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
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be an attitude that political art was out of date or people had a general hostility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
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
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
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
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
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
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
pamphlet that will go to, among other people, every member of Congress.
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
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
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.
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
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
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