Published  26/10/2014

John Keane interview: ‘Art shouldn’t be sensationalist, but at the same time it shouldn’t flinch from addressing difficult questions’

John Keane interview: ‘Art shouldn’t be sensationalist, but at the same time it shouldn’t flinch from addressing difficult questions’

John Keane, artist in residence at the University of St Andrews, talks about the political influences behind his painting and his views on the relationship between art, performance and politics


John Keane is a painter based in London, whose work deals with political subjects, particularly war and violence and power relations. Having drawn inspiration from trips to Central America, Northern Ireland and the Middle East, including a stint as an official war artist appointed in 1990 by the Imperial War Museum, his work is a fascinating reflection on current events and the human behaviour behind them. Christiana Spens talked to him in St Andrews, where he is currently an artist in residence at the university’s School of International Relations, about his insights into politics, performance and painting.

Christiana Spens: When is art propaganda, and when is propaganda art? Do you see your own work as a kind of propaganda, or anti-propaganda, and how do you balance the political and aesthetic aspects?

John Keane: Art should be the reverse, it should be revelation. If an artist has a propagandist agenda, then that is to the detriment of the art, in that, ideally, art should be about revelation not concealment. But, inevitably, you do have a viewpoint, you do take sides, and that comes through.

CS: So there’s a difference between being even quite explicitly political about something, and it being propaganda?

 JK: Yes, and if a polemic takes over, then the art suffers.

CS: If, say, a piece of propaganda – a poster, or a song, or whatever it may be – happens to have great aesthetic value, where does that fit in?

JK: You could say propaganda is an art form, in that there’s good propaganda, there’s bad propaganda; it has its own aesthetics, and can be evaluated accordingly – as long as you’re aware that what you’re looking at is propaganda rather than anything deeper.

CS: So it’s like advertising, in that sense?

JK: Yes, exactly, which we can all enjoy to some extent, but you have to accept that it is what it is.   

CS: In some works – Graham Greene and the Jungle of Human Dilemma [1995] and your series Fifty-Seven Hours in the House of Culture, for instance – you use images that show violence. Do you ever worry about being sensationalist, or do you think it is possible (and desirable) to use such images as a way of commenting on spectacular and sensational violence?

JK: Well, some sort of graphically violent image does pull you up short, and it is attention-grabbing. I don’t think [visual art] should be sensationalist, but at the same time it shouldn’t flinch from addressing those sorts of difficult questions. But in the end, if you are making a painting that you want people to look at, they have to be able to look at it. And you could be much more graphic, and much more sensationalist if you like, but people would just turn their heads – apart from those with a very macabre outlook. So you have to walk that line.

CS: When you’re painting, do you think of these things explicitly, or do you take an instinctive approach as to what is appropriate, and what’s necessary to depict a certain scene?

JK: I try to adopt what seems appropriate, what seems right. Sometimes the imagery itself dictates because it has a power of its own, but at other times there is something I want to express or say that I have to find a way of presenting visually – so it can work either way really. 

CS: Is the power of images and being able to change that power, or change the meaning of it, something you think of quite explicitly? If an image is sensational in its first manifestation, do you see, by making it into art, that you are changing that somehow?

JK: Yes. [But] if you look at the most sensational images, such as 9/11, in a way, to be quite cynical, it was a work of art in itself; visually, it couldn’t have been better presented. It was a perfectly clear day, it was New York, which is a kind of media centre, so there were a lot of people with cameras, filming and photographing and so on. It was captured from every angle, as if it had been set up by a film director. [In that case] you think, given that happened, and the atrocity that it really was, what can you actually do with that? Given that it has that level of representation, how can you even address that in a visual way? That’s quite difficult. As with other appalling imagery that we occasionally see – thinking of the recent beheading videos in Syria, for instance – again, what could a visual artist possibly say about that? It’s very difficult. And in many ways, you just wouldn’t want to dwell on it. But it is so important, somehow, that you can’t quite get it out of your mind, so it’s something you want to deal with in some way. It’s [about] finding strategies to allude to that without being sensational or too graphic, or it working in the way that it works as a primary image, [which is] just to shock people.  Stockhausen appalled a lot of people when he said that 9/11 was a work of art, but in a sense it was, which isn’t to detract from the reality of it.

CS: It was presumably intentional on the part of the terrorists, as well; it’s terrorism as performance, and it’s there to engage a lot of people?

JK: Absolutely, yes.

CS: So I suppose you could say it’s the “bad side” of art, or artistic technique anyway. It’s using those means for emotional manipulation and shock value. Do you think then, in terms of what art is meant to do in that setting, there is a place for art that is escapist, or distracts from those things?

JK: Yes, I love distractions, I love abstract art. Let us find pleasure in all these things. It doesn’t have to address the grim realities of life. I don’t feel I can do that. But I’m very glad that there is Matisse, for instance.

CS: What persuaded you or inspired you to go to Nicaragua and Northern Ireland during those conflicts?

JK: For the very reason that I felt drawn to this subject matter, but I had no direct experience of it myself. I grew up in a state, largely, of peace and tranquility, and I realised that for a lot of people, that’s not the case, and that if I wanted to address those sorts of issues, then it would be a good idea to find out a little for myself.  That prompted the trip to Nicaragua, when the Contra war was going on. Having done that, I thought: “Well, it’s all very well going halfway round the world, but Northern Ireland is just across the water and that’s been going on for years …” It [was] reality, and very close, and I had some family from Northern Ireland, so I thought I’d go and spend a bit of time there. I think there was a lack of understanding, really. As with any atrocities, the headline-grabbing events that everyone is appalled by somehow conceal the causes. I just wanted to find out why this was the case, why this was happening. What is it that drives people to that sort of behaviour? So I went and talked to people.

CS: Did you take a journalistic approach, then?

JK: Yes, I’m not working on the spot on any of these trips. It’s all just gathering material – taking photographs and notes, writing thoughts down, and so on. And then all the work is produced retrospectively, in the studio.

CS: You must come across a lot of journalists then?

JK: Yes, and that can be quite helpful. For instance, in Northern Ireland, it was useful to talk to journalists because they give you a sense of the lie of the land, and might suggest people you should meet, or certain contacts. So it is quite journalistic. Certainly in the Gulf I was with journalists all the time, because I was just shunted around with the press packs that had been part of their organised system that existed for that particular episode.

CS: The term “war artist” might be a bit simplistic, but some who depict war in art are embedded with the troops, while others seem to me more like activists themselves, whereas you seem to be embedded with the journalists. Do you think that has affected your art?

JK: It probably has, in a way. But the term “embedded journalists” didn’t exist in those days. It came in more in the Iraq war, and threw up all sorts of questions about objectivity and so on. And that’s a fair point. But for me, that’s the only way of doing it, to be operating in some sort of network. Even the journalists had to work within that network because otherwise, they wouldn’t have been allowed there. It’s quite tightly controlled, and in Saudi Arabia, for instance, press freedom isn’t something they embrace. And geographically it’s quite difficult – you’re in the desert, you can’t just nip out for [something] down the road. You’re stuck with whomever you happen to be with. That was the only way I could do it. But with the work I did, there were various references to the media and being with the media, and being shown what the media were being shown, in that the army public relations officers were there shepherding people around. Some of that’s interesting, but you also have to realise that it is controlled.

CS: In a way, then, it’s an exposé of the media’s way of seeing things, which is an interesting viewpoint in itself? Especially since most people experience war these days through the media, not through conscription or direct family contact, even. I would have thought that was an interesting viewpoint, whether or not it’s necessary to take that route to experiencing war. 

JK: Yes. However much you watch through the media, it’s not the real thing.

CS: Isn’t that interesting in itself? That there’s so much exposure to images of violence and so on, but very little actual connection to it.

JK: Yes, there’s a very real disconnect between what people think they may know or think they are sufficiently aware of, and the actuality of it. Because people are always quick to form opinions and suggest courses of action – but don’t really know what’s involved because they’ve never been on the sharp end of it. But we all think we’re so well informed now.  

CS: Some of your work deals with dehumanisation of people in a political context. Can you explain which artistic techniques you use to explore these ideas, and how they work?

JK: Were you thinking of the Guantánamo series? [Keane did a series of pictures, Guantanamerica, depicting Guantánamo Bay.]

CS: Yes, and the use of computer manipulation especially.

JK: I was deliberately using low-resolution internet images of the detainees, which when you expand that, sort of abstracts the figures, and that was analogous to dehumanising the individuals as well – with obvious reference to the subject but somehow abstracting it in a visual way. It was just an exercise I followed for that really. Sometimes you just find ways of working that seem right for the subject matter. They vary, and you’ll have seen that some of my paintings do look very different, and that’s just because I want to find a way of working that seems right for that particular subject, and that’s not always the same way with each subject, and that may change. With the Guantánamo images, I just explored, I followed this line and that’s what I came up with in the end. And that’s why they look the way they do.

CS: And in being very explicit about the way in which the images are abstracted from the reality, or the reality of the people anyway, what I took from it was that in simply photographing or reproducing images of someone, you’re objectifying or dehumanising them. By making a person a subject, and by distancing them, you’re putting them either on a pedestal or a stage or whatever it is, so they become less a person, and more a part of a wider spectacle.

JK: Yes, precisely.

CS: With the Guantánamo images, then, it’s more obvious that you’re commenting on that process, but with most of your work, really, you’re paying attention to the theatre and art of political violence.

JK: Yes, all of that. And also, there is the painting of the oil interference patterns. With that, a visual metaphor occurred to me – you may have noticed that I play around with the words and meanings. I liked the idea of oil interference patterns, which are a scientific phenomenon – when a pool of oil on water reflects light and you get rainbow colours. And I could see that happening in these images, and I liked how the words – oil interference patterns – could also have another meaning: interference in other countries in the pursuit of oil. And it had that resonance, and I enjoyed that pun, if you like.

 CS: And in the same vein, with the Russian theatre siege, were you commenting explicitly on the theatre of it? [In October 2002, Chechen militants took 912 hostages at a theatre Moscow. After three days, Russian soldiers stormed the theatre and killed the militants, but 130 hostages also died.] The audience were watching a play where the actors wore military costumes, and then a man walked on to the stage, also in military clothes, and opened fire.

JK: I don’t know if that initially drew me to it, but it certainly drew me in, this idea of art and life, of reality and representations of reality, and people going to a theatre for an experience that will remove them from their real lives, that they will be absorbed in this production – maybe as an escape – for whatever reason. And the idea that suddenly, while going to escape they have unwittingly been caught up in a brutal reality. That crossover point where the Chechen terrorists arrive on stage, fire a weapon into the ceiling, and the audience, having a moment, where, well that’s very realistic, imagining it to be a part of the production, and then the realisation that it’s not, [that] something’s gone terribly wrong. That awful moment where life takes over from art in a tragic way.

CS: In some ways, though, perhaps the perpetrators were aware of these strange ironies?

JK: Well it’s a good question; I don’t know. I think it may or may not have been the case. I don’t think they would have thought, “Oh, it’s a theatre”. I don’t think that level of sophistication existed in that particular event – that resonance of it being a theatre and it being a kind of theatre of propaganda as well. I’d be surprised if that was in their minds.

CS: Another similar case, in some ways, was a shooting in Greysteel, in Northern Ireland. It was Halloween, and everyone was in costume in a pub, and then someone came in, also in costume, and then fired at everyone. [Ulster paramilitary loyalists killed eight people in the shooting in 1993.] And there was a similar moment of people not knowing if it was make-believe or not.

JK: Yes exactly. And if you think of Isis now, [and] the level of sophistication of theatre in what they’re doing, with the hostages in costume, and all the resonances of that – that it’s obviously thought through and considered very cleverly. That has introduced a whole new, grim, sort of sophistication to the process.

CS: Do you think that art has a responsibility, then – moral or otherwise – to be engaged with politics and war on some level?

JK: On some level. Not always. I enjoy anything more flippant and lightweight; I think there’s room for all of that. It’s just that, for me, things tend to have more resonance if they do have some political, moral dimension. I find I am drawn more towards that. However, as I say, there is plenty of room for art that doesn’t address those things.

CS: And in a way, art is taking an implicitly political stance in that it is in some stance rejecting politics?

JK: Well there’s an Orwell quote, I forget exactly how it goes, but it’s the idea that “art should not be political” is in itself a political statement. It is inevitably political, even by eschewing politics. That is a political stance.

CS: Do you ever have a temptation to do more of that kind of thing?

JK: Not really. That’s just me I suppose. I mean I’d like to do abstract painting or something. But no, for me it has to have some level of political meaning. But as I said, there’s room for all of it. The world can be such a beautiful place, and I think to represent that, to hone in on that, is uplifting, and that’s good, too.


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