Artist's Statement: Bob and Roberta Smith on running against Michael Gove in the 2015 general election

By Ben Miller | 15 January 2015

Vote Bob: Artist Bob and Roberta Smith pays first visit to Michael Gove's Surrey Heath constituency, sans battlebus

An image of a man standing in front of a railway station sign holding up a voting sign
Bob and Roberta Smith pays his first visit to Camberley, in the Surrey Heath constituency where he will stand for Parliament this May© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
"I didn’t know Camberley very well. I’m actually from south-west London, so it was great to go.

I’ve definitely got one certain voter. A nice woman called Karen recognised me and ran up to me in a restaurant.

A photo of two people sitting in a restaurant behind a sign which says vote for art
The artist with his first guaranteed voter© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
She teaches drama, so she’s very upset about how the emphasis on that in schools is sliding away.

Over the coming weeks, starting in February, we want to set up this sketchbook club. I’m going to be asking various artist friends and writers to come to see Surrey Heath and help me campaign.

First I’m taking John Rogers, who wrote This Other London, and we’re going to do a psychogeographical walk.

We’re going to dig out all the subterranean histories and laylines, asking people to come along with us.

I’m going to paint views of Surrey Heath. I’m also going to paint slogans inspired by people in Surrey Heath and why they love the arts on my battlebus, which is a T25 Volkswagen campervan.

Hopefully, over the weeks the bus will become more decorated with slogans about why constituents really love the arts.

One of the things that strikes me about Surrey Heath is that it has a local theatre which does receive some money from the local council. So in a way, what’s good for Surrey Heath should be good for the rest of the country.

It has a lovely, really great local library, the sort of amenities that we think it should have, but that are being fought for in other areas of the country.

I can’t really say that it’s hugely well-served, but it seems to have things that one would want of a town.

The reason why I’m standing, in reality, is to try to get the arts into the conversation of the election. Part of the inspiration is what Roosevelt did during the Depression in the United States during the 1930s.

They put a lot of emphasis on the arts via The Works Progress administration, this kind of Keynesian idea. But actually the artists involved in that programme did generate the kind of iconic masterworks of the 1950s, strangely.

One of the things that the arts can do in times of difficulty is provide direction and optimism, which is the truth as much as it feels like a depressing time at the moment.

Even quite good people, like Russell Brand, are trying to make capital or raise a profile about politics but really being rather profoundly negative.

The truth is, eventually, things will look up. And they will only look up if people hold things together and don’t atomise various factions.

The arts provide hope. One of the reasons to do it is to remind people that there is a way forward.

It’s really about art education. We’re trying to raise people’s awareness of the diminution of arts in schools. It’s a budgetary thing, but if you had warmer words and maintenance of some of the structures for teacher education then that would be good.

Next time we’re going to go to Frimley. It’s quite a big area: I think something around 60,000 people.

Obviously I am campaigning to win, but to retain my deposit I need to get quite a lot of voters, about 3,000.

A photo of a man crouching down on a railway station platform next to a voting slogan
A simple yet effective message© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
The important thing is to introduce every child to the idea of visuality. The arts are – and this is a government statistic – worth £71.4 billion to the economy. On a very basic level there’s that argument about jobs and saying 'well, the government’s actually got it a bit wrong if they think only teaching a narrow band of core subjects is the way forward.'

What we need to do is introduce kids to a broad array of subjects so that they can be part of the huge and lucrative creative economy. It’s also hard-nosed and about the economy.

The campaign is not so much about the DCMS and the funding of arts, but of course there are real issues there that do look rather bleak. Local authority funding for arts is going to be the next big cliff that we’re gonna drop off, basically.

It’s about hope and community. In big cities it’s about saying ‘why do people want to come and invest in cities?’

In Newcastle, for instance, which has basically removed most of its funding for the arts, Labour is saying ‘don’t bother coming to Newcastle’, effectively.

People not only want work but they want to go out in a city that’s vibrant and thriving. It’s a bit like saying ‘we’re going to economise on petrol by removing the spark plugs.’ All these local councils will find that their towns are stagnating.

Budgets for the NHS, health and the military are huge compared with the budget for the arts, which has gone down from about 7p to about 3.5p in every £100.

You could push that down or you could double it – it would make no difference to floating the economy or damaging these other services.

It’s about the proportion of that spend and making people aware. You could double the amount of money spent on the arts.

A photo of a man sitting on a train holding a slogan saying vote bob for more art
On the campaign trail© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
It would drive investment, make lots of people excited, think that there’s a future. That may be a Keynesian view of things, which is not popular, but it would help.

I think art is a campaign, whether people acknowledge it or not, for humanity and saying that human beings make art. It’s not an abstract, alienated thing. We all have culture.

It seems like a very logical thing to run in the election. I think artists can make a real, very good contribution to politics because art is about looking.

You look at something, make a judgement and act upon it. That’s what artists do all the time, in the very traditional sense of making a drawing.

In the back of my mind I thought it would be fun to do. It’s more bureaucratic for me because I don’t have very strong links with the area, although my sister actually lives in Guildford, the neighbouring constituency.

I’m hoping that lots of artists will stand in the election as independents. It would be great if they brought up sensible things about teacher education and art schools, because I think that’s the real political issue.

There isn’t going to be a unified manifesto because I don’t think art is about that, really. I hope that the campaign itself is somehow an artistic effort.

I am actually genuinely quite excited about it. I bang on about democracy and I think artists should be more involved in politics.

When you get involved, it’s interesting to see how the nuts and bolts of the democratic system work. I’m not depressed about it.

A photo of an artwork showing a man's face and various slogans about the need for art
"Art, craft, music, design, dance and drama in our schools and in our lives"© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
The response I’ve had has been 100 percent positive about the campaign. People understand that I’m probably not going to be elected, but what I’m trying to do is to make the arts an election issue.

It only costs £500 – if you stand in a constituency that’s a bit more benign than Surrey Heath you may even get your deposit back.

It’s a very, very safe Conservative seat. Michael Gove got 52 percent here. What I’m trying to say is that left, right and centre people are concerned about the arts.

People have cultural aspirations for their kids: you want your kid to be great at the violin or have a great voice or be a talented artist. Or perhaps sporting achievements.

What I’m also trying to say is that the arts are about migration. I spend a lot of my time in Europe making exhibitions and that’s afforded to me because we’re part of the European community.

Free speech and travelling around…when artists did The Grand Tour, those were the beginnings of the European community.

So I’m trying to say to the more sensible wing of the Conservative party: you are pro-Europe. Vote for me and I’ll be batting on that wicket.

People from the left and centre won’t have their vote wasted in the constituency because the more votes I get the more the campaign will have a power which will run beyond the election.

If I’m able to take votes significantly away from the Conservatives it will say to people that even in Michael Gove’s constituency, people are really worried and they want their kids to study art in schools. There is a real positive and obvious political aim to it.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

An image of a slogan extolling the virtues of art in colourful lettering against yellow
© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
An image of a slogan extolling the virtues of art in colourful lettering against yellow
© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
An image of a slogan extolling the virtues of art in colourful lettering against yellow
© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
An image of a slogan extolling the virtues of art in colourful lettering against yellow
© Courtesy Bob and Roberta Smith
More from Culture24's coverage of the independent candidate for Surrey Heath:

Bob and Roberta Smith makes it onto Fourth Plinth - via Walsall

Bob and Roberta Smith to tour Tower Hamlets for stories of Old Flo

Lights Out: Jeremy Deller and Bob and Roberta Smith help commemorate outbreak of First World War

Bob & Roberta Smith's Art on the Underground project launches on Central Line for Olympics

Bob & Roberta Smith Builds The Ruins Of Democracy At Baltic

Visit Scarborough in November and paint Michael Gove: Art Party Conference launches
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