Bob and Roberta Smith: Make Your Own Damn Placards
When we met him in his office at London Metropolitan University, we asked him why marches like 20 October are important and what art he’s been impressed with on recent protests.
Last year Bob and Roberta Smith wrote an open letter to Michael Gove. He was angry about changes to the school curriculum. And still is.
“Dear Michael,” it begins, “A look at your tie and shirt combinations in images online informs me you are not a visually minded person.”
He wrote it the weekend Amy Winehouse and Lucien Freud died – both big sources of inspiration for Smith and his students.
The letter is here, and is an absorbing read. Aimed to rile the Education Secretary, Smith takes pleasure in valuing what Gove disregards: “From Galileo to Darwin, from Caravaggio to Winehouse, creativity is rebellion…”
He goes on to rip into Government policy on its own terms. “China has opened 400 schools of art and design,” the letter rages. “Your government has whittled down Britain’s once diverse varied culture of schools of art institutions to just 12… This reduction is a disaster for British design, British commerce, British art and Britain’s ability to compete in the world.”
But for Smith, it was as he wrote the letter that the central question crystalised: how does Gove think a talent like Winehouse could emerge if society marginalizes creativity?
While frustrated by Gove and other politicians, Smith’s letter follows from his belief that even today’s politics offers the potential for change; that there is hope, that there are channels of politics open to us – especially when like minds share their resources. His letter, for instance, has spurred others to join his campaign. Hundreds of teachers have cut, pasted and re-sent it to Gove.
Smith sees the march on 20 October as another opportunity to be heard.
“Marches are one of the tools people have to voice ideas. The media may try to give the impression that marches are to be feared. But they’re not. Marches like this are all about hope.”
As you might expect of the artist who challenges others to Make Your Own Damn Art, Smith thinks there is a lot to be said for creating and carrying protest material.
Like writing a letter, making a placard forces you to go some way in clarifying what you think: the issue which needs highlighting, the campaign that needs supporting, the target for your anger.
And quoting Tony Benn, Smith believes once you’ve gone through this process it’s possible not only to protest but to demand.
Smith is impressed with the visual impact of recent mass demonstrations. He picks out Slut Walk for special praise. Slut Walk 2012 saw hundreds of women march through London to tell the world that rape is never the victim’s fault.
“They’ve taken a political, conceptual idea, and turned it on its head.
“Slut Walk does politics in a purely visual way. Women walking about semi-naked, why can’t they wear what they want?
“It’s a really powerful political statement and visually powerful in the same breath. Which you want protest art to be. Not instant that you get it, but that you are immediately affected by it.
“The visual impact of it should happen in a moment.”
Smith looks forward to seeing the politics on show on 20 October.
He enjoys the traditional banners of trade union rallies; how the banners act as signs of solidarity, how they show people have come from across the whole country to march.
But it’s the potential for a carnival that gets him most excited.
“The march is in itself an obvious manifestation of solidarity. So inside it you can let people do what they want…
“One of the great things about marches is that they can become like festivals. I remember how the anti-Nazi and anti-apartheid marches in the 1970s would end in Brockwell Park or on the South Bank. With people like the Smiths playing, they were big parties, in amongst the anger.”
Doesn’t all this fun and individuality make it harder for a march to have impact? Can there be too many voices?
Smith recognises the tension. But he likes people being given room to voice their own politics if they want.
“Sure, the media criticizes the mish-mash but it is one of the great strengths of a big march, that they have different voices and different people feel they can be there….”
Contemplating what he might carry on 20 October, Smith said with a twinkle: “I’d rather make my own.”
In the build up to 20 October, Make The March is asking people to share their protest art to spread the word about the demonstration. Along with comedian Josie Long and commentator Kevin Maguire, Bob and Roberta Smith will be picking his favourites of the work submitted. There are 5 £100 prizes for the judges’ favourites. For more details see here.