Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Work of Art in the Age of Right-Wing Repression

Remember the labor mural which Gov. Paul LePage removed from the Department of Labor in what became one of the biggest local news stories of 2011? Well, it’s back in the news. And its resurgence in the local discourse revives the ongoing debate as to the true nature of art.

First the news, though.

Last week, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. ruled Gov. LePage has the authority to remove the mural—a sprawling, 11-panel tapestry that depicts the history of the labor movement in Maine—from the first-floor waiting room of the Department of Labor in Augusta. The ruling represents a blow to progressive activists who viewed the governor’s removal of the painting as a blatant act of both censorship and disrespect to the hard-working Mainers who helped build the middle-class in this country. The citizen-lead lawsuit charged the governor with violating the Constitution as well as the state’s contract with the mural’s artist, Judy Taylor.

Conservative blowhard, M.D. Harmon praised the judge’s decision in a recent (and particularly virulent) Op-Ed in the Portland Press Herald (“With mural ruling, judge sides against propaganda,” 3/30/12).

Calling the labor mural “propagandistically one-sided,” and a “piece of minimally talented hackery,” Harmon tries to make some grandstanding comment on the true nature of free speech versus censorship—and how liberals are apparently incapable of differentiating between the two.

As usual, however, Harmon’s condescending, “told-you-so” attitude and flawed logic get in the way of any halfway insightful views he may have on the topic. Particularly pathetic are his dismissive, utterly simplistic views on what he considers “art.” In essence, Harmon seems to consider the mural more “propaganda” than art because it only depicts “one-side” of history, and features “no business owners.” You know—society’s “job-creators” who create nothing of value themselves, but are exceptionally skilled at exploiting the workers who do. He writes:

“The…mural was so neutral that it depicted no business owners whatsoever, but included past and present state occupational figures and union leaders…”

Harmon goes on, “…they [the mural supporters] took a piece of minimally talented hackery in the service of one particular political point of view and elevated it to a work of art…”

But since when was art beholden to the same standards of “balance” and “objectivity” (in of themselves thoroughly flawed and misguided) as journalism? The answer, it turns out, is never. The object under consideration is a painting—not a formal history lesson. Indeed, Harmon's bland, narrow definition of art would automatically exclude such great works as Picasso’s “Guernica” which he painted in response to the bombing of Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War. Such a painting could not be considered authentic art by Harmon’s standard, as it only depicts “one side” of the war.

There is a tendency among the general public to hold up topical or “political” works of art as something separate from traditional artwork, as if they belong to their own unique artistic genre. But the fact is all art is inherently political. Like history, art cannot be divorced from the politics of its time. Art, after all, is not created in a vacuum. Indeed, even artwork that appears to be devoid of political or societal concerns (pop music, for instance) is still political in that the artist has made a conscious decision to ignore such pressing issues. These artists, whether or not it is their intent, produce work that serves to maintain power structures and reinforce the status quo—the essence of right-wing, conservative politics.

“History provides abundant examples of how social relations impact art,” writes artist Mark Vallen in his essay, "Why All Art is Political."

Traditionally the church, state and wealthy patrons have funded the arts in order to increase their political power and prestige. Clearly that paradigm is overloaded with political relationships. But today it is largely market forces that determine the success or failure of art, and who among us will declare capitalism’s various mechanisms to be free of politics? Since labor and commerce are realms understood to be political spheres, then art, which is inextricably bound to those spheres, is automatically part of a political process.

Vallen adds, “It is an ironclad fact that an artist must eat and pay rent, so it is also an irreducible fact that we are bound to political arrangements.”

Thus, if Taylor’s labor mural is indeed “propaganda” as Harmon claims, then all art must be considered as such. Gov. LePage’s removal of the mural should be seen for precisely what it is: a blatant attempt at censorship by a radical right-wing administration, hell-bent on rolling-back worker rights and protections while expanding those of corporations.

“The job of the artist,” wrote Arthur Miller “is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

This issue is about more than just a painting. It is about acknowledging and celebrating a crucial part of American labor history. LePage and his ignorant cronies like M.D. Harmon are free to disagree—or even dislike—the painting, but they should not deprive the public from viewing, appreciating and learning from it.

And Harmon should not pontificate aimlessly on topics he clearly knows nothing about. The man is, to use his own words, a minimally talented hack.

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