new vegan sausage rolls. These sausage rolls had been introduced by Greggs the Bakers. It’s a long story, but a right wing TV commentator Piers Morgan had started the “controversy” when he called the company out on Twitter calling them ‘PC-ravaged clowns’ writing: “Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage.”
This tweet appeared in my feed yesterday. So as you can see the tweet was “liked” thousands of times and there were many outraged and puzzled comments about how the far right were pathetic and stupid.
Five hours after the original tweet the person who posted it tweeted, backtracked, presumably after realising he’d got it wrong and another tweet claiming it was a “joke” or “banter”, as he called it.

Tweet 2.png

 The traditional print media put everyone right, eventually.
Manchester Evening News
So we all need to slow down and think about what we are looking at. Take a minute to see beyond the surface. I’ll leave you with an quote from Jonathan Swift to ponder.
If you are interested in a commission, satirical or otherwise, please get in touch here.

23 thoughts on “Art as Satire

  1. […] via Art as Satire — Emma Cownie […]

  2. Oh my, social media (and formal reporting media too) have created a monster in the digital age. Context is everything, and when it’s hard to discern context the masses simply jump to conclusions and drag millions of others behind them. There is a serious shortage of thoughtfulness in this world, and I personally have no idea how to supply it to the under-served.

    1. It’s the modern way, to over-react before fully assessing the situation. I posted the vegan-sausage-roll-riot as an example of how the “left” are just as guilty of it as the “right”.

  3. I’m afraid most Americans, especially the far right, don’t get satire. I think both of these paintings are marvelous!
    Not that long ago I learned of concentration camps the US had for Japanese citizens during WWII and was shocked. Humans certainly do have a nasty side that makes me wish I had the power to wipe things like hate away. The current state of affairs at our southern border are a disgrace. It horrifies me that enough people in my country agree with the Orange One to have elected him, and are pushing for the wall. I’m just waiting for him to start causing dissenters to disappear. It is unnerving at best to be a thinking American right now.

    1. Thank you, Melissa. George Takei (of the original Star Wars series) was placed in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. It happened in the UK too, British citizens of German and Italian descent were interned and sent to places like Canada to work during the war. Not all of them survived. These people had done nothing wrong. People have so little empathy, which is very sad. In past times, members of my own family moved to the USA, South Africa and Australia in search of a better life but no one put them in camps and treated them like criminals. It is particularly sad when children get caught up in such things too.

      1. Oh yes, it is heartbreaking.

  4. whatever the subject matter, the truth of your artistry shines through. Maybe people are not expecting a “message” or “satire.” The camps in the US at the border for children are horrific. Did you ever see the work by Botero of the Abu Ghraib horrors? Maybe people have to be hit over the head with less subtle clues. There is a beauty in your piece of the camps – we don’t know if they are children or what – I get caught up in the shadow and light play and the expert composition. Take a look at the Botero pieces of Abu Gharib.

    1. I hadn’t heard of him. I looked him up and his paintings brought tears to my eyes. The humiliation of those blind-folded plump figures is very powerful. There is an almost Christ-like passivity to them. I also liked what he said abou art. “Art is important, because when people start to forget, art reminds them what happened. Like ‘Guernica.’ People would not remember the tragedy of Guernica today if it were not for that painting.” It is very true.

  5. It makes me think about the whole deal to do with art ‘speaking for itself’, or not, and I am starting to really think that if an artist does leave their work without words of explanation, then it may say something completely different from what they intended….especially when said work is displayed across different cultures and societies…on the internet…and of course, even a verbal explanation can be corrupted by an online translation machine. Thanks for this very thoughtful post on your experiences with these two commissions, Emma – there is much to chew on here!! (and it’s starting to make me want to dig out the Pink Floyd album!!!)

    1. Thank you, Hilda. Do get out the old Pink Floyd – it’s always worth another listen, I especially like “Wish you were here” about poor old Syd Barrett, who turned up during the recording but no one recognised him because he’d changed so much due to his mental health problems (he’d pretty much blown his brain with LSD and possible schizophrenia). Always gives the song extra poignancy.

      1. Yes, I’ve always felt a bit sad about Syd – 3 of the band (Barrett included) grew up and went to school in Cambridge (where I am from….in fact, the school where Roger Waters got the cane (inspiration for “The Wall”) became Hills Rd 6th Form College, where my brother got his “A” Levels, a number of years after,!) I always think “The Dark Side of The Moon” and “Wish you were here”, belong together…because I had one on each side of a cassette tape, when I was at college!

      2. I listen to “Wish You Were Here” yesterday and woke up in the night with it running through my head. Fancy doing to the same school as three of the band members, were they held up as model pupils by the school?

      3. I don’t know, it was my brother’s school and he didn’t say (and also, I think it was a private school at the time and changed to a Sixth Form College at some point after the band members left)….but, I also suspect, since Roger Waters got the cane whilst there, that they probably were not a source of pride for the kind of things schools usually stand for! Lol Emma! That album IS a giant earworm, for sure….better play something else today, to chase it out!

  6. Humor en satire zijn een uitingsmiddel voor schrijvers en schilders al een heel leven lang .

  7. Satire like art is intrinsically unique to the eye that views it. You want a bigger reaction………paint Putin with Kim & Donald.Doesn’t matter what they are doing,you’ll get a huge reaction…..if that is what you want of course.
    Btw,I wouldn’t go touring anywhere near North Korea. Humour & satire is not understood.

    1. Ha! Ha! Thanks Wayne. Authoritarian regimes famously don’t have a sense of humour, indeed that is a clear marker of a dictator. There have been many people who have ended up in gulags & concentration camps for making jokes about the leadership. Thankfully, that is not the case here!

  8. Breaks my heart that outrage has become a social norm.

    1. I aree. I suspect the point is to normalise these tragedies so we no longer “see” people and accept the unacceptable.

  9. I love this post. The artist as activist and social commentator is a powerful statement. The wish you were here is brilliant and the internment camps are hear wrenching.

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