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Spot the difference

Richard Hamilton's work in his retrospective show at the Serpentine Gallery in London comes across as politically smug. Perhaps that's the idea

Richard Hamilton's Modern Moral Matters, a show of works from 1963 to the present, covers familiar territory, not least in its cast: Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Irish republican prisoners, Orangemen, a squaddie on patrol, Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser (Hamilton's art dealer in the 1960s) in handcuffs after a drugs bust.

Hamilton is an important figure, not just because he was the leading instigator of pop art in the 1950s. This exhibition, at the Serpentine in London, takes us from his 1963 depiction of Hugh Gaitskell, in which the Labour leader's face is morphed with the masked Phantom of the Opera, to a portrait, completed a few days ago, of Mordechai Vanunu, the abducted and jailed Israeli nuclear technician who revealed Israel's nuclear weapons programme. Like many of Hamilton's images, the painting of Vanunu is derived from a TV image, re-shot by the artist. Hamilton scrutinises the world second-hand and mediates it yet again in his art.

Vanunu turned down the Nobel peace prize again only last week, saying he needs freedom and a passport, not awards. Maybe he doesn't need paintings, either. Hamilton's politics don't need much inferring: in the show, Blair appears like a grinning, inane gunslinger; Thatcher hectors on a TV hanging above some unfortunate's hospital bed; painted blood seeps from a TV showing a graphic map of the first Gulf war. Even when it is understated, Hamilton's political point-scoring is pretty obvious: two maps, side by side, show Israel and Palestine at the time of the 1947 UN Partition and in 2010, Palestine having been eroded and ever more fragmented by the occupation.

Laudable sentiments and righteous anger don't necessarily make anyone's art better. But Hamilton's work is far from straightforward. Even taken as social commentary, we have to see it in the light of art's impotence to change anything. "Dissent and transgression have been pumped out of artistic production like water from a sinking ship," writes the US critic Benjamin HD Buchloh in a dense catalogue text. Buchloh is always worth attending to, though; he sees Hamilton as one of the most enquiring and important of post-war artists. I'd like to agree, but I baulk at the idea of his overarching significance.

From the 1950s onward, Hamilton has held a complex position. His art is a synthesis of painting, collage, draughtsmanship, a love of technology and even greater loves for Cézanne and Marcel Duchamp, his guiding and seemingly irreconcilable influences. Hamilton's is an impure art, in which the certainties and lineage of artistic development, from cubism onward, are probed and undermined, just as his paintings, prints and forays into other media are as arch as they are intelligent. He makes art for a culture that is more interested in commodities than statements, and everything he does has a sheen, an elegance and a technical sophistication that is both attractive and repulsive. There's something sickly and nacreous about his work, which I can only see as deliberate.

One might ask if Hamilton's work really is as analytical, as far-reaching, as acute, as knowing, as deconstructive and as on-the-ball as Buchloh and others assert. Some of it – like those giant images of Blair, with their echo of Warhol's pistol-toting Elvis – seem altogether too obvious, especially when compared to the best political cartoons. Not only do they tell us what we already know, or think we know, they also tell many of us what we already think, politically speaking, which might make us feel smug, but doesn't do much more. We know Blair is a dupe; we know Israel behaves monstrously; we know about the dirty protest and hunger strikes in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. But that, of course, does not mean that art can't be made of these subjects.

Hamilton's eye is ever cool, his engagement with his media complex. But is his subject war, or the abduction and solitary confinement of Vanunu, or is it art itself, and the place art has in culture, its ineffectuality as agit-prop? Even its inner complexities tend to get pushed aside in favour of a view of these works as consumable images. There's a good old-fashioned dialectic at work here, and the unease I feel about Hamilton's work, its place and intention, is precisely what I think he is aiming for. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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