The Aesthetics of Politics

Image by Laurie Avon

Image by Laurie Avon


Barney Fagan

The end of last month saw the streets of London became a sea of blue and yellow as the People's March stormed the capital carrying an array of picket signs which expressed their dismay at the government’s actions on Brexit. Hundreds of thousands of signs compared our countries leading politicians with figures from contemporary culture. Theresa May as Medusa Gorgon from Greek Mythology, Nigel Farage as the ever-grinning villain Randal from Monsters Inc. and Jacob Rees Mogg as the spineless Walter from the Beano comic series. 

Indeed, it was moving to see such a large number of people collate to express their shared dissatisfaction in such a positive manner. However, through interrogating the visual nature of this protest we can begin to understand some of the wider issues that have lead to the public’s recent dismay with Brexit and with wider politics in general – questioning how our politicians are misusing the power of non-verbal communication and beginning to speculate on how they could use their aesthetics in a more productive manner.

The general public's ability to caricature our politicians so perfectly could be attributed to how today's MP’s do this to themselves on a daily basis – preferring to be recognised as memorable cartoon characters rather than the political experts they are supposed to be. Our current lot of MP’s are often eager to depict themselves as easily identifiable, distinguishable characters in an attempt to get us to vote according to their personalities rather then what they are offering to us as politicians. The clown-like Boris Johnson or Tim Nice but Dim impersonating David Cameron are prime examples of politicians purposefully embodying stereotypes that will make them easily recognisable and more entertaining. Though a distinguishing appearance isn’t an inherently negative thing, when it is used to distract people from the actual issues at hand in an attempt to get them to vote for the most bombastic entertainer we are left with a political climate that is based on appearances rather than on policies. By extension, Theresa May's self-deprecating dancing or Nigel Farage's pints-with-the-lads feel like a ridiculous, patronising effort to entertain and distract the public rather than express their views on what their parties intend to do. 

This belittles the public by treating us like the audience of a pantomime who can only understand over exaggerated characters and are incapable of engaging with the actualities of our politics. In short, the over-cooked personalities of our current MP’s encourages us to engage with their appearances and personalities rather than their politics.

On the public side, tribalism is the main culprit behind our current relationship with politics. The blue and yellow wore by many at the march signified support for the EU. Yet the close resemblance of this crowd to that of a football match brings into question whether the public was showing the same blind faith as the majority of football fans. 

Do political parties encourage the same lifelong loyalty and groupthink found in most fans of sport? And does this loyalty then lead us to ignore developments in contemporary politics? It could be claimed that a majority of voters associate themselves with one party, as with a football club, and in spite of their actual policies, they will always vote for their 'home team'. Though it is understandable that parties should represent a fairly consistent mindset thus maintain the same following, this type of support shows a lack of engagement in the realities of our politics and how its implementation can affect our daily lives.

Recent politics have shown that politicians can hide behind their parties’ perceived masks while failing to uphold the beliefs of their own party - Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to create any strong resistance against Brexit being a prime example of this – with his personal views being at a huge disconnect with those of his biggest fans. This emotional support and dedication means many fail to engage with the reality of who or what we are actually voting for.

If parties use aesthetics to help the public to understand their policies and their impact instead of using them as a smokescreen it would lead to a more honest politics then what we are currently used to. Parties should use design instead to visualise manifestos, much like the work of Dunne & Raby or as seen on the television series Black Mirror, we would have a public of generally more informed voters who are less baffled by the impact of their votes. These visualisations would make policies more understandable and their potential impact more tangible. The outcomes of our votes would be more predictable and we could feel greater security and satisfaction in our voting mechanisms.

If we removed the masks of our politicians and the de facto party loyalty felt by so many supporters of parties, voters could diversify in their vote for individual policies or wider trains of thought. This would hopefully lead to less blind loyalty and encourage voters to inform themselves of what they are voting for.  By removing parties and their aesthetic fronts, we can encourage a system that focuses on the realities of politics rather than the celebrity of politicians.

This article barely touches the surface of how our current political system uses aesthetics to misinform and distract us. However, in light of our recent political movements and the frustrations they have to lead to, it would be a valuable exercise to begin to question the aesthetics of our current political climate and question how we could begin to change them to aid ourselves in our democratic process.

Elliot Leavy