a guest post by Seth Tobocman
Tucked inside AK Thompson’s largely political anthology PREMONITIONS (Selected Essays On The Culture Of Revolt) are two chapters about art that ought to be a wake-up-call to those who write about the subject. Including one about my old comrade and fellow poster paster Eric Drooker. What stands out about Thompson’s articles is that he discusses works of art in terms of their actual political use. Their social function. Their relation to praxis.
Much writing about art misses the importance of the social context in which, and for which, a work of art was originally produced.
For example, a few years ago my partner and I visited the city of Ravena Italy. There we were startled to walk into churches and see parishioners dutifully praying and lighting candles in front of paintings and mosaics that had decorated the pages of our art history books. It seemed like a glaring omission, to me, that I had been through two years of art history classes in college, had focused precisely on these works, with almost no discussion of their Christian religious content.
Likewise, if you look at cave paintings, you can certainly discuss the use of a simple outline on an irregular surface to create the illusion of volume and motion. But if you ignore the fact that these are the intimate observations of the lives of animals that only a hunter gatherer society can produce, then aren’t you missing the whole point?
Title: Premonitions: Selected Essays on the Culture of Revolt
Author: A.K. Thompson
Published: 2018 by AK Press
In an essay with the academic sounding title The Resonance of Romanticism, Thompson explores the relationship between the early 21st century anti-globalization movement and the works of two artists, Eric Drooker and Banksy. He’s not making this up. Drooker’s art was regularly used on fliers of the period. Eric’s books were distributed in the Anarchist bookstores where plans for big actions were discussed. His imagery adorned squats and dorm rooms and was tattooed on the bodies of some of those arrested. And Eric was a regular at the demonstrations, usually carrying a drum. With Banksy it is a bit more of a reach. I don’t know that Banksy was directly involved in politics. But his work was popular with activists of the time.
AK examines this work, not to determine its quality (he does seem to like it) but to understand what it tells us about the movement in which it was popular. His goal, in all the essays of this book, is to figure out why the anti-globalization movement, to which he has given the best years of his life, did not produce better results ( I’m biased, I kinda felt the same way about the squatters’ movement. ).
AK sees a nostalgic attraction to the imagery of 19th century romanticism in the art of Banksy and Drooker and wonders if this reflects a sentimentality in the character of the community that embraced this work. Unlike the current fad of “politically correct” criticism, Thompson does not use politics to critique art but uses art to critique politics.
In another chapter with an equally academic title, Matter’s Most Modern Configurations, AK Thompson investigates two major works of 20th century art which were censored by the powers that be. First he looks at Diego Rivera’s Man At The Crossroads, a mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center, which the billionaire later had sandblasted when he saw its overt socialist content. Thompson explores the painting in detail, showing how the artist co-opts both Pagan and Christian religious imagery to support an optimistic materialist message. AK examines and even graphs the compositional elements, only to lead us to the dramatic narrative of the mural’s destruction at the hands of a New York capitalist and it’s rebirth in Mexico City.
His second subject is Picasso’s Guernica. A tapestry reproduction of this great anti-war painting hangs at the United Nations building. But it was covered by a curtain when Colin Powell made his speech claiming that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, initiating one of America’s longest wars.
Both examples demonstrate the continuing relevance of art to politics while illuminating the complex relationship between modern art and capitalism, which both financed and suppressed the work of masters like Picasso and Rivera.
AK Thompson is all about critique and I suppose I should critique AK a bit here. While the message of this writing is good, too much of the style bears the mark of the academy. He points out over and over again that his thought process owes a lot to the writings of John Berger (who I have read) and Walter Benjamin (who I haven’t read) and this gives me the (false) impression that I can’t understand what I’m reading without reading those other two authors. I understand the need to credit ones influences but this could be reserved for the footnotes and the whole book could be made accessible to a wider audience.
That said, AK Thompson is one of the more interesting voices that have emerged from the anti-globalization movement. He does not claim to have all the answers. Instead he asks important questions in a voice that is both humble and urgent.
Those of us who devote our lives to drawing alternative comics and political illustration are often amazed at the things people write about the field. Over and over again we see texts by people who just don’t get it. But AK Thompson is one of the guys who gets it.
I strongly recommended anything written by AK Thompson and I look forward to what he will produce in the future.