I think we can all agree we’re in a crazypants time right now, and more than ever, thanks in large part to the advent of social media and the interwebs, social and political events are smacking us in the face wherever we go. We used to collectively adhere, as I grew up, to a common authority figure for the news and due to this, when timely discussions were had, everyone more or less operated from the same basic single point of resource of that news. We were more unified as a culture, and so political art could be more teasy in their meanings. Less on the nose. You can stretch back to Grandville’s anthropomorphic art from the 17th Century to see such obfuscation of intent in the best of all possible ways. The art for public consumption, was also restricted by the media that delivered it which meant newspapers and flyers, printed on ancient and crude machines that demanded engraving and etching in large part, and that dictated some of the form we see. And as our culture grew and spread, or means of assimilating news and social information spread and changed somewhat but still largely stayed the same, or rather versions, improved upon with each new advancement. Newspapers and their physical limitations still dictated the way of it all, and we still largely in this country gathered our news from our news Gods like Edward R Murrow or Walter Cronkite telling it how it was each day on television.
Then the internet came along and blew it all to smithereens. We now find ourselves drowning in data and information to such a degree that it becomes hard to tell any of it apart, or even if it’s legitimate. With every passing day there’s new revelations tearing down the old Gods for groping coworkers, or some other salacious sins, and the trust in the institutions of facts and daily reality collapse under the tidal wave of EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME. At the very least in terms of consequences, the internet and the advent of tablets and smart phones freed artists from the physical limitations of print media, and anything that could be made into a full color jpeg, was all that was required. The scope and style of political work exploded in my opinion, into wondrous new realms, and following along with our own current shattering and recollecting, we all digest it all together at once. Whether it’s to blame on an erratic, controversial president upending the table each and every day, or a byproduct of the maelstrom of information and lightening speed delivery, you could start a drawing about something in the morning and find it irrelevant by evening that same day. It is just bonkers.
Rebecca Levielle Guay
And while I adore and indulge and seek out the political in my personal life, I don’t really do so as much anymore as I did even a year ago, in my artistic life. Which is weird because daily I think of a piece I want to do, or find myself stopping myself from Facebook rants and Twitter posts about all that’s going on. Oddly enough my reaction to the draw has been to withdraw and focus more on my work more personally rather than socially. Not sure what that is all about other than perhaps at least in some small part, a feeling that it’s a race I don’t have enough time to devote to running as I feel I need to in order to do it well. Good political/social art isn’t in my mind about reaffirming a point of view as it is to inform in a new way via perspective or humor or shock, a new point of view. And in today’s age having that as a baseline talent is essential if one is to keep up. And so many of my colleagues and friends are already doing so much so damned well, I feel like it’s an itch that’s got it’s scratcher. I’m asked to do political work a lot more these days and find myself waving it off because I don’t know if what I can add would be additive, and frankly I am delighted in seeing what is happening now. I did do some piece for CNN, and some of my own personal work via my 52 Weeks Project, but I find myself more or less silent now, in a way I find curious. I don’t really have an answer to it other than with everyone speaking so loudly I am more prone to listen rather than add a voice.
Whatever your political bent, whichever side of the divide you find yourself on, this is a terrific time to enjoy the art being generated by today’s socially minded creatives. Full confession I eschew towards a more center-left bent, which is hardly uncommon in my field. But I am not looking so much to preach the gospel a point of view as I am to celebrate the art unto itself. Current creatives like Edel Rodriguez, Tim O’Brien, Rebecca Levielle Guay and from the 1980’s like Sue Coe and Barbara Kreuger and and and…. there’s so much tremendous movement in this arena to dive into I could not encourage you all to do so more than now. There’s just so much fantastic and varied work going on right now I find it all a great solace in these times. Not just for affirming in pictures my own personal social or political perspective, but really more for my faith in our expressing it in such a way that’s valuable to us as a people. Instead of telling and fists and ricks and guns and all that mess, art provides a forum for reflection and within that the opportunity to listen.
You don’t have to be political to be politically inspired or socially engaged and I think political art is a way to slice through some of the rapid fire tennis match of partisan news and commentary today. Art is the team everyone is on and through it you can come to understand and question things in a way that the thin veil of art can achieve alone. The searching past the cover of the piece to its meaning tickles something in us that makes us seekers of knowledge and information rather than receivers of it. And given the fire-hose spew of information and opinion in the world, whether it’s our D.C. politics, the ongoing firestorm of sexual predation in all of our industries, environmental issues of simply local fights, there’s a lot to go into on and find art to carry you through. So whatever your bent, like with all art as a basic ethic: let it in let it change you and draw new conclusions and insights you alone can deliver. Whether you do so by participating in the online banter around an issue or in a discussion with your partner late at night before bed, the point is to absorb and engage and for Pete’s sake, THINK. These are heady days that demand our best smarts, and I can’t think of a better way to find a smarter way to think than through the prism of perspective found in art. Regardless of the artist’s POV, presenting it in art rather than barking it out in a polemic is somehow different. There’s a secret magic there, and worth igniting when you get a chance. SO avail yourself of what’s happening now and find some solace int he beauty and power of the work being done and shown to us on our devices and at work. Any thing that can change your mind is in art terms, a good thing… but only as long as you keep growing and changing. Trouble hits us in stagnation of thought, or when we let our conservative tendencies go too far into nostalgic atrophy- the same as when our hyper progressive notions falter into revolutionary chaos. Wisdom lives in the balance between the two, and getting there faster and better through art is a unique and powerful vehicle to bring us home.
From the 52 Weeks Project series INDIVISIBLE by me.
Political art, when done well, reminds us all that the argument and the freedom to engage in one as civilly as possible is the point and greatest value, regardless of your personal political or social bent. Art can be about an argument but isn’t in and of itself argumentative. It speaks to us privately on a one-to-one level and non-verbally. It might upset us or stumble into bombast or challenge our thinking or shock us with controversial imagery, but it is never the same as a person shouting at you, or a news anchor editorializing about a certain subject. Art is always a private conversation between the viewer and the work, and that conversation only happens in the viewer’s head-space, and there’s something sneakily profound about a message delivered in such a way. I encourage you not to be afraid to look and let that happen, and be ready to be challenged by it, affirmed and frightened by it. and in the end… changed by it.
Greg Ruth has been working in comics since 1993 and has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Harper Collins, Hyperion, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster amongst many others.He has shown his paintings in New York, Houston, and Baltimore, and exhibited a series of murals at New York's Grand Central Terminal.He has also helped craft music videos for Rob Thomas, and Prince, and has illustrated children's pictures books including; Our Enduring Spirit (with President Barack Obama), A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (with James Preller) and Red Kite, Blue Kite (with Ji Li Jiang), as well as many illustrated novels.Greg currently lives and works in Western Massachusetts.