In an essay several years ago titled "Abdication of the Artists," Larry Beinhart, best known as the author of Wag the Dog, wrote of an art show in Woodstock, New York, where he lives, that there was "not a single piece was political. Or about economics or religion or the environment or mass delusion or science or the media." Beinhart effectively argued that artists have become silent on much that matters most.
Yesterday, I went to a series of open studios where I live, Mt. Rainier, Maryland. There were actual a few pieces that were recognizably "political" -- one that rather banally urged recycling and another somewhat poignantly, but predictably, denounced racism. But meaningful political art is hardly the norm, unless interesting organic forms somehow translate into political in any real sense. Of course, around the election of Obama, I saw a great deal of work that was political, but it was so limited and one-dimensional that it really felt more like agitprop than actual art. Indeed, in just a few short years, has any of that work held up?
In contrast to all this, last month, thanks to my friend the ever-vigilant Dan Beeton, I was fortunate enough to see the murals of Maxo Vanka at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, Penn., not far from downtown Pittsburgh. The murals amount to a damning indictment of war and capitalism -- and a great commemoration of motherhood and community. They are a worthy artistic analogy to Julia Ward Howe's original Mothers Day Proclimation:
Arise then...women of this day!Arise, all women who have hearts!Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!Say firmly:"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,For caresses and applause.Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearnAll that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.We, the women of one country,Will be too tender of those of another countryTo allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."...
Consider this depiction of Mary, in a righteous rage, grabbing and breaking the guns of soldiers:
Or consider this mural of Croatian women grieving over a dead soldier; his mother is the seated figure with the sash across her breasts (descriptions just below images are from the website of The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, which features many of the murals):
Similarly, Vanka depicts the anguish of mothers in the U.S. suffering the deaths of their sons stemming from industry:
Vanka paints "Mother Croatia" as a crucified figure:
And juxtaposes that with his depiction of "Injustice" -- a figure in red, white and blue wearing a gas mask and with menacing, eagle-like eyes:
The figure, it's hard not to conclude that it doesn't represent at least the worst aspects of the U.S., values money over bread:
Indeed, Vanka has a piece with "The Capitalist" being served a feast alone by a black servant while ignoring a starving beggar (outside the frame of this picture) as an angel looks away, unable to bear the sight of him:
Early on in the Obama administration, there were some calls for a new New Deal, including for the sort of art the Works Progress Administration funded in the original New Deal. But such government funded work is quite obviously constrained about what it can and cannot say. As Barbara McCloskey of the University of Pittsburgh notes of Vanka's murals: "They also contain a moral intensity and socially critical perspective unacceptable to the idealized image of America that emerged within much of WPA art."
Of course, the Church itself and its priest at the time, Father Albert Zagar, deserve a great deal of the credit -- how many churches today would commission such pieces? And now, many with the Church are busy restoring the murals.
Ironically, in spite of his rather direct art, one of Vanka's murals urged immigrant parishioners to be silent, or at least quiet, about their views in the country they were now in. The figure is typically titled "Prudence." It's unfortunately a mantra that wave after wave of immigrants have faced, including today. It's fortunate that Vanka, unlike many of today's artists, seems not to take his own advice. Nor should we.
[Many links, pics, appear to be broken. Will try to remedy. In mean time, some pics here.]