Mear One’s Brick Lane Street Art: Class and Societal Inequality Not Racial Hatred

Geoff Whitehouse says people claiming that the mural incites racial hatred should get a sense of understanding and perspective

By Geoff Whitehouse

October 8, 2012 12:16 BST

Mear One’s mural on Hanbury Street has been slammed for its anti-Semitism (Photo: Reuters)

An artist paints a work depicting what he sees as the truth of underlying events that are bringing about mass inequality, death and destruction.

According to some, it is hugely offensive, should never have been seen in public and the artist responsible should be imprisoned. As always, politicians get involved and when it is seen in public, the artist receives a threat to his life.

The decent thing to do would be to ban the work, hide it away or maybe paint over it to avoid offending sensitivities.

Congratulations, you’ve just denied the world being able to see Picasso’s ‘Guernica’.

Now I’m not for one moment suggesting the latest work to stir controversy, Mear One’s ‘Freedom for Humanity’ painted in the East End of London is comparable to Picasso in its content, message or delivery. But they are in similar vein.

You don’t have to like it and you can be vehemently opposed to it. But when you have people suddenly claiming it incites racial hatred, it’s time to take a step back and, no pun intended, get some perspective.

I’ve intentionally used that example in a hyperbolic way to counter to some of the odd assertions that have been levelled at the work. The fact I have to explain that is doubly depressing but when you read the following I hope you’ll understand why.

Lutfur Rahman, the Tower Hamlets mayor, stated: “I have received a number of complaints that the mural has anti-Semitic images. I share these concerns. Whether intentional or otherwise, the images of the bankers perpetuate anti-Semitic propaganda about conspiratorial Jewish domination of financial and political institutions. Where freedom of expression runs the risk of inciting racial hatred then it is right that such expression should be curtailed. I have asked my officers to do everything possible to see to it that this mural is removed.”

Freedom of expression is good, except regardless of artistic intention, if it may offend local residents and then it’s bad and should be stopped. Now if this mural was badly created or indeed hugely offensive I’d be on the side of those complaining.

But what does this work actually show – where is Mr Rahman’s “anti-semitic propaganda”?

It depicts a group of businessmen and/or bankers sitting around a board game. Indeed the artist himself has said as much in his defence.

Kalen Ockerman, aka Mear One, on his Facebook page explained: “I came to paint a mural that depicted the elite banker cartel known as the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Morgans, the ruling class elite few, the Wizards of Oz. They would be playing a board game of monopoly on the backs of the working class. The symbol of the Free Mason Pyramid rises behind this group and behind that is a polluted world of coal burning and nuclear reactors. I was creating this piece to inspire critical thought and spark conversation.”

However a day or so later he added: “A group of conservatives do not like my mural and are playing a race card with me. My mural is about class and privilege. The banker group is made up of Jewish and white Anglos. For some reason they are saying I am anti-semitic. This I am most definitely not… What I am against is class.”

So why is this mural so offensive to the local community that Mr Rahman is asking for it to be removed? Because it reveals that the global financial system is run by white, middle aged men, some of whom are also Jewish? I really hate to break it to Mr Rahman but if he travelled a few miles down the road to the City of London and went and sat in the boardrooms of the major banks I think he’d be in for a shock.

But then sometimes reality can be a painful thing, holding a mirror up to the world and revealing what many of us may know to true but just as many choose to ignore. But this always been at the core of street art and is one of its major attractions and has been used to highlight numerous causes, from global inequality through to anti-whaling campaigns.

Its power is the fact it’s not hanging in a gallery or part of a recognised ‘system’, it’s on a wall that you or I could walk past and observe.

Its power is also that it cannot really be controlled by local authorities, despite their best attempts. Much of what has driven the rise of Obey, ironically now a commercial entity in its own right, came from John Carpenter’s brilliant satire ‘They Live’ where the main character can see the reality behind everyday life.

Then there are artists, such as Blu in Italy, using large-scale works to highlight the hypocrisy of religion and the state.

But that power is also why it also generates such debate.

Speaking to artists, you find that many are what you might loosely term as ‘left wing’ and use their medium as a way of expressing their frustrations with the world as they see it.

Many of them are aware that they can project powerful images and messages to the public but they are also acutely aware that there is a boundary between artistic freedom of expression and its potential to offend.

So should something that could potentially cause offence be seen so openly in public?

Of course it should. And this is the crux of the issue.

The best political art, or indeed political anything – books, songs, magazine articles – should provoke critical thought, informed debate and hopefully draw attention to an issue. They shouldn’t be withdrawn just because they might or could cause offence.

The mural will likely be painted over, either by the Council (a fine use of public resources during a recession), or given its location I imagine another artist/writer will come along in a few weeks and will continue the natural evolution of street regardless.

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Corbyn’s Hat

by Nick Wright

I am not highly skilled at using the image manipulation software tool Photoshop. In the primitive 1960s – when I trained as a film and TV designer – colour TV had not been invented and Daleks could not yet climb stairs. Thus I am certainly not as competent as the whizz kids who work in the BBC Newsnight graphics team.

It took me some time and experiments with several techniques to transform Jeremy Corbyn’s well-defined jaunty Donovan-style cap into a reasonable likeness of a Russian fur hat and place the thus manipulated image in a sufficiently low resolution to enable it to be projected on a Kremlin-sized backdrop without revealing the hat’s clear 1960s provenance.

In an era when every TV presenter worries that their every blemish and facial tic will be projected in startling detail it must have taken a firm directorial steer and the exercise of considerable talent for the Newsnight team to produce an image of such mannered fuzziness.

This was done, perhaps even without mature reflection, to serve the dominant media discourse that presents Jeremy Corbyn as a flaky eccentric whose politics are inflected with a doubtful patriotism.

Labourlist is a website that selects a fairly wide range of opinion on matters of interest to Labour supporters and it has give space to an offering by Luke Akehurst entitled ‘8 Things The Left Could Do To Stop Unfair Media Bias’

Akehurst is a Labour Party activist of Blairite sympathies whose failure to keep up with new times in the Labour Party has married his dismay at Corbyn’s popularity with an Orwellian anti-communism.

His take on the annoyance Labour supporters display at Newsnight’s clumsy manipulations is to wonder why: “Faced with a national security crisis where it appears that Russia has attacked a British citizen and former intelligence asset with a proscribed nerve agent in a restaurant in Wiltshire, a large segment of the online Hard Left seems oddly preoccupied with a spurious allegation that Jeremy Corbyn’s hat was photoshopped by the BBC for a Newsnight backdrop to make him look more Soviet.”

His argues that “People will be in a position to complain about being unfairly portrayed as “Soviet” if they make a few changes to their political behaviour and the image they present:

He advises a zero tolerance stance towards people within the Labour left who self-describe as “Communist” in their social media profiles or promote theories like “fully automated luxury Communism” and stop employing people from the Stalinist “Straight Left”/CPB tradition in the leader’s office.

Ending “solidarity” with vile regimes like Cuba and Venezuela and providing ideological clarity “that they are not seeking to abolish capitalism and replace it with a command economy” are necessary steps.

He says that Labour supporters should stop apologising for or giving the benefit of the doubt to Russia over its contemporary behaviour regarding assassinations in the UK, the occupation of the Crimea, and its military actions in Syria and stop promoting and writing for the Morning Star, the former newspaper of the CPGB, and appearing on Russia Today.

We should show solidarity with Labour’s social democratic sister parties in Europe, not their far-left enemies and show zero tolerance of antisemitism, “much of which derives from Soviet era propaganda that portrayed Jews as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who controlled capitalism and politics, and Israel as a state of racists and Nazis.:

Until then, he says, the media is going to portray you how you present yourselves, so live with it.

We can set aside the political illiteracy which conflates the popular but rather prosaic policy proposals that Britain’s communists share with most of Labour’s millions with playful ideas like ‘fully automated luxury communism. We can even write off, as the sour grapes of a ‘deselected’ Labour party office holder and NEC member, the suggestion that the “Stalinist” team that helped Corbyn revive Labour’s electoral fortunes cease their efforts.

Anyone with a sense of historical fact will find bizarre the idea that much of contemporary anti semitism is derived from the Soviet era. Akehurst is making an equivalence between the Soviet Union, which stopped fascism, with nazi Germany, which made the extermination of Jewish people its state policy.

Luke Akehurst wants to “show solidarity with Labour’s social democratic sister parties.” But his suggestion that social democrats refuse any connection to political forces that have an affinity with, historical connection to or shared ideas with the communist tradition would put many social democratic parties in a very difficult position.

Throughout the world Labour’s sister parties find their enemies not to the left but on the right.

The Partito Socialista Portuguese government would fall without communist parliamentary support, the SPD would lose control of several German lander, thousands of French, and Spanish municipalities would fall to the right, in Italy the right would rule unchallenged. Swedish and Danish social democratic governments have ruled with parliamentary communist support.

In South Africa the political heirs of apartheid would have a chance. In India the big debate is whether Congress should ally with the communists to block the BJP.

Obeying his injunction to break solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela would make pariahs of Latin American social democrats. The Workers’ Party governments in Brazil included Communist Party ministers, while in Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Guyana, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Dominica progressive governments have counted on communist support.

In fact, while Labour is only an observer at the Socialist International a whole number of rebadged former marxist-leninist east European and African parties are full members.

Presently our economy is under the ‘command’ of the banks and big business and our media dominated by billionaire non doms. We live in a world of corporate capitalism – from klepto-capitalist Russia to tax avoiding firms domiciled in British dependencies. Labour needs to convince the millions of ordinary people in Britain who desperately need a Labour government to, as Luke says, end austerity, restore our public services and promote a more socially just and equal society. This means a government that it is serious about socialism.

Luke Akehurst’s proposal to boycott the Morning Star is a policy pioneered by Tory governments, imitated by a succession of post-socialist governments of Russia and continued by Putin’s regime.

Labour’s struggle with a biased BBC and the big business media might be aided if more people were encouraged to read the Morning Star. This is a newspaper published by a cooperative which counts thousands of working people, trade unions and popular organisations among its shareholders and is managed by a board comprised of people elected in a series of nationwide meetings and buttressed by representatives of a score of trade unions who hold shares.

The Morning Star policy is to give a platform for the widest range of progressive opinion. As its long-standing contributor Jeremy Corbyn says: “The Morning Star is the most precious and only voice we have in the daily media”.

Luke’s appeal to the tradition of Attlee and Bevin throws up the problems in his approach. But it struck a chord with me. My grandfather, a follower of William Morris, a veteran of the Social Democratic Federation and its successor, the Labour-affiliated British Socialist Party, told me stories of when he was in the same East London branch as Clement Attlee. In 1920 the BSP was the main constituent of the newly formed Communist Party.

Fred Bruce, my grandfather, was a skilled cabinet maker who worked for decades among Jewish craftsmen, and regarded Ernest Bevin was a rank colonialist and anti-semite. Indeed, if half the remarks attributed to Bevin are true he would find himself suspended from party membership today.

Luke might be surprised to know that for many years communists sat in parliament as Labour MPs, represented their unions at party conferences and served as councillors. He will be alarmed with the knowledge that during the war an Amalgamated Engineering Union motion to Labour’s conference to admit the Communist Party as a Labour Party affiliate was only narrowly defeated.

The Cold War conditions which made unity on the left an impossibility no longer exist. And the crisis conditions of contemporary capitalism make socialist solutions an imperative.

Electing a Labour government on such a manifesto issurely something we can all agree on.

Labourlist has yet to respond to my invitation to respond to Luke Akehurst.