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Peter Kennard Interview

As a retrospective opens at the Imperial War Museum, the British artist who has been at the forefront of feisty political art since the 1960s tells us about a half-century as one of Brit art’s original bad boys

Written by
Martin Coomer

How did you get into art?
‘I was at the Slade School of Fine Art. I got into demonstrating in ’68 against the war in Vietnam and I wanted to start relating my work to what I was doing, so I switched when I was there from making more painterly work to using photographic imagery.’

How did that go down at college?
‘Not brilliantly. My degree show was next to the gent’s bog!’

From beside the bogs to a museum retrospective – that’s an impressive career trajectory!
‘It’s great to be showing here because when you see all the people coming in, they’re not coming here for art, so hopefully in that sense it will have more effect on them. It’s also an amazing opportunity because 50 percent of visitors seem to be schoolkids, so the ones that go through the museum and make it up here to the third floor will get a different image of war that they can relate to differently.’

Hence your ‘unofficial war artist’ tag?
'That was meant for this this place. Obviously not all the official war artists are pro-war or anything, but they’ve been employed by the government, while I’ve never been employed in that way.’

Can you see that happening?

Your work has a clarity that some contemporary art lacks. Is that something you’ve worked hard to maintain?
'I do think that if you’re making work like this it’s for the public, and if the public don’t get it outside of art galleries then it’s a problem. You’ve got to be very clear.’

Looking around the show, it seems a lot of the issues you’ve made work about, like nuclear disarmament, are still with us. Must be a bit of a downer?
‘It’s depressing that the same issues are there. My generation, which is now ruling the world, fucked up in that sense. We didn’t actually get any great changes and there’s more and more money being spent on weaponry. But my optimism is in young people who feel more engaged now than they did in the past. With the art students I work with there’s a feeling that they want to find ways to express stuff that’s looking outwards, rather than art about art. They’re interested in much more readily available materials and stuff that comes from their lives, because their lives are much more difficult. They’re paying for their studentships.’

You’re a bit of a hero among street artists, how does that make you feel?
‘My stuff got taken up by the street art people which is great, because it’s another generation who are influenced. Mind you, I get emails from kids saying “you’re ripping off Banksy” for stuff I did years ago!’ 

Banksy’s a pal, isn’t he?
‘We went to Palestine with “Santa’s Ghetto” and worked on the wall. He made a print that people had to come and buy – they couldn’t buy it online. They had to come through Tel Aviv airport and they got quite a shock. The print sold out and all the money stayed in Palestine for a project. He does do a lot of good stuff with the money he makes.’

Copyright is a big issue in art at the moment, are you still cool with people borrowing your imagery?
‘Yeah, absolutely, I’m copyleft on that one. That’s one of the great things about the internet, the work can circulate around and around. That’s why we’ve got T-shirts and badges on display to show that that thing between high art and non-art is breakable and is happening more and more. But I’m really into galleries as well. I think it’s quite snobbish for artists to have an anti-art stance when their whole world is about thinking about art and going to galleries. It’s a sort of hypocrisy. I love art and always have done.’

Any favourite London artworks?
‘I’m a bit boring on that front. I’ve got the Rembrandt self-portrait at Kenwood House at the top of my list because I’ve been looking at that since I was ten, I think, and I just go back year after year after year. It’s extraordinary.’ 

So you’re a Londoner born and bred?
‘I’ve moved from Paddington to Hackney. That’s as far as I’ve got! 

Any studio rituals?
‘I go into the studio every day and start working with stuff. I’ve got a lot of material and a chaos of objects around. I put the radio on, read the paper and then things start flowing. One of the criticisms against me is that I don’t go to the places I make work about, but I think it’s really important that someone is getting all this information in and trying to make something of it. It’s about consciousness isn’t it, art? So for me it’s about raising ideas, concerns, it’s not about telling people what to do. I get people coming up to me and saying, “I saw your stuff years ago and got involved with Amnesty”, and that’s really satisfying.’

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