Boris Johnson’s Ascension to Prime Minister Leaves Artists Anxious—and Inspired Anish Kapoor to Make This Ribald Cartoon

The sculptor Anish Kapoor created an explicit artwork in response to the news that Boris Johnson is to become the UK's next prime minister.

Boris Johnson poses outside the Conservative Leadership Headquarters on July 23, 2019 in London, England. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

The art world is anxious about the ascension of Boris Johnson, the gaffe-prone conservative politician who was named the UK’s new prime minster today. The former mayor of London’s record on the arts is spotty; he has a history of supporting flashy, big-budget cultural infrastructure projects, but is also a staunch supporter of Brexit, which most agree will harm the arts sector.

Johnson has some family connections to the arts: his mother, Charlotte Johnson-Wahl, is an artist who made her name as a professional portrait painter, while his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, studied art history at the University of Warwick. “If he reaches the top, I’d feel very proud, but very anxious,” Johnson-Wahl told the Huffington Post in 2016. “It’s a ghastly job being prime minister.”

While Johnson-Wahl may be beaming proudly today, other artists are not so content with the turn of events. “Boris’s appointment worries me,” the artist Gavin Turk tells artnet News. “UK cultural life is at a critical point.” Turk, who recently took part in the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations urging action on climate change in London, stressed that the way the government addresses climate change and international relationships will be particularly significant for both the arts community and the country at large.

The British sculptor and outspoken Johnson critic Anish Kapoor, meanwhile, responded to artnet News’s request for comment about the UK’s next prime minister with a ribald artwork he created to express his feelings. (Warning to those who are squeamish: It’s explicit!)

Kapoor, who has spoken out against Brexit and does not support Johnson’s right-of-center politics, paired the image with an ironic quote inspired by a Peter Sellers song. Kapoor says, “Oh to be in England now my Johnson’s in a Twist,” a reference to the politician’s tangled love life.

Anish Kapoor. "Oh to be in England now that spring is here..."

Anish Kapoor’s Oh to be in England now my Johnsons in a twist…

Hannes Koch, co-founder of Random International, which has studios in London and Berlin, says: “Allowing the Tories to put a non-elected clown into power who wants to suspend parliament shows that a minuscule fraction of the British population are rather serious about their famed sense of humor.”

What Can We Expect?

After a landslide victory in the election to be the new Conservative Party leader, Johnson is due to meet the Queen on Wednesday. He will then begin forming a new government. While the journalist and former Mayor of London was chosen by an overwhelming number of Tory MPs and party members, he takes over a minority government that is as divided as the rest of the country. There is a growing number of rebel MPs in his own party who have pledged to stop an abrupt departure from the European Union at the end of October.

Johnson’s promise to deliver Brexit on October 31, “do or die, come what may,” was one of many pledges he made during the campaign to succeed Theresa May as prime minister. He has yet to comment on whether he plans to champion his predecessor’s post-Brexit festival, originally planned for 2022 to celebrate the UK’s departure from the EU. Although the festival was mocked by some, it is just the kind of grand cultural project that has appealed to Johnson in the past.

During his eight-year term as London’s mayor, Johnson was instrumental in the creation of the $28 million Orbit tower in East London, co-designed by Kapoor and sponsored by the Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. He was also a proponent of Thomas Heatherwick’s ill-fated Garden Bridge, a pricey, verdant crossing over the Thames that cost taxpayers more than $67 million before it was scrapped due to lack of funds and permitting problems. Heatherwick’s studio did not respond to a request for comment.

Johnson was also a belated supporter of the Fourth Plinth commissions, which bring a rotating public sculpture installation to Trafalgar Square. Artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, who contributed to the project, say Johnson’s capricious support is emblematic of his political approach. 

“When Boris Johnson campaigned to become mayor of London first time, one of his pledges involved cutting budgets for art projects like the Fourth Plinth,” Elmgreen told the Art Newspaper. Then he changed his mind. “Typically, he had strong opinions about subject matters he didn’t have any clue about, and then later he had to change his mind when he was finally confronted with the facts.”

The artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who founded the Art Party which campaigns for art education, says that Johnson is not a “complete philistine.” He realizes the power of art to express gravitas, seeing himself “as a Roman emperor stroke Churchillian figure.”

One of the key things Johnson needs to address is hate speech, the artist says. “Calling [women in burqas] ‘letter boxes’ for adhering to their religious observance is disgraceful and disturbing. Art is about communication but tolerance, civility, and respect must be advocated and celebrated, he says.

Freeports on the Horizon?

While the art market is likely to be hostile to Johnson due to his staunch support of Brexit, which poses hefty headaches for galleries and auction houses, he has also raised eyebrows for his pledge to establish pilot freeports in the UK after the country leaves the EU. These are areas seen as independent for customs purposes, which are particularly appealing to collectors who wish to store art tax-free.

Speaking in Belfast earlier this month, Johnson was enthusiastic about the idea of turning the city into a “Singapore-style tax-free zone,” the Guardian reports. Other than Belfast, his vision for the country sees freeports being introduced on the UK’s east coast including Teesside, Aberdeen, and Peterhead, and he has also seen cases made for turning Bristol, Grimsby, Hull, and Liverpool into free economic zones, according to the Financial TimesWhile Johnson sees the introduction of freeports as an “excellent” way to boost investment in neglected areas of the country, experts have predicted they would offer limited benefits.

“Arts are about people and funding and not really about trade. Freeports and trade agreements are of little use if you do not have free movement of people to inhabit our cities to create dynamic arts communities and enrich our lives and pose questions that need consideration,” Stacie McCormick, artist and founder of Workshop Foundation, which supports emerging and mid-career artists by giving them studio space, tells artnet News. “If Boris Johnson reads the evidence of the arts as a huge industry and generator of billions, perhaps he will see the merit in pursuing initiatives of support and hopefully we will have an education secretary who will put arts back in schools.”

Johnson was generally careful to avoid discussing specific policies during his campaign, relying instead on colorful rhetoric. But at least one of his close advisors has ties to the cultural sector. Munira Mirza, a trusted policy advisor from Johnson’s spell running London’s City Hall and his former deputy mayor for culture, is widely expected to join him in Downing Street. Now the head of culture at King’s College in London, Mirza is a Brexiteer who has been critical of multiculturalism in the past. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, there is no love lost between Johnson and Sadiq Khan, his successor as London’s mayor. Johnson has recently called Khan “useless.” Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street may earn a reprieve, however, for Norman Foster’s “Tulip” observation tower, which Khan has recently rejected due to “limited public benefit” and “insufficient quality” for the location near the Thames. The 1,000-foot-tall landmark in the City of London is just the sort of building that Johnson welcomed as mayor, and could now back as prime minister.

No one knows if Johnson’s time in Downing Street will last months—or years. If he fails to deliver Brexit on October 31, his promise to “do or die” may backfire spectacularly. Hannes Koch of Random International notes that the majority of people living in the UK did not vote for a hard Brexit. A majority of MPs are also opposed to withdrawing from Europe without a trade deal. With that in mind, Koch says Random International is staying put in London. “We consider London an absolutely amazing place to make art and do business. Whatever Boris wants to do to both, by the time he’ll get round to actually doing something about it, our bet is he’ll be long gone.”

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