It’s been a long, hard slog since the 2016 referendum for the UK to leave the EU. In its aftermath we’ve witnessed a country divided and one of the world’s most powerful governments literally fall apart at the seams, and with the Brexit deadline looming it would seem that the chaos is far from over.
There has been much speculation and analysis into how Brexit will affect industry and economy in the UK, but little has been discussed in the mainstream media about the consequences it will have on culture and by extension the arts.
The EU makes up 59% of all international activity in the English arts sector.
The UK Arts Council has released a number of publications covering the potential economic and operational impacts of Brexit, but the facts and figures contained therein fail to address the inevitable art market downturn and uncertainty that will result from the departure. A recent survey by the Arts Council showed that most of their national portfolio organisations working internationally see Europe as their most important market: the EU makes up 59% of all international activity in the English arts sector. This is a very significant number that will be hit hard in the event of a no-deal Brexit, but it’s still impossible to gauge the real impact the cultural fallout will have on working artists and their careers.
While there is a strong case both for and against - Leave or Stay - it’s not surprising that many UK artists have taken a hard line against Brexit as it threatens their ability to move freely and also sell their work without border tariffs and extra taxes inside their home continent. Many prominent British galleries and art outfits are scrambling to ship works to and from the EU as uncertainty mounts over the free movement of goods in the event of a no-deal scenario.
As one might expect, UK artists have been eager to employ their respective mediums in addressing the controversial issue of identity and “what it means to be English”, which have been at the center of the national conversation since the referendum. Aside from the practical and economical issues, there is also a deeper concern that the right wing populism which defines Brexit will open up a cultural rift and create an “us and them” mentality between English and mainland Europeans. Even closer to home, there is a feeling of division among British people (between the Leavers and the Stayers) which is disturbingly portrayed by Anish Kapoor in his work titled “A Brexit, A Broxit, We All Fall Down” and exposes the bottomless void at the heart of the country.
Anonymously-outspoken street artist Banksy painted a nearly three-story tall artwork onto the side of Dover’s Castle Amusements building back in May 2017, which featured a workman removing a single star, with cracks spreading out across the EU flag. More recently it was scaffolded up and painted over much to the dismay of street-art appreciators, but Banksy himself appeared unphased claiming that: “Oh. I had planned that on the day of Brexit I was going to change the piece in Dover to this. But seems they’ve painted over it. Never mind. I guess a big white flag says it just as well.”
In a more recent work entitled “Keep Ou”, which was displayed at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, Banksy used real customs arch salvaged from Heathrow airport with the words “Keep Ou” written over a shuttered EU arrivals gate, and the fallen letter “T” being used as a hammer by a rat to try to break the gate’s padlock open.
With the timing of the recent Frieze London 2019 coinciding with the impending hard-Brexit less than a month away, and issues such as digital privacy hot on the conversation, the occasion was a natural hotbed for the less inflammatory “champagne and nibbles” brand of protest art which might be expected from this kind of event. Such items on display were a boxing punch bag decorated with the EU flag, and an opera singer who sang your personal conversations to those in attendance.
Of course there are two sides to every coin, and although we have mainly concentrated on anti-Brexit art for the duration of the article there are always some rebels amongst the rebels, such as this group of artists called “Artists for Brexit” which is in full support of the UK leaving the EU. This group believes that England would be better off without the EU, which is essentially a “protectionist bloc”, and that while it made sense to be a member of the EU for a time, it is now simply holding England back from reaching its full potential in the global arena.
Regardless of the outcome - Brexit or no-Brexit - we remain hopeful that UK artists will be able to continue to disseminate their work without excessive hindrance from economic uncertainty and trade/travel restrictions. Either way, nothing gets artists fired up like a good controversy, and if art history has taught one thing it’s that times of revolution and conflict provide fertile soil for great creative and cultural triumphs.