h1

Déja Vu All Over Again

April 18, 2018

These are times of political upheaval. I keep thinking about the world in the 1930s and comparing to what is happening now. Then there was the rise of fascism that ultimately resulted in the horrors of World War II. Then fascism was rooted in Europe and seemed far away to many people in North America. We were still, at least in the early 1930s, in the Depression. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were just places on a map. Today the signs of a new form of fascism are much closer to home with the events unfolding in the United States following the election of Donald Trump. There are, of course, many similar signs of emerging fascism in Europe and other parts of the world.

Donald Trump is a cartoon fascist, a buffoon at best, but still deadly dangerous because of those who enable him. They are the ones who have much to gain through his presidency while willy-nilly destroying democracy in the process. The German industrial military complex had as much to gain with the rise of Hitler as the American complex does with Trump. I do not mean, in either case, the military itself. They are the one who just use the tools the complex produces. They are the cannon fodder. You would be hard pressed to find the ‘captains’ of the industrial military complex anywhere near actual combat during a war. This sorry situation just repeats itself over and over again.

What is the responsibility of those of us in the arts today with democracy being attacked on so many fronts? Last year around this time I gave a talk in Fredericton, New Brunswick at the Gallery on Queen titled Art in Troubled Times [link to video]. The issue to me at the time was whether the mission of art was to confront the political disorder of our time directly or, perhaps, provide an escape through beauty of the present chaos. I hedged my bets at the time by saying both options were possible, but at that time I was closer to choosing beauty. The events of the past year have made me rethink my position.

I am still of the option that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for the arts to directly change the course of history, but rather it is their duty to reflect history. Many people I know, both artists and non-artists, are choosing to ignore current political events because they believe that there is nothing they can do that would change things. Keeping up would just fill them up with angst, they claim. They definitely do have a point, but the people I know who are doing this are Canadian, and as an American-Canadian of certain age — old — cannot follow their example. I was born in 1938 and spent most of the first twenty-nine years of my life living in the United States. (I moved to Canada in 1967.) I can vaguely remember WWII, Korea more so (I was in the US Army in Korea in 1957 and 58.), and I lived in England from 1952 to 54. I knew that fascism was a bad thing that should not be repeated. I never thought, despite many ups and downs, that my native land would be reduced to its current situation. A Trump-like president would have never occurred to me. Yes, I do remember Nixon and other dim-bulbed presidents. That is why I moved to Canada.

I was very active in left wing politics during my time at university from 1959 until 1967. The war in Vietnam was the finishing touch that drove me over edge. Interestingly enough my art, painting, in 1967 was a version of hard-edged formalism. As an undergraduate I did figurative painting that at times was political based. The change to formalism is another story, but it is central to what I am thinking about now. People do not appreciate being preached at no matter how well intentioned the preacher. Political art often comes off as being holier than thou and mostly something people would rather avoid. This does not mean that art should not address serious political issues only if it does; it needs to find a way of finding an audience. It also needs to find an audience outside of the self assuring bubble that many of us in the arts live in. Not as easy task. Humour appears to be one way.

Political cartoonists, who are certainly artists, have a way of reaching a large audience and Donald Trump has provided them with a treasure trove. Canadian cartoonist Michael de Adder is a prime example who is able to throw stuff and make it stick and there are many others around the world who have found targets in rise of global fascism. Present day political humour in painting seems more difficult to find. I am sure there many examples that I am unaware of. It is just that painting generally takes itself very seriously. Pop art, in its day, although popular, had a difficult time being taken critically in many quarters, but that is a subject for another essay. There were artists in the 1920s and 1930s, generally Germans like Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann who used humour with deadly effect. American artist Peter Blume’s 1934 The Eternal City with its Mussolini jack in the box or, on the American home front, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) and Daughters of Revolution (1932) also come to mind. However, Robert Motherwell’s later (1965 – 1967) Elegy to the Spanish Revolution series falls flat at least to me, but they are pretty paintings and I do like classic American Abstract Expressionism.

There is certainly a lot more to be said on the responsibility of the arts in these dangerous times, but I have reached the limit for this post, around 1000 words, and will continue in further postings. I think that it is time for a drink.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 18 April 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: