Art, Labor, Politics

I was in my early twenties when I recognized the need to become politically active.  I had entered medical school in the fall, 1964.  When Johnson was elected president that year, it was a response to Barry Goldwater’s jingoistic arguments to expand the war ongoing in Southeast Asia and a defense of his “Great Society” legislation.  Even as the war expanded, a certain ticket for young physicians overseas,  I came face to face with the fact that health care was available to the wealthy and not to the poor.  Training at Los Angeles County Hospital forced me to confront the lessons we were learning:  that our alcoholic, downtrodden, acutely and chronically  ill patients were worthless human beings.  Other students, like me disturbed by the discrepancy in health services to residents of Beverly Hills and Watts, had started a school newspaper.  They’d titled it Borborygmi — presumably the protesting bowel sounds emerging from the shit of our human detritus.  It was here that I first learned about layout and combining art with text.  Here I copied the pictures from the Dover edition of the drawings and etchings and block prints of Kathe Kollwitz.  Some 45 years ago I stumbled on the connection between art, labor and politics that I have been grappling with ever since.

Yes, I had listened to The Weavers, Pete Seeger, and others.  But now I learned to manipulate visual images to enhance the printed word.  And so perhaps this was the first time I considered art as more than spectacle, instead something with which to engage, in which to participate.

Tonight I spent 30 minutes waiting in the Democratic Party HQ in Rogers Park, where I live, waiting to confront the alderman.  The liberal Joe Moore had voted, along with every other alderman, to support the budget of incoming mayor Rahm Emmanuel.  Every alderman, including the liberal Joe Moore, had voted to cut services to the mentally ill and considerably more. As we confronted him, took over his meeting, warned him that we were watching, pictures flashed deep in my brain, remembrances of times when I first found Kollwitz.   When I first saw those wide eyed children with their empty plates gazing upward for food;  the woman being torn asunder and the women grouped together for their collective protection and strength. Tonight one of my cohorts asked how it was possible for artists to respond so quickly to the changing conditions that they find with new and more inventive cartoons at every instance of oppression.

I give thanks to Kollwitz to this very day for making me aware of the importance of combining art and politics, how the artist draws inspiration from the battles of daily life to survive.  And how the artist helps to transform the consciousness, the understanding of the tasks we all have to transform the society in which children have to beg for their next meals.

A number of you-tube videos are available of her work:

with a Mikis Theodorakis score:

another very dark score:

Lew Rosenbaum — Monday, 21 November, 2011

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