Political Ideals in Art

One of the things I find most fascinating about art is that it can actually be used as a vehicle to change the world.  I know, changing the world, what an ideal to have.  Both my parents, and many other university students, were very politically active in the 1970’s in Lima, Peru; a time when right-wing dictatorships of many surrounding countries were actively eliminating any influential communist ideas from the population because it contradicted the existing government.  In 1983 my father was tortured in jail for possessing written documents from leftist idealists.  This while my mom was giving premature birth to yours truly.

Growing up, I always admired my parents’ struggle for bettering others’ lives.  We never had a lot, but my parents were always willing to help however they could.  As I write about it now I cannot help but analyze this as being the biggest influence on the way I perceive the world today.

Since I started working at CCSU, I have had the chance to interact with some of the professors in the art department I had not met.  One of those professors was Mike Alewitz.  One of the first things he said to me was “I can’t believe you graduated without having to take one of my classes.”  Since I was a transfer student in the CCSU art department, there were basic courses I was able to circumvent, therefore I did not know all the professors.

We started talking about politics the same day we met.  I told him that his class was the one I was always looking for but never knew existed.  Since, he has invited me to sit in his mural painting class.  Now I need to come up with a worthy concept to paint a mural about.  Ideas I have plenty, but more important than an idea, or a cause, is how well illustrated  and composed it is so that it is able to get the point across.  As I develop these ideas I will write a post about them.

Most people either love Alewitz, or hate him.  I have known some students that were horrified by his teaching methods and others that take his classes again and again, whether they failed or passes the first, or second time.  Some may tell you that he is crazy, but are we not all some measure of crazy?  He and I are of kindred philosophies which is why I enjoy sitting in his class.

Alewitz also grew up in a household with radical thinking parents who were highly influenced by the communist party, as were many others of that generation, my parents (at that time in South America) included.  It is interesting to me how such involvement in the political front can dissipate so quickly from one generation to the next, and even cease to exist with the following generation.  Alewitz is a good contradiction of this development in society, but others in his generation were, too, because they lived through the Vietnam war era.  A time when you fought a war against the authorities to not have to go to war.

Already Alewitz had a radical influence from his own family growing up.  By the time he was 17, he was already a self-professed Marxist.  By the time he got to college, at Kent State University in Ohio, he was organizing anti-war movements among others.  He was marching with other students the day of the Kent State Massacre on May 4th, 1970, where the National Guard opened fire against unarmed college students killing four students and injuring 9 others (source).

If you reside in the United States then you might have a chance to see one of Alewitz’ many murals.  He has painted murals in Austin, Minnesota, South Los Angeles, Chicago, Tennessee, Washington state, Washington DC, Denver, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other locations I might be missing.  Sadly, some of his murals have been destroyed.  Throughout his life he was victimized, harassed, and even added to the terrorist list.  He is never scared away from a mural project.  He has been to Nicaragua, Ukraine, Iraq, Mexico City, Northern Ireland, the West Bank and Jerusalem to paint the voice of the people.

Monument to Rachel Corrie, East Jerusalem
Monument to Rachel Corrie, East Jerusalem
Monument of the Workers of Chernobyl, Ukraine
Monument of the Workers of Chernobyl, Ukraine

Let’s talk about how this nonconformist artist, Mike Alewitz, helped to change the world.

In the early 1980’s, there was much energy brewing in South Africa.  There was a lot of friction on the capitalist corporations.  The strength of the organized community along with militant political unions was promising in ending the apartheid regime.  This was the goal the ANC (African National Congress) and the South African Communist party were trying to reach (source).  It was also around this time that Ronald Reagan listed the ANC and, by default, Nelson Mandela (source).

The racially unequal treatment of employees at the 3M plant in South Africa’s was revealed at the same time that 3M tried closing their Freehold, NJ plant (which would leave 1000 unemployed) (source).  Factories were closing everywhere.  Many were losing jobs.  And in Austin Minnesota 1,500 Hormel meat packer workers were on strike for 10 long months trying to protect a fair wage (source).

Solidarity was shared by labor unions, workers, and activists everywhere.

Enter activist and mural painter Mike Alewitz who was in Austin, MN in 1986 organizing the development for the concept and the painting of a mural.  The mural spoke for the people.  It stood for the striking meat packers, for South Africa, for working people, for farmers, for families, and for Nelson Mandela, who at the time was imprisoned by the U.S.

P-9 MURAL - Austin, MN, 1986
P-9 MURAL – Austin, MN, 1986

You can no longer see this mural if you go to Austin, MN.  As you can see from the picture below, the mural was sandblasted.  The U.F.C.W leaders (United Food and Commercial Workers International Unions) ordered the mural be destroyed and forgotten.  It was a demonstration of power on the part of the union bureaucrats; a power hold that was so weak no union member would sandblast the wall.  The U.F.C.W leaders had to do the dirty work of destroying the mural themselves (source).

Defaced P-9 Mural
Defaced P-9 Mural

This instance was only one example of art activism.  Many of the Hormel workers were changed by the experiences of the strike and the Mural.  Some of those people even went on to fight for the labor movement (source).  My only hope as an artist is to be able to influence people in such a way that they become empowered with knowledge and the desire to change the world.  What kind of mark would you like to leave behind in this world?


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