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The Following was a speech given by Art Hazelwood at a panel discussion called Political Art Timely and Timeless at the library of the University of Rhode Island, Kingston in connection with a show of Hazelwood's prints - Hubris Corpulentus

See reviews of the exhibition here

The title of our panel is Political art Timely and Timeless. I’m going to focus a bit here on the Timely side.

Over the last several years I’ve talked to lots of people about political art and there has been a gradual shift. Before the Iraq war there seemed to be an attitude that political art was out of date or people had a general hostility towards it. But recently I’ve noticed a shift in people’s attitudes. People I have talked to are changing their minds. There are still the purists who believe that any concession will debase the temple of art, but their voice, once supreme in the art world is now growing weaker. And it is obvious why. Political art might always have a place but in a time of war, and in a time of a rising police state political art becomes a necessity.

John Willett, the cultural historian, in his book on Weimar culture, claims that political art since World War II has been dismissed because of its associations with Germany and Russia. In the case of Germany it was dismissed as a prelude to Nazism, all evidence to the contrary. In the case of Russia it was confused with the development of Soviet Socialist Realism imposed by Stalin. But these authoritarian movements were actually opposed by the art of the day.

However, in both Germany and Russia the artists and the art world that had been active politically gave up without much of a fight when the change came. They were both crushed without much protest. Of course they were up against a lot but as John Willett says, as important as a political aspect to art is, it is equally important that we win.

photo: James Hazelwood

And that is our situation today. As important as it is to make political art and to look at political art. The really important thing is that we are effective and that we don’t give up in this fight. To argue over the validity of political art now is an irrelevant argument. We can sort that out when the need isn’t so pressing.

I’ve been enraged by the Bush Administration and its policies, specifically the Iraq War, but in general the ideology of the Bush doctrine of “good and evil”, “us and them”, “with us or against us.” But how do you oppose this simplistic idea of good and evil without falling into the same mental trap. The world is more complicated. Life is more complicated, and art is more complicated.

You can’t oppose that smug, ironic, detached and disconnected worldview that is the Bush administration with a smug, ironic, detached and disconnected cultural movement. What is needed is an engaged culture. An engaged populous. Not engaged through fear, but engaged through passion.
My exhibition here is my attempt to try to engage. I started the engraving series called Hubris Corpulentus as the lead up to the war in Iraq was happening. It was clear to everyone, I think, that there was nothing that could be done to stop the war. And my series was simply an attempt to put in a small concise way my anger and frustration. As the war has proceeded unabated I have tried to express that anger through a whole series of prints. Some use humor, some use art historical or literary references, some use direct expressions of despair. A print called Iraqopoly uses a board game as the means to express this anger. I hope you’ll take a look at the show and ask me any questions about the prints that you might have.

photo: James Hazelwood

But for now I want to talk specifically about two recent prints. Part of what political art is about is the attempt to engage the wider society. It is not only the creation of art about political events but also the attempt to engage the world by other means, stencil art, street posters, images for protests, images for political movements, are all part of these other means. There are lots of movements of artists beneath the radar of the gallery scene that are pursuing these alternatives.


For the last ten years or so I have been working with organizations concerned about homelessness. And this has been a central driving force in my art. To me homelessness is an indicator of where we as a people stand. The brutality of our treatment of those of us who end up broke on the street is amazing to me.

We turn away and act as if they are morally inferior when 90% of us are one hospitalization away from being dumped on the street. My experience of working with these homeless rights groups as an artist has been to make images that relate to poverty. These groups use the art for their publications that are sold by homeless people on the street. There is a big nationwide push this month in many of the nations street papers to address federal policy spending priorities. A lot of the papers around the country have an article with this image. This screen print is the first print for a project which brings artists and activists together to get a message out. I have been organizing the artists for this project. Eight artists are producing posters that explain the numbers that are illustrated by eight separate graphs. Since most people’s eyes glaze over when they see a graph we thought that incorporating the graph into the image would be a good way to get the information across. The image is not simply one artist’s idea about social injustice, but it is a collaboration with a lot of people who have a lot of experience in fighting for rights for homeless people. They have the ideas and the artists work with them to create an image that communicates their ideas. And they love it. The front line workers and the people who are in the shelters and the drug rehab clinics and the street medical clinics say they want to have the poster up. It speaks to them about their struggle. It gives form to their plight. It addresses them directly. And they are going to distribute this image as a poster and in an informational pamphlet that will go to, among other people, every member of Congress. A Spirit of Abandon

Someone might ask, is it art? To which I would say, you can call it propaganda or you can call it whatever you want, but if you are on the street and something speaks to you about your predicament then I’m willing to make the leap and call that art. Let’s not get caught up in the idea that art is only about the predicament of the wealthy. Though it might seem that way in the mainstream art world.

This second screen print was done with a different purpose in mind. I have been making screen prints at the Latino Cultural Center in San Francisco and meeting lots of activists involved with immigrant rights as well as with the Zapatistas in Mexico. One of them asked me to do a Zapatista poster and I had heard that the Zapatistas were marching up to the border at Tijuana. They have a campaign called the “Other Campaign” which basically says if we want change we can’t expect it from political parties. Politics are all corrupt so the only changes that can happen are from direct action. That struck me as equally relevant here. And a vision immediately came to mind of the Barbarians at the Gates. This is the idea that the Roman Empire always feared and eventually fell to, of the barbarians at the gates of Rome. Well, here we have all of South and Central America now on the march to the left. Country after country is turning away from the neo-liberal economic model. The vision I had was of a huge march to the gates of the Empire. But who are the barbarians now? And who is really the representative of civilization? So I printed this and gave them away to different groups right before the huge protests against the Sessenbrenner Anti-Immigrant bill. In this case I made a print that was about a political event before the event happened. I had intended the prints to be put up on the streets of Tijuana but they went to the streets of LA, San Francisco and Sacramento.

World on the March

So these are two different examples of political art as it seeks to engage a wider society.
Some people say that political art has no effect in changing people’s minds; that it is preaching to the converted.
To which I would answer three things, first no one ever measured the value of a painting of the crucifixion by how many converts it made. Political art is cumulative in its effect. Its not merely one political print that changes the world. It is a part of a cultural movement.
Second, doing political art has certainly changed me, and that is some measure of its effectiveness. My experience of working with homeless groups has deepened my understanding of the problem and my desire to do something about it. It has made my artwork stronger and clearer and the clarity of the artwork I have made has in return made me want to push for a greater clarity of form and meaning.

And I would say finally when asked if I really think art can change the world. I will answer in all truthfulness and humility, that certainly, yes, that is exactly the point of it, to change the world. It’s not a question of being hopeful it is a question of being determined. And it is especially essential amidst all our current losses to be determined to win.

Art Hazelwood 2006