Art and the Struggle for Socialism

I attended an art exhibit opening today at the wonderful ArtPost in South Bend, Indiana. I enjoyed the event and was moved by the art. The exhibition runs until August 29th, 2010.

What struck me most was who attended with me.The people at the show were working class community folks.

The art is accessible; I understood the feeling the artist was projecting even if the exact context eluded me.

NOTE: I don’t want to read my own interpretation into the artist’s work, so please understand that I am not reporting the artist’s concepts; I am reporting my own response to the art. The comments are mine alone.

In an article I recently read, someone talked about our society as being divided in strata up and down, not right and left politically. I was struck by this observation, and it seemed a good way to describe the class view of society as groups with contradictory needs struggling to survive in a single society, and on a single planet. The old concepts of right and left, liberal and conservative, the dualistic concept of our society as wavering along a spectrum between two points, analogous to two political parties, no longer holds much value. The struggle to survive has gotten too intense for many of us to think about political parties; we are thinking in terms of needs.

In this context, art becomes subversive when it reaches out to workers and reflects the lives and needs of workers, most of whom have little money for artistic acquisition.

By looking out over the mass of people, not to the rich, for connection and support such art turns the capitalist world model on its head, and meditates on the forbidden realities of regular working class life. By forbidden realities, I mean forbidden from the corporate culture that dominates our cultural dialog and focuses on banalities, commodity acquisition, competition, and “success”.

The subversive nature in the ArtPost exhibit came, for me, from the art’s role in helping to reflect and unify people by projecting struggles that are common to us all: struggle for health or survival being the common theme in this exhibit, for me.

I am not arguing that the exhibited art is necessarily consciously political, or even making an overt political statement. Art, when it is striving to reflect the real internal or external, subjective or realistic, life of regular working people, the effects that our lives have on us and our communities, and the hope for shared moments and shared community, becomes a unifying force and therefore subversive of capitalism, where disunity and isolation are required.

Form is not the issue. Overt content is not the issue. For me, art that encourages people to connect, to face truths together as a community, and to question our isolated relationship to our society, becomes subversive; more alive.

I view our society as a dying empire of oppression and exploitation. In that content for me, subverting the status quo is a good thing.

It is not the form of art that makes it important for the struggle for socialism, it is the unifying role of art and the ability of art to add another voice to the choir expressing the struggles of working people to meet our human needs — directly or indirectly — that is very important to me.

The art of Martia Winston is in the current ArtPost exhibit. The ArtPost web site describes the artist and her work like this:

Maria Winston will be exhibiting a new series of paper-maché and ceramic wall reliefs concerning her experience dealing with cancer. Partly autobiographical, and partly inspired by other’s stories, these pieces reflect the profound feelings that one goes through when facing and recovering from this devastating disease.

Maria is a largely self-taught artist who, for over twenty years, has experimented with painted papier-mâché and plaster to create large, highly expressive figurative 3-D reliefs. She was raised in Brownsville, Texas, and draws from Hispanic art and traditions, particularly ancient wall reliefs, for artistic inspiration. Her pieces have been exhibited in South Bend at Stanley Clark School’s Art for the Mind show, as well as the Colfax Cultural Center.

Ms. Winston’s paintings provide witness to the fragility of life and the anguish that accompanies illness and the threat of ending our lives. She chronicles the struggle to live when one’s own body is attacking itself, to battle cancer.

Witnessing personal experience without projecting that narrative as a lesson for the less fortunate, witnessing as a statement in its own right, an assertion of the importance of this experience, is both intensely moving, and touches a common experience that we all face as we develop through life. The loss of a parent or beloved friend or lover, the constant sense that time is running out and that there won’t be enough time or that there is a finite amount of time, these are particularly important to people who work for a living because free time is so limited and precious.

With illness also comes objective challenges: will I be able to pay for care, who will take care of my spouse when I am gone, will I have enough money left to keep living in this house after I pay my medical bills? I saw in Ms. Winston’s art all of that, and a shout, a cry, a demand, a hunger, a celebrattion, for life.

The second artist in the exhibition is Rodolfo Zárate Guzmán. Of Mr. Guzmán, the ArtPost web site says:

Rodolfo Zárate Guzmán will be showing a selection of paintings created in the surrealist tradition. His work often contains an ironic or humorous observation about our society, inspired from his personal experiences with life.

Rodolfo was born in 1945 in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico and has exhibited in the Michiana area for over 30 years. He apprenticed for Guillermo Chavez Vega on public murals in Guadalajara Mexico, and continued his studies at Indiana University/South Bend in the U.S. His work can be found at the Scarlett Macaw Gallery in Sawyer, Michigan.

Mr. Rodolfo Zárate Guzmán expresses a world that is`overtly humorous. His images project flatness as a palpable dimension, if such a thing is possible. 🙂

That said, his art peels away the patina of wellness or success that popular culture so often projects. The images seem to exude optimism and upbeat outlooks while letting death and decay shine through.

Example, In one picture from the ArtPost site a man is flying around with wings holding a scrolled piece of paper. Besides evoking images of a whale (the man’s head) and cherubs or angels (wings, no legs to speak of, short child-proportioned body), the image evoked for me the sense of someone dead who hadn’t noticed it yet and was still flying around with his resume trying to convince people of something. Maybe it was the precision of the man’s haircut that I interpreted as desperation?

In any case, I was moved by the image because of the intimation of death and desperation that I read behind the surrealistic facade.

This sense of impending doom was heightened and reinforced by the image of the woman with red marks all over her face, neck, and arms — in contradiction to the neat severity and simplicity of her dress. Behind her time is literally flying as the weight on the clock swings back and forth. The picture seems ghoulishly every-day. The fragility of life shows through, as I read the painting, and the question then is whether the woman is living her life on her terms or whether she feels trapped by normative values and expectations?

All of which brings me back to the issue of who attended the exhibit opening. The people I noticed were all working class folks, mostly from the community. Many of us gathered to talk with Jake Webster, one of the ArtPost’s founders. Jake talked about arts role as the glue in a society, and about the way people talk about solutions to social problems (gangs, for example) without including the people involved in the issue in the discussion.

I do not believe art alone can change our society to make it a more humane and mutually supported place to live. I do not believe that art alone can end exploitation or hunger.

I do believe art is very important for expressing the voices of working people, which heightens the unity of workers who start to see our struggles as common and not individual and isolated events.

Institutions like ArtPost play a special role by creating a space for community dialog and providing a venue for artistic expression separate from the crass run for big dollars. As Jake said, they have a great lay-away plan, meaning that the art should be accessible to all.

Kay Westhues is a photographer and co-founder of ArtPost. Her work is widely available including on the web , including “fourteen places to eat“, which has some very intriguing photography. Beyond saying that I find Ms. Westhues’ photography to be an amazing journal of the history and biography of a region, I like the humor and humanity of her work very much.

I recommend the ArtPost and “fourteen places to eat” to all. Don’t hold my interpretations against the artists or the ArtPost founders. Look at the gallery community and the art and make up your own mind.


About rico49

Writer, progresive activist, open source software developer. Working to meet the needs of under- and un-employed people globally and in the United States.
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