Why David Hockney Shouldn’t Have Lent His Name to a Right-Wing British Tabloid

Tess Thackara
Feb 9, 2017 8:18PM

Via @hendopolis on Twitter.

The British artist David Hockney is a hugely important painter who has had considerable influence on contemporary art. And in a major tribute to that legacy, a large selection of his work, from all periods of his six-decade-long career, has just gone on view at London’s Tate Britain. The retrospective is already receiving wide acclaim.

Which is why many, myself included, were baffled and a bit horrified by Hockney’s decision to throw his cultural clout behind The Sun newspaper, one of Britain’s most salacious and fear-mongering tabloids. On Friday, February 3rd, for one day, the tabloid’s logo was replaced with Hockney’s iPad-drawn version—a jubilant sun, white on red, radiating out over the paper’s italic block letters.

The Sun has been a leading voice in Britain’s pro-Brexit faction, routinely peddling a politics of fear, sensationalism, and jingoism. In an op-ed, Jane Martinson wrote in The Guardian that in the six-month period before Britons went to the polls to vote on the EU referendum, The Sun ran 15 cover stories about migrants, helping to stir up xenophobia and racism. And what newspapers print is important. According to a professor of communication and media at Loughborough University, who is referenced in the report, the media exerts enormous influence over what people think about.

During the week of the U.K.’s historic vote on whether or not to remain in the European Union, The Sun’s front page was emblazoned with the words: “BeLeave in Britain,” and a vote “Leave” editorial stated: “To remain means being powerless to cut mass immigration which keeps wages low and puts catastrophic pressure on our schools, hospitals, roads and housing stock.” The substance of this claim is almost entirely myth.

Whatever Hockney’s intention in creating a doodle header for The Sun, any hidden message or satire—as some have read into it—is too obscure to register. Besides, his declaration that he is a lifelong fan of the publication suggests this is unlikely. Instead, Hockney has lent his hand and heavyweight art-world status to a newspaper that habitually fans intolerance among its readers.

It’s worth noting, too, that although it’ll be a while before we know the true impact of Brexit on the art world, the arts community in Britain is overwhelmingly pro-Europe and fears that a lack of access to EU grants and a decline in the country’s diverse pool of foreign artistic talent will stifle creativity.

The response to Hockney’s header has been mixed. Jonathan Jones published (also in The Guardian) an effusive, surface-deep ode to Hockney’s riff. “Hockney has let the light in on the Sun,” he opines. “He has transformed the bold, brassy title that glares from newsagents into an optimistic vision of the world’s beauty. His drawing reminds us of the joy of living on a planet warmed by that yellow star.”

Well, we may not have that particular pleasure for long if the The Sun continues to give a platform to climate-change deniers like the irreputable alt-right Breitbart editor James Delingpole.

Take the work for what it is, separate from the context, some might say. But in this case, the work is the context: the newspaper’s very identity and clear conservative agenda that stokes people’s worst impulses and encourages ignorance. In times like these, any decision to add your name and influence to a source of misinformation should not be taken lightly. Hockney has channeled his influence into a wellspring of xenophobia, which is the scourge of contemporary politics the world over.

Tess Thackara