On Painting My Politics

I have had two primary passions in my life. One is politics. The other is painting. My politics might be described as critical. My paintings might be called joyful. Often friends ask, “Why don’t you paint your politics?” With chagrin, I answer that I do. This goes over like a lead balloon, of course. My friends seem to be suggesting if I were to make paintings with a message, it would be a more authentic expression of who I am. And in turn, this suggests to me that they do not understand the political import of  the act as I understand it.  I think the problem arises because they, and many artists too, see painting as production: painting is about making pictures. They seem not to understand that painting – again for me – is first an act of expression, of becoming.

Why, I am tempted to ask, did one of the most angst-ridden, politically charged creative lives issued in Ode to Joy  and not Ode to the Republic? Dear old Ludwig, in spite of his misery and contempt for Napoleon, sought explicitly to become Bacchus who would press out “glorious wine for mankind” which in turn would make us “spiritually drunken.” Not a bad way to encourage liberation, if you ask me.

I first caught a glimpse of this kind of glorious wine during the 60’s, when as a teenager I became aware of the social movements swirling around me. Despite all the shortcomings of that decade, the hallmarks of creativity were ever present: hitherto subordinate populations had become expressive, honest, critical and daring. The push toward justice was as fresh as the beauty of justice was palpable. Certain churches, homes and universities, say nothing of the streets of the nation’s capital were not unlike the studios of artists – cauldrons of expression, reflection, experimentation. A nation was becoming.

Now let us magnify this process. Unlike the 60’s, let us suppose that subordinate populations, after educating themselves for decades, actually democratized their economy, land, industry – even hotels and restaurants – and had replaced hierarchical decision making bodies with co-operative ones. What would we call this? Democracy writ large? A participatory economy? Self-discovery? The enjoyment of the vision of many? A social canvas? A process of empowerment, realization, expansiveness and joy?

This participatory economy, in fact, did take root – in Spain, during the first decades of the 20th century and as you know it was demolished by Franco and the fascists. The event that artists, in particular will know, is the terror bombing of Guernica in 1937, a Basque village that symbolized this particular kind of independence, this particular glorious triumph of ordinary human beings, unbossed, working together in a kind of spiritual drunkenness.  

Now let’s take a look at the Pablo Picasso’s painting, Guernica, often described as the “most powerful invective against violence in modern art” (Robert Hughes). The painting, as a painting, is unquestionably masterful. But as politics, it fails. Why?  Because what has given the painting its political charge was the situation out of which the painting emerged. Picasso, the world’s most famous artist thumbed his nose at fascism and he did it on the world stage (the 1937 world’s fair) and on the eve of the Europe’s descent into madness. But the painting as a thing, separated from its explanation, communicates what? The much ballyhooed sentiments of anti-violence? That’s it? You mean Picasso didn’t support the peasants who took up arms to defend themselves against the murderous Luftwaffe? Does it signify support for anarchism? Anti-fascism? Pro-liberal democracy? Workers councils? Free markets? A private economy? The clarity and precision on which politics turns cannot be made available through visual images and symbols (harlequins and skulls?). Even if one were to sprinkle a few words around, as conceptual artist are wont to do, you wouldn’t get past banal truisms like anti-violence . Take the painting to villages around the world today and it would mean different things to different people, a veritable Rorschach test – certainly not the stuff of potent politics. As one snippy critic noted, it looked to him like a horse choking on a banana. But what is worse than impotent or banal political statements are those that obfuscate important truths.

Guernica, for example, cannot answer the question that still hangs out there begging to be answered, 40 years after Picasso’s political act. Why did the Nazis bomb Guernica? Why did the triumph of a participatory economy incur the wrath of  “every major power system: Stalinism, fascism, western liberalism, most intellectual currents and their doctrinal institutions” (to borrow Chomsky’s description)? The answer brings us back to Bacchus and the question of “glorious wine,” the “spiritually drunken,” and the connection between justice and beauty. The worthless little nobodies of Spain pulled back the historical curtain mightily and exposed power and privilege and hierarchy for what they generally are: unnecessary. My dear friends, no more a political accomplishment could there be and, Guernica as a painting, because it is understood as a protest against violence actually erases the truth of Guernica, namely that the horror that we ought be on guard against is not violence in the abstract, but more importantly violence and power in the service of unnecessary hierarchy and privilege. Artists inspired by the situation that Guernica represented – not the painting –  might then challenge the power that gallery owners have in determining their life chances. We might then decide that it makes no sense to compete against each other to win the approval of grantors and foundations.

I realize this is not the fault of Picasso. Rather I wish to highlight the limitations of the visual as commentary and the likely obfuscation that follows in the wake of banal truisms. The irony is that many artists identify with both that particular painting and with an art industry that is terribly contemptuous toward the public precisely because the authority of the cognoscenti requires a public that is silent, out of the game. The irony is that most powerful invective against violence in modern art obscures the very history we are in need of understanding. The irony is that as artists we are apt to see the elites that govern us as guardians of the flame precisely because these same people are, indeed, guardians of the greatest artistic political act. You see? The smart guys are also the good guys. The irony is that it is in virtue of political paintings that we sleep with the enemy.

Let us go back, then, to thinking of painting as an expressive, empowering process.  When we meet painting on this level, it becomes possible to step out of the doctrinal system. The point, after all, isn’t to make a picture. The point is to feel a sense of power and joy. The point of painting, at least for me, is to feel sensation as pleasure – not to read the world, but to taste it with my eyes. The payoff is growth, relinquishing to natural appetites that give me strength and confidence. Van Gogh said that by doing this he could show the world what was “in the heart of the lowest of the low.”  I have less noble ambitions. I wish not to get out my angst, but to get pass it. To find a little strength and balance, peace and happiness, so I can come back and fight another day. This activity, not unlike eating or kissing or dancing, is as common and is as accessible as the day is long. In fact, Emma Goldman’s defense and validation of dancing with “reckless abandon” is quite apt: “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal…should demand the denial of life and joy…I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things…I would live my beautiful ideal.”

So there you have it. I try my best to paint with reckless abandon and to teach others how to as well. I paint my politics as Emma danced hers.

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