We’ve come to think of the art of dissent as a matter of public spectacle: fist-waving demos and performances, scabrous cartoons, posters and graffiti raw with anger and adrenalin. In fact, as Ian Hislop discovers in his trawl through three millennia of subversive art from the British Museum collection, most protesting art has been so discreet and heavily coded that its traces are barely discernible to the untrained eye and tend to require a veritable wall-full of contextual information to make sense of.
The Private Eye editor went looking for artefacts that “question the official narrative and put an alternative view”. He and the museum’s curators – whose show this very substantially is – found subversive works from an extraordinarily diverse array of cultures. As exhibits, however, they do tend towards the quiet.
Yes, we are shown a shard of Ancient Egyptian plaster daubed with a cartoon-like image of a copulating couple, which brings a vivid sense of ancient craftsmen irreverently amusing themselves in moments of down-time while also satirising – we are told – official forms of tomb painting.
But the show’s other star ancient piece, a Babylonian brick from 605-592BC, on which the brickie has carved his own name beside that of the mighty Nebuchadnezzar, is just – to the untutored gaze – a lump of very old, hard mud covered in inscrutable characters. It may be cocking a snook at authority, but it’s not exactly, well, Spitting Image is it?
So we go on through what feels like acres of Chinese scroll paintings with coded messages about the Cultural Revolution, misprinted bibles and teapots with hidden revolutionary symbols. It’s all sort of interesting, but hardly electrifying as a visual experience. Indeed, you probably have to be a magazine editor to get hugely excited about the fact that a tiny number 45 painted on an 18th-century teapot refers to a banned edition of satirist John Wilkes’s scathing periodical The North Briton.
A “pussyhat” from 2017, worn by feminists as a symbol of solidarity, brings things up date, though seen in isolation it’s just a pink woolly hat, barely noticeable in a corner of a cabinet otherwise devoted to the subversive attributes of 19th-century Sudanese dervish garments.
As with former BM director Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects series of exhibitions – on which I Object is clearly based – the interest is in the stories behind the objects, as much as the objects themselves. That information is perhaps best conveyed through the accompanying radio series and book, in which you can feel more directly the curator’s enthusiasm.
But if this exhibition feels, like many of MacGregor’s, a bit of a supporting sideshow to the main media event, it would be wrong to give the impression it’s entirely dull. I particularly loved the coins and banknotes tampered with by the general public to get their opinions into circulation, whether it’s a swastika stamped on a George VI penny, in protest at his brother Edward VIII’s alleged Nazi sympathies, or anti-Obama ravings scrawled on a $10 bill.
But the show’s most outrageous images aren’t those produced in today’s most extreme situations, such as Zimbabwe or Syria, but the late-Georgian satirical prints of James Gillray and Richard Newton. It’s hard to imagine that an image such as Gillray’s Fashionable Contrasts, 1792, showing the Duke of York, the then heir to the throne, on his marriage bed with the Princess of Prussia, seen through a close-up of their feet, would be tolerated even today. Yet far from receiving a one way ticket to the gallows for his pains, as you might expect, Gillray went on to considerable fame and fortune.
It’s a reminder that for all the faults of our political and media institutions, we’ve maintained the right to say “I object” through art longer, probably, than any other society in human history.