The Artist’s Role in Social Change

[The SomArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, in conjunction with its Art: The Other Voice of America exhibit, held a March 19th forum titled, The Artist’s Role in Social Change. At the panel discussion, fellow painter and printmaker Art Hazelwood offered the following remarks, which I reprint here in their entirety]

“I wanted to talk a bit about how I became involved in making political art. Because I think it may be illustrative of a wider direction for society. I spent my early years traveling and living in various parts of the world and during this time I was obsessed with pessimistic philosophies. Oswald Spengler who wrote the Decline of the West in 1919 and Friedrich Nietszche gave me a sense of the nature of decadence. Spengler’s description of cultural cycles, of the growth and decay of civilizations had a profound effect on me. Among the many prophetic things Spengler wrote was that wars of societies in decline become wars of annihilation. That all cultures in decline reach this state, and this is during World War I, which was basically a war of armies against each other. Two decades later war against civilians has become essential to the definition of war. I came to believe that art in our times was an impossibility. As Spengler said, in a period of cultural decline one can not choose just any course. For life is circumscribed by the realities and no amount of romanticism will allow that to be altered. One can not choose this or that. In an age of decline the mechanization of life is dominant. An artist would be better suited to pick up the engineers compass than the paint brush. To me this was a very serious challenge. And as I pondered the purpose art can have in an age such as ours I came to believe that there was only one way out of this conundrum. For me the way for an artist to live in a degenerate time is to mock, to satirize, to document the decay. Naturally I looked to the German Expressionists who blazed the path for this way of responding to the world in the 20th century. So I saw as my calling the stripping away of the mask of the fantasy of society’s self aggrandizement. But this was still only an outsider’s point of view. It lacked seriousness of criticism and was directed more at the absurdities of everyday life than at the political.

I came back to the US and settled in San Francisco in 1993. My idea of social criticism in art was given a boost when I started working with the Coalition on Homelessness which puts out the Street Sheet. The editor at the time wanted art in the paper and I suddenly had a venue for my satire. Daumier had Charivari and now I had the Street Sheet. Having an outlet was a greatly liberating event for me and it led me down a path of increasing political engagement. The importance of having a way of putting art out into the world cannot be overstated. The artist isolated is a fine ideal but the artist engaged brings out the full potential. A further development in my life as an artist came from the relationship I developed with the printmaking community of the San Francisco area. I have worked with many artists, cataloging their work, organizing exhibitions, trying to bring to light the work of artists whose life’s work is forgotten or was never appreciated. Getting to know the secret history of art made me think that perhaps Spengler was wrong. Maybe it’s not a question of culture in decline but simply of society not looking close enough at what it has to offer. It is simply put… society distracted by the worthless.

These three things come together now for me. Pessimism, political engagement and community. I find in them three legs of what is essential to keeping me going as an artist. Pessimism gives me the bite to know truth from fiction. Political engagement gives purpose to that truth and community gives the profoundly important lesson that in the political struggle and in the struggle with personal meaning and purpose there is no winning and losing but the importance of simply doing the work. I still find pessimism a deep well from which essential truths can be drawn. And although I have moved from my initial pessimism about art’s role in the world, I have moved to a strong sense of the value of art as a means of engagement with the world. I also have come to see art’s value in the very human, if not commercially viable, artist who sticks to his or her vision despite the disinterest that surrounds them. I have found a sense of meaning in art in its relation to past art, my community of fellow artists and the creation of art on issues of real social and political importance in our lives.

But I’d like to enter into a prophetic trance for a moment here because I see coming soon a profound testing of all of us. Most of us here see that we are heading for a disaster, nationally if not globally. The mainstream of society tends to view any deeply felt engagement with an ironic distance. That irony allows a comfortable somnambulism. The mainstream reaction is to laugh it off. And our danger is that we will be destroyed by our own inability to pierce the mainstream’s smugness. The end result will be a new era of despair. The German Expressionist movement and post World War I German society also broke up into fits of despair which led off in various direction- the absurd, the dark observation of decay, and the few who took on direct political confrontation. In despair then we will be tested. We see on the one hand a movement towards a more engaged stance, in art perhaps and in the wider community also. We have community developing around the notion of political engagement but events are moving quickly towards a new pessimism and despair. With the one party state of America now clearly established, one needs to start thinking of how we will be prepared to deal with the crushing, debilitating despair to come. My plan and my natural tendency is to take another dose of pessimism. Like a tonic, Like a homeopathic cure it can ward off the worst effects of what I believe will soon be coming our way.”

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