The first artist to cover a British election was probably William Hogarth, whose series of paintings of the 1754 general election show voters being bribed with money, oysters and booze in a spectacular carnival of corruption. Hogarth, however, was a maverick satirist, not an official, accredited election artist like Turner-nominated Cornelia Parker, who has been announced as the visual recorder of this spring’s snap election.
It is surely a sign of how little is happening in a contest whose result is widely regarded as a foregone conclusion that Parker’s appointment is one of the biggest election stories at the start of this week. The other reason the comparatively little-known role of election artist has suddenly leapt into the limelight is that Parker, whose Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View is one of the classics of modern British art, is by far the biggest star to have been appointed to the job. She brings a well-deserved publicity boost for a quirky scheme run since the 2001 election by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art.
The idea that parliament should appoint its own election artist was the brainchild of the late Labour politician Tony Banks, who said he was inspired by the tradition of selecting official war artists. Why not an election artist, too? It conjures up gonzo visions of artists hitting the campaign trail on a drug-fuelled satirical odyssey – indeed David Godbold, who was chosen to cover the 2005 election, did quote Hunter S Thompson in one of the ink drawings he produced after shadowing the campaigns: “Peel back the brain, let the opium take hold and get locked into some serious pornography.” Presumably that’s how Godbold felt after assiduously attending hustings and sitting on battlebuses.
All the election artists appointed so far have taken a sideways view of the thrills and spills of British democracy. The first was portrait painter Jonathan Yeo, whose job was to cover what proved to be New Labour’s second landslide victory in 2001. He did this in a comically effective way by making the sizes of the three main party leaders’ portraits reflect the size of their support. A wide-frame, grinning Tony Blair was flanked by a smaller, more tired-looking William Hague and an even more diminutive Charles Kennedy. After Godbold came photographer Simon Roberts, who not only reported on the 2010 election himself but also invited the public to send in photographs. At the last election it was the turn of cartoonist Adam Dant to head out on the campaign trail and create a giant drawing, The Government Stable, in which real scenes from the election – such as Nick Clegg banging in a sign outside a Lib Dem supporter’s house – are included in a surreal vision of politics as a big, bonkers Victorian machine.
All these artists have been pictorially bent: one painted his election works, two drew theirs and one took photos. Parker is not only the first woman to take on the job, she’s also the first conceptual artist. Whatever she creates, it won’t be a picture. Many of her works transform everyday objects, such as Breathless, for which she crushed brass musical instruments with a steamroller, to Precipitated Gun, where she dissolved a gun with chemicals. Perhaps she will make a sculpture from the ashes of incinerated ballot papers, or crush the party leaders’ battle buses into cubes once the election is over. Another option might be to bottle the tears of long-time Labour voters.
What might a future historian learn about 21st-century British politics from our election artists? They probably won’t be major sources for the details of political history. It is instead the idiosyncratic fun and lack of pomposity of this official art programme that impresses. Historians might conclude with admiration that the British parliament does not take itself too seriously. Democracy has to have some life left in it when politicians don’t just accept the onslaught of satire in newspaper cartoons but even hire their own artists to officially mock them – even if Godbold did complain of censorship.
Parker has likened the job to being a court fool; hopefully, she will produce a witty and surreal election entertainment that lives up to the heritage of Hogarth.