Thanks to the Occupy movement, political art is raising its disaffected head, this time high above the canons of high art, while keeping high art in the picture.
Images of riot-geared Lt. John Pike – the U.C. Davis campus police officer who casually pepper-sprayed a small, quiet sit-in on campus grounds – is getting photo-shopped onto reprints of famous paintings with comparably quiet figures,
Pointing up the unwarranted use of police force, the photo-shopped paintings include Pike spraying the face of a seated woman in Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and the lone stretched-out figure in “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth. Pike is even seen pepper-spraying God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of God giving life to Adam. And in Salvador Dali’s fantasy “The Persistence of Memory,” you get the fantasy of Pike getting sprayed.
You can imagine passive figures in other celebrated paintings getting the Pike treatment. I’m thinking of the female in Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s “Meditation” at Ringling Museum because she’s holding her face as if she were under Pike’s assault. And the figures sitting at a counter in Ralph Goings’ “Diner” at the Tampa Museum. As well, the seated figure in Berthe Morisot’s “Reading,” held at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg looks passive enough to warrant Pike’s spray.
Of course, protest art isn’t new. The Dada movement began in 1917 as an objection to the beliefs of a pro-war world. Dada, said to be a no-sense word, actually means hobbyhorse in French. And in that a hobby horse refers to a costumed fake horse, you might say that Pike, costumed in riot gear, is Dada incarnate.
Given the brutality of the college campus incident, the age-old question about whether political art is antithetical to high art seems out of place somehow. Certainly artist Jack Levine, who died last year at 95 after a lifetime of satirizing corruption in business and politics, didn’t worry about “art” when he said, ”You can’t disregard the whole world for some silly paint spots. Before anything, I have to find out the valid thing to do as an artist and as a man.”
Expounding on his art aim, Levine said in an exhibit catalog in 1955 at a Whitney Museum of American, “I have the problem of painting the Bowery or Washington Street…therefore, I shall always have to repudiate certain contemporary concepts, because I’ve got a job that has to be done.” He was referring to all the fine art isms that flood museums and galleries.
Accordingly, in Levine’s painting “The Feast of Pure Reason,” he aimed at corruption of police, politicians and power brokers by showing disdainful fat cats. And though made in 1937, the work is as relevant as ever.