Take the power back: Art and social inequality

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An eclectic touring show takes a long, hard look at 500 years of inequality in British society. Politicians could learn a thing or two from these straight-talking artists, says Tom Lubbock

What does possession mean to you?" If you were around and looking in 1976, you may remember a poster that carried that question.

It looked like an advert straight out of the Sunday Times colour magazine. The typeface was right. The lifestyle was right. It showed a trendy young couple in a tender embrace. It was a dream of seductive consumerism. But if you were in any doubt about what possession really meant to them, there was the picture's subtitle: "7% of our population own 84% of our wealth."

A punch line, smack in the eye. Sheer inequality is our desire. This untypically forthright statement was devised by the British conceptual artist, Victor Burgin, and the dramatic statistic he quoted was much circulated at the time (It also inspired the title of John McGrath's agitprop theatre company, "7:84"). I'm not sure exactly what the proportions would be today: even more spectacular, I think.

You'll now find this cool and sardonic parody-advert showing amongst much older bits of propaganda, and some more recent ones too. Rank: Picturing the Social Order 1516-2009 displays images of power, class, wealth and their disparities over five centuries in Britain. It opens at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland on Friday.

Rank? Picturing the social order? It sounds rather a solid, studied historical survey. Actually, it's most clarifying. It offers a way of looking, both sharply and bluntly, at things that our euphemistic political language generally evades. Although the economic catastrophe has loosened tongues a little, our leaders still prefer soft talk: background, status, underprivileged, the better-off. Images can show matters in a more uninhibited way, both raw truths and naked lies.

Rank gathers widely, mixing art and non. Its earliest work is a Renaissance illustration, the island of Utopia from Sir Thomas Moore's communistic classic. It ends up with some very inventively visualised graphs. In the meantime, there are broadsides and cartoons, allegories and diagrams, photos and one or two paintings.

Their visual presentation gives them a print-room seriousness, the works illuminated out of semi-darkness. But whatever their medium, high or low, these pictures are persuaders. Their job is to praise and give thanks, deride or denounce, idealise and ironise.

So it's a show that's going to divide its viewers. I don't mean so much between Left and Right, as between the political and the arty. And we the arty will prefer it when the message is a little ambiguous. We don't like to be told. There are many images of rule, but we'll be drawn especially to Gerhard Richter's Elizabeth I, a portrait of our queen, painted in 1966 very faintly and blurrily from a black-and-white photo. What obscurely gentle iconoclasm is being performed upon the youthful royal face?

And we'll be pleased to find that ambiguity isn't only a recent pleasure. Take these two prints from the 17th century, just post-Civil War. There's the engraved frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes' treatise, Leviathan. A colossus bestrides the world, a regal giant whose body is composed of tiny figures, and represents the all-embracing state that the philosopher recommends. Does this menacing figure really promise a beneficent order?

Or there's a woodcut showing the world turned upside down, The Cats' Castle Besieged and Stormed by the Rats. Is this merry triumph of weak over strong really a warning against the terrors of disorder? (But note also the class distinctions, the pictorial class distinctions, at work: fine engraving versus rough woodcut).

Still, genuinely uncertain messages are the exceptions. The works in Rank, whether speaking straight or ironically, are generally sure in what they're for or against. That doesn't mean they always avoid unwanted complication. Moral and visual can get badly tangled up, and you may get the impression that the devil has all the best pictures.

After all, if you like visual drama, choose inequality. The worse the social conditions, the higher the contrasts. In Gustave Doré's London: a Pilgrimage, the Victorian lower depths are staged as a gothic horror. Ethics cry for change. But aesthetics want this world to stay as it is, in its atmospheric chiaroscuro of grime and spooky darkness.

Or take the Pyramid of Capitalist System, the anarchist poster showing society's tiers as a wedding-cake stack, from plutocrats and priests down to proletariat. "We Rule You, We Fool You", it goes, "We Shoot at You, We Eat for You" and (at the bottom) "We Work for All, We Feed All". But how flat it would be, if this image really showed what it seems to want, a non-exploitative system, with everyone living happily on a single and cooperative level.

Or there are those world maps, produced by Sheffield University, reshaped to reflect global wealth distribution. The landmasses we know are subjected to radical distortions, with Africa a shrunken shred, Japan and Shanghai inflated pillows. It's striking how it produces a genuinely expressive caricature. And how dull again, if the world's wealth was properly spread, and every coastline just looked as it actually does.

But this is too simple a judgement. It's not only evils that stir. Positive scenes can have their power too. I'm thinking especially of the work of the Scottish artist Chad McCail. Rank does have some of his weird diagram-cartoons of robot-capitalists, but I wish instead the exhibition had included his serenely utopian panoramas. They show what candour and conviction can do.

Drawn in the simple, helpful style of an instructional leaflet, luminously coloured, they have descriptive titles like People Take Turns To Do the Difficult Jobs, Wealth Is Shared, Money Is Destroyed, Prisoners Are Freed, People Stop Using Things. At first you presume irony. After a while, their wide-eyed revolutionary wishes become glowingly believable. You feel the world should and could be that way. McCail's visions are the most emotionally interesting political art being made.

A Left agenda broadly dominates here. But the views of the Right are represented, and it puts up a fair showing too. Sound structures, just relations between rich and poor, national unity, and on the other hand the horrors of anarchy, civil strife and levelling down: if you're at all susceptible, these can make strong pictures.

The bad Pyramid is countered by positive hierarchies, like the divinely-supported Great Chain of Being, or the benignly collaborative The British Beehive. There's that rich pageant of an essentially cohesive populace, Frith's painting of Derby Day; and vicious cartoons of a rebel-rabble. And John Bull is an interesting archetype: the way that he's always rather bolshy only makes him a more effective figure of long-suffering loyalty.

But these are very trad blandishments. There isn't much in the show along these lines from recent times. Understandably: we find such persuaders unpersuasive now (they may still roar at the proms, but how utterly dead in the waves lies our old symbol, Britannia). It just isn't how image-power works for us. On the other hand, a very obvious medium of obedience is being omitted here.

The whole modern advertising industry is an advertisement for capitalism, and for the desires and assumptions that sustain it, through images that are far more subtle and successful than almost any on the walls of Rank. Ads are recognised here, but only in parodic form, as if ads themselves were just the air we breathe, and not our most carefully crafted imagery of social idealism. It's an important omission.

If anything provides a picture of our living social order, it's advertisements. They should have had some in Rank, and preferably some of those nice vintage ones, which we all feel so sentimental about now, as if their designs could be a force only for pure good. Pears Soap, the Bisto kids, the Guinness toucan: ah! That would have made the point most prickingly.

"Rank – Picturing the Social Order 1516-2009": Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland (0191-561 1235; www.ngca.co.uk) from 15 May to 11 July; then at Grundy Gallery, Blackpool (01253 478170; www.blackpool.gov.uk) 24 July to 5 September

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