Art in the Age of Imperialism
“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.” – Pablo Picasso
By representing acts of political resistance, rebellion, and revolution, my work is designed to combat apathy and inspire the viewers to take on issues such as racism, sexism, poverty, and war, and see that another world is possible. Using photography, printmaking, and design I examine contemporary and historic people’s movements, street art, and revolutionary expression that challenges the status-quo.
My experiences as an organizer are essential to informing my political consciousness and inspiring creativity in my work. By actively organizing and engaging in the class struggle I am able to bring those experiences into visual art for the masses. A revolutionary artist hears the chants of the workers on strike and the screams of police brutality, translating them into a visual representation for the total community.
Art in Class Conflict
“One cannot talk intelligently about culture if one does not at some point also introduce the dynamics of political economy and social power” – Michael Parenti
It is in the spirit of activist art that I use appropriation, collage, and similar techniques to create compositions which address class, race, and imperialism. I intend to alter the widespread messages of the corporate media and entertainment in favor of ones that better represent movements that are intentionally ignored or misrepresented.
Anti-capitalist art is a result of the conflict between the ruling class and the working class, between corporate power and people power, between the interests of corporate mass media and culture that originates in the community. As long as there has been class, there has been class conflict, and as long as there has been class conflict, art has been used as a weapon in that conflict.
No art movement has sought to be more apolitical and nihilistic than the Abstract Expressionist painting movement. Still, in the 1950’s and 60’s the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – undoubtedly the most powerful arm of U.S. Imperialism – covertly promoted abstract expressionist painting to advance anti-communist sentiment during the cold-war. In this case, so called “art for art’s sake” was promoted by the U.S. government through the wealthy elite to combat the Soviet Union, Marxist realism, and American folk art originating in the thriving labor and Civil Rights movements of the time.
A major influence in world politics at the time, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, Mao Tse Tung famously said “There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.” Analyzing art through the context of class struggle, Mao stated “In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines.”
Art has been used to influence politics for hundreds of years. As long as there has been class society, art has been used as a tool on all sides of class conflict. Art has been bought, manipulated, and controlled by the ruling classes whenever they get the chance.
Art as a Commodity
With the vast majority of media and entertainment being owned by a small handful of corporate elites, only a narrow definition of culture is allowed to be displayed in their galleries, museums, newspapers, or films. The creative arts have been separated from their community origins for the purpose of trying to sell them to those who can afford to pay for them.
It is not just visual art that is affected by corporate consumer culture. All forms of culture, from music, to food, to technology, to language, are commodified and homogenized by monopoly capitalism. Art that does not fit into the constricted definitions of acceptable art defined by the ruling class is marginalized and shunned as “outsider art.” Ruling class control has permeated every aspect of our culture.
Even for artists who do participate in the mainstream, it is commonplace for artists to receive only a small percentage of the sale price, while the property owners take the majority of the profit, whether it is gallery owners, or corporate publishers. At a time when only five corporations own and control most of the media in the United States, many artists see no choice but to rebel against the mainstream art establishment. In order for artists to fulfill our natural role in society, we have to fight to free our culture from the grip of the ruling class.
Shut out by the corporate monopoly on manufactured culture, artists are choosing to return to their communities in search of inspiration and meaning. Artists are on the front lines of breaking down old oppressive structures in favor of a new, liberating culture. Artists are returning to their community centers, union halls, and grassroots organizations. I choose to create art that is inspired by, and made the community. In order for art to benefit the people, it has to come from their voices and their experiences.
Art as a Weapon
“Hip Hop can be a very powerful weapon to help expand young people’s political and social consciousness. But just as with any weapon, if you don’t know how to use it, if you don’t know where to point it, or what you’re using it for, you can end up shooting yourself in the foot or killing your sisters or brothers.” – Assata Shakur
Hip-Hop, the movement which encompasses graffiti, is currently the foremost modern American folk movement. The rise of hip-hop culture represented a mass shift in consciousness, growing from neighborhoods, not billboard charts. Graffiti rose out of the streets of poor neighborhoods to become an art-form in itself.
Taking inspiration from this people’s art movement, my art embraces the hip-hop philosophy of low budget production, appropriation, and community involvement. In my prints, photographs, and designs, I often incorporate appropriated images and slogans from real movements around the world, appropriated imagery, and direct inspiration from hip-hop music and graffiti.
Through my art I examine street art as an act of resistance that is found on walls everywhere in the world. From the revolutionary movements in South America, to Greece and Italy, and even the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, wherever capitalism is in crisis there are signs of resistance to be found in the mass marches, general strikes, and writings on the wall. I often incorporate the visual elements of graffiti, such as spray paint, buffed walls, and drips. These prevalent elements of the urban setting are unique to the epoch of imperialism, with its impoverished inner-city communities, gang culture, and widespread disenfranchisement. By including these symbols in my artwork I am marking the origins of the pieces.
Graffiti and street art are fascinating as natural forms of resistance, as they are often times an unconscious protest of private property. Graffiti is the natural result of the disenfranchisement of the people from their land and property by the capitalist class. It inherently reclaims public space by subverting advertising and private property for public use, thus challenging us to reconsider the use of public space under capitalism.
Art is a powerful weapon. As with any other weapon, it is important to aim it at the right targets when using it. When using art as a weapon, artists have to be responsible to their communities and take precaution to use art deliberately and effectively.
Another World is Possible
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Bertolt Brecht
Let us use this hammer to build a world free of racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression. As a revolutionary first, and an artist second, I believe it is the duty of all revolutionary artists to use their skills for the benefit of human kind.
We can have a world where all people have the basic right to food, shelter, healthcare, and education. Artists have the gift to visualize such hopes. Artists can inspire people to take action and win change. Revolutionary artists should aim their sights on the primary enemy of the people of the world, Imperialism.