Death and hope on a canvas

Can painting really make a difference to our war-ravaged world? Probably not, writes John Keane, but

I was recently asked in a magazine questionnaire who has had the greatest influence on me as an artist. That question always stumps me, and while I could acknowledge at various times the vague influence of many, from Otto Dix to Andy Warhol, no single individual artist could I think of. Then I jotted down the name George Orwell, and this seemed to fit rather better. It seems, alas, significant that the only artist I could think of was a writer, and that no visual artists sprang to mind who attempted to engage with the real world in the way that I wished to. I dislike the term "political artist", for it implies an ideo- logical axe to grind, and nobody likes to be lectured in a work of art - unless it's to have prejudices confirmed.

But Orwell himself declared that to make art that is not political is itself a political stance. My theory is that all (good) art is drawing. By that I mean that it is a representation of reality that can be recognised and felt by the person experiencing the work. This doesn't mean it has to be figurative. It can be in pencil on paper, but it could also be words on a page, images on a screen or choreography on a stage. The medium, apart from personal preference, is irrelevant. The recognition in the viewer of something that says "this is what it's like to be human" is what makes the work, well, work. I am interested in the process of painting, and why human beings want to kill one another for political ends. I attempt to reconcile these two apparently diverse preoccupations by smearing pigment around on canvas in an effort to produce a result, the success of which can be measured by how well it disguises the sheer preposterousness of the attempt.

My personal catalyst was the Falklands war, an event I dealt with in my own clumsy way, through my work. My previously hedonistic outlook on life gave way to an endeavour to understand my personal (and, by implication, every individual's) relationship to the rest of the world. My charmed life, in the sense that I had been brought up in a largely stable society, not traumatised by war as my parents' generation had been and spared having to fight for my survival, was by no means the norm for millions across the world. To gain some kind of perspective on this, I have travelled with various projects over the years to Central and South America, Northern Ireland, the 1991 Gulf war and, more recently, Israel/Palestine. These projects, sometimes initiated by myself, sometimes at the invitation of organisations such as Greenpeace and Christian Aid, have been attempts to understand and distil first-hand experience into painting, taking care that it doesn't fall into the category of journalism or agitprop.

But to what effect has all this effort been? I might flippantly point to the fact that the IRA has decommissioned its weapons, or that Sharon has pulled out of Gaza. But actually it is a good question. What is the point of doing work that is (however much I dislike the term) construed as "political"? Another question I am often asked is what I hope people will go away with from my paintings, and I have to say I don't honestly know. If I were really serious about causing direct change, I would work for Oxfam or the UN. However, I still have a deeply felt sense, perhaps a legacy of growing up in the Sixties, that the world can be a very bad place and that it is up to us to make it better.

Can anything I do really alter anything? Probably not, but somehow that doesn't deter me. Did a single bullet remain in its cartridge, or has a single torturer ever had second thoughts, because of a work of art? Highly improbable. Romantic I may be, but the cynic in me realises that art alone won't save us from ourselves. Indeed, some artists have indirectly inspired or perpetrated violence - Lennon/McCartney (Manson murders), Siqueiros (took part in an attempt on Trotsky's life), Wagner, Mishima, etc.

I think the real answer about the political significance of art is much more subtle than simple cause and effect. In my formative years, and beyond, I absorbed a canon of work in many artistic mediums, notable examples of which have struck a chord in me that says "this is what it's like to be human", and even though their message may have been bleak, they have been life- affirming. This is what constitutes being moved by a work of art. It may not happen that often for any single person, but when you put together all the people in the world, it's happening millions of times every day. In my naively optimistic way, I nurture some kind of belief that this has a sort of drip, drip effect on humanity - in the same way, perhaps, that rock'n'roll had on the Warsaw Pact. The collapse of the Iron Curtain probably owes more to the Beatles than to the Bomb. I suppose my justification for fiddling in my studio while much of the world continues to burn is that, in my own small way, I can contribute to that canon.

John Keane is developing an opera about the Moscow theatre siege with the National Theatre Studio. His new paintings will be shown at Flowers East, London E2, from 31 March to 29 April 2006. For more info, call 020 7920 7777

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Barack Obama