Hope against Hopelessness for the New Year

Smiling, smiley, smiley face © NewsJunkie661 | Wikimedia Commons

I am often accused of being an optimist. I write “accused” because I take it as a mistaken characterization. I think it suggests that I am naïve and unrealistic. And as it happens, I don’t think I am naïve or unrealistic, and don’t feel particularly optimistic. I actually have a rather dark view of the human prospect, one of the reasons I am more conservative than many of my friends and colleagues. That said, I do know why people think I am an optimist. It is because I understand my intellectual challenge to be to find the silver lining within the clouds, to try to find ways in which it may be possible (even if unlikely) to avoid the worst. Thus, my study of the politics of small things, which started with the proposition that after 9/11 “it hurts to think,” and also thus, my investigation in my new book of the possibility of “reinventing political culture,” showing that political culture is not only an inheritance that constrains possibility, but also one that provides resources for creativity and change.

In Reinventing Political Culture, I make two moves: I reinvent the concept of political culture and I study the practical project of reinventing political culture in different locations: Central Europe, the Middle East and North America. I plan to use the book to structure a deliberately considered debate early in the new year.  At this year’s end, I thought I would highlight some past posts which examine the power of culture and the way I understand it pitted against the culture of power, which also exemplify the course we have taken this year at Deliberately Considered and a road we will explore next year.

First, there is the link between small things and the power of culture. In a small corner of Damascus we observed people creating an autonomous world for poetry. Clearly the present revolution there is not the result of such activity, though it did anticipate change. But I think such cultural work makes it more likely that the post authoritarian situation will . . .

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The Art of the Mural: Judy Taylor, Milan Kundera and Jose Clemente Orozco

© Clemente Orozco, "Table of Universal Brotherhood", 1930-31, fresco | NewSchool.edu

While Vince Carducci and I see the relationship between art and politics differently, we share a common judgment that art, or as Herbert Marcuse described it, “the aesthetic dimension,” provides an important way to think about and do politics in an informed fashion. Today I respond to Carducci. Tomorrow, I will post the third in a series on art and politics: the reflections by Elzbieta Matynia on how an aesthetic work, in this case the architectural form of a bridge, informs politics. -Jeff

Reading Carducci’s latest post, on the removal of Judy Taylor’s mural, “The History of Maine Labor,” from the state’s Department of Labor building, and his earlier posts on the art of John Ganis’s photography,  and his posts on the politically engaged art world in Detroit,  “The Art of Dead Labor,” and “Detroit and the Art of the Commons” brought to mind a remark by Milan Kundera and the artistic masterpiece situated at the New School, Jose Clemente Orozco’s A Call for Revolution and Universal Brotherhood.

Kundera expressed, compactly and vividly, his understanding of the art in the novel and all other artistic forms in his book The Art of the Novel: “The novelist needs to answer to no one but Cervantes.” The primary responsibility of the artist is to address the questions raised by those who precede her or him, to develop the artistic form, as many other issues along the way come up. Such issues may be addressed, including political ones, but the first obligation is to address the formal challenges of one’s predecessors. Ironically, Milan Kundera, this most anti-political interpreters of art, is a political novelist despite himself, author of such key politically significant works as The Joke, The Book on Laughter and Forgetting, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He witnessed the absurdity of the previously existing socialist societies, as he developed his ironic form with Cervantes on his mind. He and other . . .

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Belaboring the Representation of History in Maine

“History of Maine Labor” by Judy Taylor © Judy Taylor

Over the last weekend in March, a mural depicting Maine’s labor history was removed from the lobby of that state’s Department of Labor building and put into storage at an undisclosed location by order of first-term Governor Paul LePage (R). Along with banishing the mural, LePage directed the renaming of several conference rooms, currently honoring prominent labor figures, to give them a more “neutral” connotation. The governor’s decision was based on complaints he reportedly received, including one asserting the mural constitutes propaganda akin to that of “communist North Korea, where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

In a written statement on her website, Judy Taylor, the artist who created the work, notes: “The purpose of the mural is historical, the artistic intent to honor.” This doesn’t necessarily preclude it from being propaganda, but it does beg the question as to what it all means.

The 36-foot long “History of Maine Labor” mural comprises 11 vignettes, starting with scenes from the nineteenth century when workers learned their trades as indentured apprentices, child labor was common, and young women were sent from home to toil in local textile mills. Other panels depict milestones such as the first state Labor Day in 1884 and the inauguration of the private ballot in 1891. While the figures are generally represented as character types, there is one noteworthy portrait, Maine native Frances Perkins, the first woman US Cabinet-level appointee and Labor Secretary under FDR. The mural cycle concludes on a somewhat uncertain note with the failed strike against International Paper begun in June 1987 in Jay, Maine, and a group of workers looking tentatively into the future as the last two panels. The mural was created over the period 2007-8 under the auspices of the Maine Arts Commission, which held an open competition to . . .

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