Agitating with Art: the Artivists at Work story so far

Colin Revolting, a cartoonist for Artivists at Work, tells us the rationale for starting the project, and we reprint some of our favourite pieces so far.

Image shows the text 'We will not be victims: no going back' on a background of a Jackson Pollock painting

Capitalism puts great effort and expense into its means of persuasion and propaganda. From advertising to cinema, we live under a deluge of images.

In the face of this onslaught there are several things the left can do: agitate, educate and organise.

One form of agitation is short and sharp, making a point, explaining succinctly, exposing BS, puncturing their propaganda. If that can be done with a memorable phrase, an amusing anecdote, an effective slogan, an arresting image or a cutting graphic, it will have a chance to spread. It can live on in people’s minds, it can be shared with others, it can be applied elsewhere.

Visuals, graphics, memes, cartoons.

Few words. Immediate images. Arresting art.

The left press, from Bolshevik times to the Suffragettes to the Black Panthers and onto today, has recognised the power images add to our messages.

Not just photos. Not just cartoons. George Bernard Shaw suggested that if you are going to tell people the truth, you’d best make them laugh. Humour is a useful element, but not essential.

It’s also important appealing and connecting to fury, frustration, anger, shock, sadness and solidarity – this is what we’ve tried to do at Artivists at Work so far. 

I began doing Artists at Work drawings when the rs21 website editor asked for images to accompany an article about mutual aid. The issues thrown up by Covid affected how we could respond and gave a focus for thought. One thing I found crucial was that, unlike in my previous attempts at cartooning, I decided this time that being funny wasn’t a requirement for the images. There was much to be angry and rage about; there was government pomp and stupidity to rip the piss out of. There were many of us hurting and we needed some solidarity and support. A couple of us (Tony Aldis and me) started Artivists at Work to share some of our pieces online. Doing these drawings helped get us through some of the bleakest months. Hearing people’s responses through social media shows us that they have helped others, even if just to crack a smile or express a “Yes!”

Artivists at Work have showcased the work of other activist artists and will continue to do so. We are also grateful to the many who have shared our work far and wide, using it in their campaigns and with friends and colleagues, and for the suggestions that people give us which help to create new graphics with new perspectives. More suggestions please!

Artivists at Work draw us through the Covid crisis

Want to say something simple and have it noticed? Grabbing a graphic photo or painting and scrawling across it is very easy on most phones. There’s a nice irony in using the style of post-war US abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, as the CIA apparently promoted his work as art that symbolised the ‘freedom’ of the West during the Cold War.

Cartoon shows words "Keyworkers must not be silenced" while Boris Johnson claps on either side of a nurse's head, clapping his hand across their face.

Clapping for health workers was taken up by many as an instinctive response to emergency workers coming into our communities to help. Of course the government attempted to turn it into a “we’re all in it together” moment. But the energy and determination with which our diverse neighborhood clapped, banged pots and tooted vuvuzelas was not the establishment acting. (This was one of the images where the content was suggested to us by someone, which is always appreciated.)

Cartoon image almost entirely taken up by an elephant, obscuring a newsdesk in the background. On the elephant, the words appear: "Highest Death Rates in Europe, Track & Trace not Established, Vulnerable People will have to stay isolated, gov lies, Schools need more resources..."

The mainstream media has of course been partial and biased throughout the pandemic. The difference has been that with all of us affected by the pandemic, the media omissions, bias, and lies are becoming more noticeable to more people. (Unfortunately some have reached for the comfort of conspiracies.)

Cartoon of a manager, the title above his head reads "Online Teams Staff Briefing". He is saying "from the safety and comfort of my own home I wish to update you on how we are going to put you in an unsafe workplace..."

Zoom meetings have been a blessing and a curse. Being able to talk to friends and take part in meetings has been great. Work briefings have been too much like Big Brother broadcasts. But being able to doodle and draw throughout has given creative expression to all those groans and curses. I hope others try it. You don’t have to be able to draw well. Trust me.

Cartoon with a black background and yellow writing. On the right of the picture, a policeman holds up a torch, and in the light of the torch, a worker labelled 'Prisoner 1984' is illuminated. The policeman is explaining that the worker should not be in the streets, unless they work in healthcare, education, transport, care, construction etc etc etc.

Moving from pen and paper to drawing on a tablet meant images were ideal for using online. 

Cartoon girl in pink dress says "The government want to ban books that criticise the world we live in? Give me that book list now!"

Creating characters to express thoughts, feelings and frustrations helped to bring some variety to the table. This character is inspired by the great Lisa Simpson.

Text reads "Stay alert, save lives" in the style of the government 'Stay at home' poster from 2020.

The government’s ‘Stay alert, Control the virus, Save Lives’ was a gift, and an absolute rash of spoofs and oppositional counter-versions appeared in the next few days. Everyone was becoming a meme maker. Many mimicked the government design. Some of us pushed it around and worked out ways to put out our own message.

Image shows grandparent waiting at a window. The text reads "The less we isolate, the longer they have to wait"

An example of an image personalising the pain and focusing on the human story – pinpointing the emotional impact of government policy.Image is a cartoon with 4 panels and the title 'Boris - Canute'. In the panels, Boris tries to rally the people as the waves come in, sitting atop a high chair. People below him are swept up by the waves while he waves a flag from high up above them.Using an allegory from history, we tried to show the hypocrisy of rulers, exposing their claims by revealing the reality.

Artivists at Work cover Black Lives Matter 2020

We published further selections of Artivists at Work’s art in June 2020, here, and August 2020, here. You can follow Artivists at Work on Facebook here.

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