UK Artists Protest the Government's Plot to Privatize National Health Service

Detalhe de "Mr. Cameron, You Have a Problem" de Goshka Macuga
(Cortesia Artists for the NHS)

Who said artists were apolitical? As the British government's Health and Social Care Bill returns to Parliament this week, contemporary artists have launched a campaign to protest what would effectively be the privatisation of a large section of Britain's National Health Services — the biggest reorganization of the NHS in its 64-year history.

Plotted by writer Niru Ratnam and curator Sarah McCrory in conversation with GP campaigner Jonathon Tomlinson, the blog "Artists for the NHS" went live on February 1st, and features posters by Scott King, Ryan Gander, Goshka Macuga, Richard Wentworth, and John Hill for the artists collective Lucky PDF. Further contributions by Alistair Frost, Nick Relph, and Spartacus Chetwynd are also in the pipeline.

The blog, explained Ratnam to ARTINFO, is "produced with a non-expert point of view," to "add another dimension to the debate," and encourage people to sign the e-petition created by Dr Kailash Chand OBE, GP and chairman of Tameside and Glossop NHS. This morning, 47,754 signatures had been gathered. Under Downing Street regulations, if the count reaches 100,000 the government is obliged to pursue the matter.

The artists who answered Ratnam and McCrory's call are not, says the writer, "the ones you would normally see in the newspapers." Turner Prize-nominee Macuga has produced a hospital-leaflet-like picture showing a doctor examining a patient with the caption: "Mr Cameron, you have a problem, only the NHS can save you." Gander has contributed with a stark "Wot No NHS?," King's reproduced a (faux?) comment from an X Factor contestant about her experience at the hospital, and Wentworth dug out his "In Labour, Better Births" poster first produced for a Labour Party fundraiser.

This project is symptomatic of the artistic community's renewed political involvement after the two-decade-long lull of the "bling era." Last year, more than a hundred artists including Anthony Caro, Martin Boyce, Tracey Emin, and Anish Kapoor, rallied to support the "Save the Arts" campaign against the government's 25 percent cuts in art funding. The campaign is now over, but the Visual Arts London Strategy Group will continue to develop some of the ideas generated during Save the Arts.

"Artists for the NHS" is also another sign of the growing discontent with the government's proposed reform, which has been condemned by major health professional associations in the country including the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Midwives. The Health Service Journal, Nursing Times, and British Medical Journal recently published a joint editorial claiming that the new system would be "unstable," and MPs are currently discussing a cross-party strategy to bring the reform to the halt.

Artists are now bringing their tongue-in-cheek wit to the conversation, hoping to further it in non-specialist circles. It could well be just the beginning. Last week BMA council member Dr. Jacky Davis tweeted: "'Wot No NHS?' should be on the side of every bus."

"Artists for the NHS" is currently run on a shoestring, and mass printing is not an option yet — but considering how quickly they are garnering support, things could change quickly. On the blog the group state: "we’re calling [the artists' contributions] posters, because if we get some money some day soon, we will print them up as posters, which you can then go and stick on the car-screens of those good folk who working for those private firms like KPMG who are rubbing their hands in anticipation of making lots of cash from what used to be the NHS."

If the Bill isn't stopped, the new health laws will take effect in Britain will start in April 2013. 

To see posters from the "Artists for the NHS" campaign, click the slide show.