Don't worry, be angry: how politics and creativity collided in 2018


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In the first of our Review of the Year op-eds, It’s Nice That editor Matt Alagiah casts an eye over the interplay between politics and creativity over the past 12 months.

Looking back at 2018, particularly at the world of politics, it feels like many of the dominant themes were, well, not really all that new. Instead many of them appear more a continuation of what we’d already witnessed in 2017.

Take yourselves back to last December. There we were looking back at a dark and chaotic first year for America under the Trump administration, an alarming rise in right-wing populism all over the world, and at Brexit negotiations that seemed to be inevitably speeding towards doom. Today, we find ourselves looking back at a dark and chaotic year for America under Trump and an alarming rise in right-wing populism. Thank God for Brexit, which seems at last to have worked itself out… Oh no, wait.

Nonetheless if you go back through with a fine-toothed comb, you can pick out some moments that mark 2018 out as truly unique, particularly when you focus on that fertile ground where politics and creativity collide. This was the year that the creative industries found their collective voice and became more openly and stridently political; it was also the year that protest and creativity, always relatively comfortable bedfellows, got hitched.

One of the most memorable moments of the year came in September when sportswear giant Nike released an ad campaign led by American football player Colin Kaepernick. A close-up image of Kaepernick’s face was overlaid with the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”; this after Kaepernick had become one of the highest-profile campaigners against police brutality and racism by refusing to stand for the national anthem at the start of NFL games, and subsequently been cast out of the game.

The ad campaign shouldn’t simply be seen as a single company taking a solitary stand for a cause it believed in. It was bigger and more complicated than that. Nike is a multinational brand with shareholders to please and an image to protect. I somehow doubt it would have gone ahead with the campaign if it thought it would have threatened its bottom line.

But that really matters. Because of this, the campaign marks the moment when it became commercially not just viable, but actually desirable, to align your brand with activism and protest, with notions of “belief ” and “sacrifice”. This was a carefully considered move from Nike and, by all accounts, it paid off – yes, there was a backlash but only the kind of backlash that brands secretly court, the kind that makes your hardcore fans even more loyal (Nike sales actually rose in the after- math). For that reason, the Kaepernick campaign, and its tagline, felt like some kind of watershed.

On this side of the pond, 2018 was the year that the creative industries found their collective voice and spoke up in unison against Brexit. It’s hardly surprising that the creative industries are broadly anti-Brexit – after all, they’re concentrated in cosmopolitan parts of major cities and rely heavily on drawing in talent from all over the world. But the numbers are striking: a poll by the Creative Industries Federation found that fully 96 per cent of its members voted Remain in the 2016 referendum.

Before this year the mainstream media had focused on how Brexit was going to affect the City of London and finance, but in 2018 the creative sectors managed increasingly to force their way into the conversation – a long overdue development considering these industries are growing at around twice the rate of the overall economy. Sadly, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be enough to change the course of Brexit, but the creative industries here have at least proven they’re every bit as hard to ignore as the bankers.

Meanwhile, political art and design have also become increasingly prevalent. Take the flag that Jeremy Deller designed to fly above 14 American cultural institutions, stating: “Don’t Worry. Be Angry.” Or the posters designed by Shepard Fairey, Chanelle Librada Reyes and others to protest against gun violence. Or the New Yorker covers by the likes of Barry Blitt and John Cuneo and satirical works by artists including Anita Kunz and Rob Rogers, which were all shown in New York this year in an exhibition titled “Art as Witness: Political Graphics 2016–2018”. Everywhere you looked this year, art and politics were becoming increasingly intertwined.

Yet, looking back at all this, an urgent question presents itself. Do we think these acts and messages serve to unite people or further divide already-divided countries and communities? Are the crea- tive industries doing enough to break out of their echo chambers or are they still preaching to the proverbial choir?

Before what I’m saying is misunderstood, let me be clear. Gun violence and racism, we can all agree, are pernicious ills that our societies should never tolerate. But when it comes to things like Brexit and the popularity of populist politicians like Donald Trump, the issues and the reasons are undoubtedly more nuanced. That distinction should be clear. The year 2016 saw a long-held status quo shattered, revealing just how divided our populations had become. Since then, if anything, they have only become more divided, with the opposing sides even more unwilling to talk and listen to one another.

The question is this: Do artists, designers, and the creative industries as a whole have a duty to try to bridge those divides? I’d argue the answer is yes. Yes, be angry – but let’s also try to be open-minded and understanding, because our societies need those values, too, more than ever. So here’s a provocation, then, a brief for creative people everywhere looking ahead to 2019: How might we use art and design to find some common ground?

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About the Author

Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.

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