Today I stopped by WAR Gallery in Eltham, shopfront and workshop to one Darren Cullen: artist, satirist, activist and general Daily Mail hater. Well, he’s spoken up about a lot of things, from Shell to The Sun via anything and everything military, but it was his spoof paper the Mini Daily Mail which first caught my attention. Trained initially in Advertising, Cullen uses his illustrations, ‘subvertising’ campaigns and multimedia artworks to critique organisations, corporations and societal norms with biting wit and darkly grotesque humour (anyone want to buy their child a ‘Paralysed Action Man’ figure for Christmas?). But he doesn’t stop there, using his artistic ability and perseverance as a political agitator to really disrupt people and ‘mess things up’.
The level of commitment here is impressive, going so far as to receive a Cease & Desist from Shell for his ‘Hell’ rebranding, which he managed to get out of with pure sarcasm. This is art as anarchy with the intention to cause as much disruption and, if possible, damage, to those usually too powerful for one person to affect. But through art, and with the help of the media, Cullen achieves the unlikely, while constantly keeping us laughing.
When he’s not publicly irritating global corporations, Cullen’s work is still effective in drawing attention to certain causes, working with charities for anti-military propaganda, or highlighting the less savoury elements of society. Sometimes raising awareness is enough – if presented effectively, an idea, concept, revelation will stick in someone’s mind until it causes them to make a different decision to one they may have made previously, or it is forgotten. After discovering the Metro is in fact owned by the Daily Mail, Cullen made stickers advertising this fact to enlighten Metro readers (it is the most circulated free paper in the country). Did it work? Did anyone stop reading the Metro after this exposure? We don’t know, but it does suggest art can potentially generate social and political change.
I’ve thought much on the power of political cartooning, not only in highlighting the ridiculous situations governments get themselves into, but also going so far as to pressurise politicians and function as the long, poking arm of the media. It is the meeting point of journalism and art, allowing the cartoonist to advocate for whatever they think is important. Cartoons published within newspapers are subject to regulations, but with the heyday of the internet, artists and cartoonists have been given free reign to support any cause, and begin to make a difference. This is not true everywhere – many cartoonists globally are censored strictly and put in threatened positions, an aggressive narrow-mindedness which led to the tragic Charlie Hebdo attack, and which has landed many in prison or to becoming victims of worse injustices.
From the powerful antisemitism of Yaakov Kirschen’s Dry Bones strip, to Iranian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi’s resistance magazine Black & White, worldwide art is being used to effect change. I’ve gone slightly off tangent here, down the cartooning route, but this is all art as activism. Cullen’s work breaches the boundaries of cartooning, fine art, journalism and advertising, but the principle is the same, arguably making the case for art having such a responsibility. A responsibility towards making a point, challenging an opinion, shifting perspective. Humour here is key – it makes you drop your guard and guides you to seeing something from a different viewpoint, sometimes without you even noticing. It can communicate anger and outrage in a way that is more relatable for the viewer or reader, and has the freedom to be mercilessly cruel.
Oh, and it’s all funny as hell.
Hit up his website https://www.spellingmistakescostlives.com/
All images credited to Darren Cullen.