Politics and [My] Art July 30, 2016 19:55

A typical Botero paintingSome people believe that the combination of politics and art in general is a deadly mix, but I'm more of the school that art can never be free of politics--that even "art for art's sake" is a political statement (thank you, Russian Formalism). The big question for me is how I can go about combining art and politics successfully. Note, this is not a manifesto ("This is the way you have to do it!!!!"). That's why I've got "My" in brackets. It's about how I might combine art and politics in my art. 

botero abu ghraibI remember when Botero did his Abu Ghraib series. Here was an artist whose work I never liked much because I thought it was a bit gimmicky in style. And yet he was able to produce a series of 80 very graphic and IMO powerful paintings based on the leaked photos of Americans torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu GhraibI know that I could never do what he did. I could never paint one picture of people being tortured, much less 80+.

But lately, because of the stuff going on in the US, I've been thinking quite a bit about the relationship of my art to politics. I wasn't sure that it actually had any. Did that mean I was just being self-absorbed? I hoped not, but...

I've always been a firm believer that we each have gifts that we can and must make use of to give back to our world. I see this not only as a responsibility we fulfill to our society but as an act of gratitude to the gods for giving us those gifts. My art has a strong relationship to spirituality and magic, and I thought that working to make the spiritual and the divine more visible was more than enough of a use of my artistic skills. But then there was the increasing darkness of the politics of our society.

El Lissitzky, "The Red Wedge will Beat the Whites"I consider that political art can help us make sense of what is happening in our country and maybe even help us a find a way out of this mess, at the very least by bucking up our spirits and letting us know that we are not alone. I kept thinking of people I knew long ago who succeded at making good political art. I didn't see how I could do that with my own art. After all, what have I been painting? Landscapes and abstract stuff. Not even any human figures, which seem essential to most political art, with occasional exceptions, like El Lissitzky's "Red Wedge Will Beat the Whites" from the Russian civil war. Painting people is just not me. I even tried doing deliberately political art back in the seventies. Fail.

But I also have found, as I have come along in my development as a painter, that I am tending to paint more dark images than bright ones. I wondered at first if these were a reflection of my emotional state and kind of shuddered, but the thing is that despite all, I generally feel pretty happy. No evil eye, I am satisfied with my life, small though it might be in the grand scheme of things. So I didn't think it was my emotions that were being expressed in these dark paintings.

Then I thought about one of my favorite ideas about art, that all sorts of artists pick up on a society's subconscious and even can feel the edges of the future and that it comes out in their work. But honestly, I don't think there's anything hidden or futuristic about the darkness in our society now. It's real and it's now.

I concluded that much of my art is dark because we are living in dark times and that my dark paintings are simply a reflection of that. And they are probably going to get a lot darker no matter what happens with the election. Because either one of the candidates can lead us to hell and will if it is profitable enough for their masters.

Belly of the Beast, acrylic landscape painting by Harold RothSo maybe my job as an artist is to reflect that darkness without picturing the actuality of it. To paint not prisoners or the dead of our wars, foreign and domestic, but to paint storms and black waves and dark water. Yes. I think so.

Those images as a double-edged sword. They are a reflection of the dark doings in our society, of our fears, and the further darkness to come, but they are also a reflection of justified anger. The storms I paint are not just destructive. They are refreshing and make available great energy and power. I hope that people who view my paintings will be able to tap into that power and that it will assist them in their work of changing our society to something much more positive.
Such a society would merit paintings of sunny days. 

It's not that I won't paint refreshing pictures of water or clouds or fields. Our souls need rest too. But they will be spiced with the invigorating flavor of storms.