Bewildered by former Minister of State for Schools Michael Gove’s inexorable undermining of art education, not to mention his success or, MP Nicky Morgan’s jaw- dropping pronouncement about “the arts holding kids back”, Patrick Brill, better known as artist Bob and Roberta Smith, has decided to stand for parliament as an independent in Gove’s Surrey Heath seat, on an ‘all schools should be art schools’ ticket. Louise Clarke quizzed him about the ramifications of imperiled art education and the stockbroker belt realpolitik, and what he would do in the unlikely event that he actually wins.
Louise Clarke — Why did you decide to stand for election, rather than protest or lobby in the more usual way?
Bob & Roberta Smith — The thing about standing for election is that it gives you a different kind of voice, you have to try and attract opinion; you have to say something positive. And it means you can make demands rather than just protest. People go back to Tony Benn too often, I think, but he did say something quite interesting about this: make demands don’t just protest… Another person that is hugely influential on me is [ex-Undertones singer, now music industry nabob] Feargal Sharkey. He said, at an event where he was advocating for the music business, you have to have a kind of vision beyond the politicians and get in front of what the politicians are doing.
LC — Do you consider this campaign to be part of your practice, or is it something ‘outside’ and genuinely political?
B&RS — No, it absolutely is an artwork. I’m hoping it will be inspirational to other artists, not so much about how you can make political art but maybe more about how politics can be a bit more artistic! Though some artists may dispute this idea, artworks are sort of ‘campaigns’. They are a campaign about a kind of personal politics, if nothing else, and sometimes much more explicit. If you think of Tracey Emin’s work, although she has, slightly madly, come out as Tory, her work reflects a feminist discourse, it has been taken up as a kind of voice which didn’t exist or wasn’t very loud in British art before she was around.
LC — You’re standing in Michael Gove’s constituency of Surrey Heath, and there is obviously good reason for that, given his antipathy toward art education; but he is no longer Minister for Education, so does that have an impact on your campaign?
B&RS — Gove is the principal architect of the diminution of the arts in schools, and while Nicky Morgan [his successor] is pushing along the agenda quite furiously, she is a bit of a stooge for those kinds of ideas, and I think people do still associate Michael Gove with those views about education. If I’m thinking about what we really want the next government to do, whether it is a Labour or Conservative one, it is to get rid of the hierarchy of subjects in schools and just let kids choose the subjects they want to do more freely. That means getting rid of these things called ‘discount codes’ [essentially the weighting in ‘importance’ now given to particular subjects], which are Gove’s invention. Standing here is to remind people that Michael Gove still exists. The Tories got rid of him before the election so that people would forget about that association, really, and the job of the wrecking ball had been done, so why have him in the government making the Tories unpopular at an election? What I’m trying to do is remind people what he, and they, have done, and the implications of it.
LC — What are some of those implications?
B&RS — Gove’s education policy is really going to damage areas of the British design industry. It’s also quite interesting that it is not just to do with the Tories, but also the universities and how they are now organised, has also changed education in general and the nature of art education in particular. We have had some really great young artists going through the British art system recently, but we haven’t had the big wave of groovy artists [the YBA’s] for 20 years, now. The danger is that we go down the road that the music industry has gone down, where there is no means of anybody [innovative] really making any money out of music; it’s just the wealthy major labels and the proliferation of boy bands and all of that. Education and art gets increasingly middle class so it becomes like Mumford and Sons, and culture goes down the drain. Great British art from the 1960s was about the interrelationship and conversation between all the different classes and cultures. We don’t want to wipe out any one of them, they are all important, but it is about that conversation, really, which I think is getting closed down.
LC — Do you expect to poll well in the election? Presumably you’re not going to win, and you know this, so what is the main realpolitik aim of your campaign?
B&RS — There is not a cat in hell’s chance that I’ll become elected! I think I’m going to get a handful of votes – but the point is to be a forum where people can talk about the arts in the context of the election. What I’m trying to do by standing is to make the arts an election issue – that’s the principal aim, to get people talking about the arts in a political context. Lets hope, as we are thinking about the NHS and Trident and the economy that we will also be thinking about culture.
LC — The British political landscape is in flux at the moment, with minority parties on the rise and all election bets off. What happens if the electorate takes you seriously and you do actually win?
B&RS — It would be like The Producers, with me running around with posters saying ‘Don’t vote Bob’! The purpose of me standing is not necessarily to win but to thrash out the arguments in a different way. If I actually won it would put a huge strain on me, but I would do it properly in representing the views of the people of Surrey Heath. It would be interesting because it would still be me making paintings about all these issues – it wouldn’t be my only activity.
LC — So who do you think will win the General Election, how is it going to pan out?
B&RS — I genuinely think Labour is going to win it. I think it is going to be one of these elections where people will appear undecided on the day but Labour will win it. But the point for me is that Tristran Hunt is trying to out-Gove Gove and I don’t think that that is the way to go. I think the Labour party could lose a lot of votes from teachers unless he comes up with some serious ideas about education that are progressive. All parties say warm words about culture but it is actually more about what they are going to do about it which is the important thing and holding them to account, that’s why I think it’s important to think about the arts as an independent voice in all that.