Opinion

How art helps us make sense of an uncertain world

In our age of constant, mind-numbing information overload, art plays an ever-more crucial role in drawing attention to big issues and challenging dogma.

Mural of a woman's face in a decaying urban space

Artwork by Rone featured in Reclaiming the Lost - A Big Issue art special, curated by My Dog Sighs

This week Big Issue sellers become key players in the art world. You know how this works: vendors buy magazines for half the cover price, sell them on to brilliant buyers and keep the profit. 

Every edition we put together is a masterpiece, of course, but this one a little more so. The cover has been created by acclaimed street artist My Dog Sighs who has also curated a special look at how art reclaims the lost, from entire areas in decline to rusty tin cans and a shuttered Sainsbury’s. 

His art – and that of the fellow artists he’s included – is startling, inspiring, provocative. It can be disruptive too, which is why you might spot signs of My Dog Sighs dotted throughout the pages, bringing meaning to the margins. 

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In our age of constant, mind-numbing information overload, art plays an ever-more crucial role in drawing attention to big issues and challenging dogma. Especially public art, which by its nature requires us to participate, to decide the meaning for ourselves.

Last month The Big Issue spoke to Jen Reid, the activist who climbed on top of Edward Colston’s plinth in Bristol after the slave trader’s statue was toppled and chucked in the harbour. The vacant space above the empty plinth symbolises so much about the unspoken, the unspeakable, the loss. The plaque remains. “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city – AD 1895.” Art can measure a change in attitudes. It was the virtue and wisdom of Bristolians that brought down the statue too.

There’s another plinth visited by climbers. The sculpture of the Duke of Wellington (and horse) in Glasgow has become a mascot for the city thanks to the tipsy revellers that scale the statue to place a traffic cone on his head, pricking the pomposity of that emblem of empire. Wellington stands guard outside the Gallery of Modern Art, currently hosting Banksy’s superb Cut & Run exhibition. In his introduction to the show, Banksy explains “it’s my favourite work of art in the UK and the reason I’ve brought the show here”.

GoMA was originally built as a palace for William Cunninghame in 1778, a merchant who made his fortune from, you guessed it, tobacco plantations and slave labour. His former home currently contains a prototype of Stormzy’s Glastonbury stab vest, picture frame shredder and dozens of stencils responsible for creating the most striking and notorious art of our age. Banksy and other street artists have made us reconsider the role of art and our relationship to the streets of our towns and cities.

Art encourages us to take a fresh look at the familiar. It can reconcile us with our history, illuminate the present and show the way to a more positive future. On our Street Art page there’s a mosaic from an artist working at the 240Project, located in a community devastatingly impacted by the Grenfell tragedy, and it’s just one example of how art can help and heal.

So thanks to My Dog Sighs and our team of vendors for transforming the selling of a magazine into mini art installations across the streets of Britain this week. What will people see as they look at the cover; what will the cover see when it looks back?

Steven MacKenzie is deputy editor of the Big IssueRead more of his writing here. Follow him on Twitter or Threads @stevenmackenzie85

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