When the painting “Abuse,” which depicts the torture of Iraqi prisoners by their U.S. jailers at the Abu Ghraib prison, first appeared at San Francisco’s Capobianco Gallery in May 2004, unknown assailants physically assaulted gallery owner Lori Haigh. A campaign of threat and harassment eventually forced her to permanently close her gallery. The painter Guy Colwell essentially went underground in order to avoid harm.
But Colwell is back with a new work on the subject of waterboarding, “This is Not Torture.” The painting appears in a new series of art exhibitions set in motion during the waning days of the George W. Bush regime. The “Art of Democracy” project is mounting some 50 exhibits across the United States in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections. War and Empire at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, California, the largest of the shows, displays the works of 40 artists, including Colwell.
It was late 2006 when the organizers — Stephen Fredericks of the New York Society of Etchers and San Francisco printmaker and painter Art Hazelwood — first came up with the idea for the “Art of Democracy.” “We were afraid the country was headed toward a one party police state, and we thought we were actually taking a risk in organizing something,” Hazelwood says. “Now the mood has shifted — even in these two years.”
That shift in mood is in evidence at the San Francisco show. As an artist long active in creating works with a critical vision, and as one who strives to inject social concerns into contemporary art, I view the “War & Empire” show as a turning point. In 2003, when I created the drawing that hangs in the exhibit, “Not Our Children, Not Their Children,” few artists and even fewer art institutions could be bothered with art that displayed political themes. Now, with the Wall Street meltdown and the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the possibilities for a new, socially conscious American art movement seem wide open.
Among the “Art of Democracy” exhibit’s many highlights are two paintings by famed Columbian artist Fernando Botero — from his notorious series of paintings on the subject of American soldiers torturing their Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. At the show I spoke with Jack Rasmussen, the director and curator of the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., and the one responsible for loaning the Botero paintings to the Meridian Gallery. Rasmussen remarked that one reason Botero is successful as a socially conscious artist is that he “possesses the tools” or the “visual language” to deliver a clear-cut message to a mass audience — that is to say, Botero is a figurative realist. In these discordant times, figuration is making a strong comeback — and there is a preponderance of it in “War & Empire.”
I conducted an interview with three of my fellow artists from the San Francisco Bay area who are showing in the exhibit: Colwell and Hazelwood, who are both painters, and Juan Fuentes, a printmaker whose linoleum cut of Iraqi war victims became the exhibit’s announcement poster.
Mark Vallen: Over the last few years an increasing number of artists have turned toward social commentary in their works. The ‘War & Empire’ group exhibit and the nationwide ‘Art of Democracy’ project seem to denote an incremental shift in the art world. Do you think a new school of socially engaged art is finally beginning to coalesce?
Art Hazelwood: There is certainly a new energy and a more widespread feeling of engagement among artists today. It is surprising that it has come at a time when the art world is more open to meaning that it has been at any time in my adult life. In a way, I believe art in America has been creeping stealthily back towards meaning over the last 20 years and now that the situation has turned so dire there is an actual content to that meaning. Artists felt a desire to start commenting on the world again.
Juan Fuentes: I know many artists that have been doing socially engaged art for many years. I think it has always been there, it just does not get the recognition it deserves in the mainstream venues. The biggest sticking point for this art is that museums and galleries feel they cannot sell the work. However, in the last few years I have seen more young emerging artists begin to tackle political art with some seriousness.
Mark Vallen: After five years of war in Iraq and with more than 4,000 American combat deaths, fewer than six photos of dead U.S. soldiers have been published in the American media. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan scarcely evident to Americans, the scrutinizing of the conflicts by visual artists becomes that much more important. Do you think the work of artists can serve as an effective counterbalance to media silence and acquiescence?
Art Hazelwood: I don’t believe that my one image can change public opinion, it is part of the mix. If one person stands up against the war machine he gets slapped down. But if we all stand up, in groups and individually, in art work and in music, and in conversations – then it comes together into something. But on the other hand, I must say that a lot of the art that I have seen about these wars rarely touches on the human effect of war. It seems to be suffering from the same kind of techno-obsession as the news media that sees war as an elaborate video game.
Guy Colwell: Pictures have a visceral impact that words do not. You can read a million words about soldiers killed in action or the torture of prisoners and it can remain cool and intellectual. But display one picture about these things and the full impact, the emotional power of the events, will smack you in the face. If the media will not do it, the visual artists and the photographers have to become the truth tellers.
Mark Vallen: In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and continuing since then, many contemporary artists have created works in opposition to the war – yet their critical reception has ranged from negligible to nonexistent. Art critics and publications, museums, and galleries have all largely closed their eyes to the artistic responses to the fighting in the Middle East. How can artists successfully confront the art world’s near total indifference toward the war?
Guy Colwell: There has to be a larger critical mass of protest for a broader range of people to consider protest as patriotic. Then the critics and museums and galleries will see a mass movement and a shift of public perception going on and they will want to be a part of it. I think the mass of people objecting to the war will increase as more and more become weary of the endlessness of it and allow themselves to start asking the questions. Then maybe the serious visual protests will find more and better venues.
Juan Fuentes: Social change is in constant movement. It comes in waves. When things get difficult in society this is the time artists and activists must react. We need to be creative, and the work that can come from grassroots organizing will be our strongest tool.
Mark Vallen: A number of artists and exhibits in the United States have been adversely affected by the poisonous atmosphere of wartime jingoism, ultraconservatism, censorship, and conformity. Have your own artistic endeavors been negatively impacted by the winds of repression?
Guy Colwell: We are in a period when social commentary is widely shunned by the art world. They see something that is controversial, probably not salable, likely to be challenging rather than entertaining for their clients and certainly not intended for living room or walls or corporate lobbies, and therefore not the thing to support. Since 2004 when I displayed “The Abuse” at the Capobianco, I have had a strong sense that it has become harder to get galleries to feature my work. With the exception of some shows at an Oakland gallery that have since backed away from showing me, I have been unable to get into the visible public marketplace. Currently none of my work, except what will be in the Art of Democracy show and what is on the internet, can be seen anywhere.
Art Hazelwood: I have been touring my political work about the Iraq War around the country since 2003, and in small towns in conservative states I have met with nothing but enthusiasm. I’m lucky perhaps that I just didn’t come across the right-wing thuggery that has happened to some artists.
Mark Vallen: Of course, censorship comes in a variety of forms, including the self-censorship induced by fear of economic or physical reprisals. Another type of censorship imposed on the artist comes from the market — which rewards those who create facile, unchallenging art over those who produce difficult, nonconformist works. Crafting dissident political art is not exactly the career path to fame and fortune. That being the case, what motivates you to continue the pursuit of an outspoken, socially engaged art?
Juan Fuentes: My commitment to social art stems from my commitment to seeing real social change in this country. It was the student and social movements of the late 1960s thru the 1980s that solidified my reason for creating art with social content. It is important to be able to respond to the backward influences that we are bombarded by daily, by creating art. We can at least feel that we are making a difference. It is a cultural voice that can help make us feel whole. In a capitalist society there will always be a form of censorship or conformity by artists to create things that can sell in the art market. Sometimes the very act of non-conformity in art can be inspiring. It feels good to make art that causes people to react, though they may not agree with your work.
Guy Colwell: In spite of a small buzz of fear that has touched me directly, I feel it is still too important and necessary to do art as a social critic not just as a decorator. I suppose I am primarily motivated by the thought that I do not want to look back on my life and have to feel that I did nothing when I saw my country going down the wrong path, that I did nothing when I saw so much unnecessary misery, that I did nothing when I saw the earth being trashed and poisoned. Making money as a successful artist is a fine and desirable thing and I hope I will get there too, but living with a good conscience and being able to sleep peacefully is also a thing to be valued.
Mark Vallen: The dominant view that only activist-oriented message art is ‘political’ has led to accusations that such art is nothing more than propaganda. The assertion also sidesteps the role mainstream art and culture plays in shaping public opinion — not to mention how it serves to buttress the status quo. How do you defend yourself against charges of being a propagandist?
Art Hazelwood: I love a lot of propaganda art — but I am not that good a propagandist. My art generally has a more darkly ironic gesture, which doesn’t fit very well with propaganda. Besides, propaganda art and protest art are two sides of a power equation usually between state and protestor. Propaganda belongs to the state or the more powerful party. Protest art of course belongs to the activist artist. And that role of standing up to power and lobbing an image of protest out into the society has an intoxicating reward of its own.
Guy Colwell: If the truthful images that are reflected seem like propaganda that is in the eye of the beholder. I saw pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib and I painted what I was shown in those pictures. If someone did not like what they saw in my painting, I wonder why they did not find the actual photographs equally disturbing. I am not propagandizing, I am just passing what I see through the filter of my own conscientious disapproval. To dismiss something as propaganda is a way to not look at or even to deny the underlying truth being depicted.