"Insurgent Images: the Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz"
(posted to www.marxmail.org on Sept. 15, 2002)
I think most people are familiar with the confrontation between Nelson Rockefeller and Diego Rivera over the Rockefeller Center lobby mural that went beyond the bounds of acceptable bourgeois taste. It was one thing to represent "human intelligence in control of the forces of nature," the subject matter dictated by Rockefeller. It was another to put Lenin smack dab in the middle.
Imagine then what it's like to be muralist Mike Alewitz, who has had to deal with not one but many Nelson Rockefellers in his career, including some who were in the trade union or revolutionary movement. Always the optimist, Alewitz puts it this way in the Acknowledgements section of "Insurgent Images: the Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz":
"I would like to acknowledge the contribution of all those who censored, expelled, spied on, slandered, ridiculed, red-baited, white-baited, male-baited, shot at, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, fined, clubbed, jailed, beat, fired, removed, threatened, sand-blasted, painted over, covered up, or misled me. Your passions have enriched my art."
A joint project of Paul Buhle (Marxmail alumnus) and current esteemed lurker Mike Alewitz himself, this Monthly Review book should be required reading for anybody trying to understand how to integrate revolutionary art and the working-class movement.
"Insurgent Images" is not only a learned and lively introduction to the topic of the radical mural, it is also a compelling tale of the ups and downs of the trade union movement in the USA over the past 15 years or so from the point of view of a radical artist striving to serve the interests of the rank-and-file despite the best efforts of the bureaucracy to sabotage him.
I first ran into Mike Alewitz in Texas in the mid 1970s. He was in the Austin branch that occasionally came down to Houston for statewide gatherings. This was at the time when American Trotskyism was at its height, with a rapid influx of antiwar activists like Mike Alewitz who had been in the thick of the struggle at Kent State, where his friend Sandy Scheur had been gunned down with 3 other students by the National Guard in 1970.
I was struck by Buhle's description of why Alewitz avoided the Students for a Democratic Society, the largest group on the left in the late 1960s. "Like so many others from the lower middle class or working class, he found SDSers' unconscious sense of class privilege annoying, their counterculture off-putting, and their political practice irresponsible." That was exactly my impression as well.
I jumped ship from the SWP in 1978 after a brief attempt at working in industry as part of the "turn". Alewitz was more successful and went from one blue-collar job to another, first in the railroads and then eventually at the big GE plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, which was traditionally a stronghold of various left tendencies. He also took jobs in the sign-painting industry in order to strengthen his skills. In his first job, he learned how to use a quill, the brush favored by old time craftspeople for lettering. This came in handy when his GE local needed a banner for a demonstration at Three Mile Island. While working the night shift, Alewitz began attending classes at the Massachusetts College of Art at GE's expense. This job benefit won by the union and exploited by Alewitz was probably the best use of Jack Welch's money.
During the 1980s, Alewitz began to visit Nicaragua with delegations from Arts for a New Nicaragua and other groups. Transforming his sign-painting skills into popular art, he created vivid works such as "Ben Linder" in homage to the young engineer who was killed by contras while building a small-scale hydroelectric dam in Nicaragua. As obvious from the image, Linder dressed up as a clown and rode a unicycle to amuse Nicaraguan children when he wasn't risking his life in the war-torn northern region of Jinotega.
Ben Linder Mural
Tecnica, upon whose board I served, eventually completed Linder's project. Our organization, the various arts delegations, the Sister Cities projects, the construction brigades, etc. drew upon the hard work and dedication of thousands of North Americans and Europeans in this period, all hoping to assist a revolutionary new society under constant attack from the Reagan administration.
In 1988 Alewitz had a brainstorm. He approached the leaders of the SWP with a proposal to paint an enormous mural on the side of their office building facing the heavily trafficked West Side Highway in New York City. 100,000 dollars was raised and artists around the world joined Alewitz in this vast project. The Pathfinder Mural was in line with the SWP's vision at that time of a convergence of revolutionary forces around the world, including the FSLN in Nicaragua, the ANC, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, et al. Betraying all sense of modesty and throwing political proportion to the winds, the SWP included itself in this constellation as well.
In an interview with the NY Times on Sept. 7, 1988, Alewitz described his motivations: ''I wanted to do this one because Pathfinder represents the tradition of publishing important revolutionary ideas. I'm critical of the New York art scene. I find that much of the art taught in the schools and produced through the gallery system reflects the values of the cynical and confused middle class. Basically, a stronger art is produced in those societies - like Cuba and Nicaragua - where there's a pulling together, an optimism about going forward.''
In keeping with its grandiose vision of itself at this time, but not at all in keeping with Leon Trotsky's fierce devotion to free artistic expression, the party leadership began to dictate the "right line" to Alewitz. This amounted to directives such as how big Trotsky's head should be, etc. When Alewitz challenged these measures in preconvention discussion, he was slandered as anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and egocentric. Not only was not allowed to respond to these charges, he was expelled as were so many others in this period for demonstrating an independent mind. Afterwards, the SWP purged his name from brochures promoting the mural and erased many surreal, autobiographical and humorous elements. Eventually they removed the mural from the wall as well, just as they have effectively removed themselves from the American political landscape.
Alewitz now joined what some people dubbed the largest group on the left in the late 1980s, namely the enormous number of ex-SWP'ers who continued to work in the mass movement after either being expelled or those like myself who resigned in a state of total disaffection.
Alewitz didn't skip a beat after leaving the SWP. On behalf of one struggle after another, especially in the trade union movement, he created radical murals that paid homage to the rank-and-file and to heroes from the past. In the mid-1980s one of the most powerful trade union struggles of the period broke out in Austin, Minnesota. Meat packers in the P-9 local of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) stood up to Hormel, which was bent on breaking their union. During the 1930s, Austin meatpackers had formed an Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW) that reflected the traditions of the IWW.
In the 1980s struggle with Hormel, these older traditions of trade union militancy melded with more immediate influences of the 1960s radical movement. The Austin strike had much more of the character of a social movement than any strike in recent memory. P-9 solidarity meetings invited American Indian leaders, anti-apartheid activists and other representatives of the social movements to offer their support. Delegations from the Austin union traveled across North America soliciting support for their fight and urging the rebirth of a new trade union movement modeled on the CIO.
When Alewitz arrived in Austin in April 1986, he found fertile ground for his talents. Local union activists Dennis Mealy and Ron Yokum had already produced a painted narrative of the labor movement at the local Labor Center that was dedicated to Norma Rae, the 1979 film character who fought the textile bosses.
Alewitz proposed an outdoor mural based on labor struggles and dedicated to Nelson Mandela, which was accepted eagerly by the trade union executive committee. Considering Buhle's description of the finished product, it is remarkable that trade union consciousness can be transformed into something more given the crucible of the class struggle:
"A giant serpent at the center of the mural, squeezing the life out of the industrial city, unmistakably recalls a Russian poster from 1919 by Dimitri Moor. A face behind bars taken from a documentary photo of a union victim of state harassment in the packinghouse strike of 1936 reinstates images commonly employed by the International Labor Defense of the 1920s and 1930s. The Socialist Realist tradition of highlighting a monumental laborer, a vital tradition often abused with over-stylization, is here skillfully inflected with Local P-9's high level of consciousness about the role of women in the fightback. A floating ribbon with the refrain of a Wobbly poem--'If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, good God we have paid in full'-- provides unity to the various parts."
Unfortunately the top bureaucracy of the meat-cutter's union and the AFL-CIO had no interest in putting muscle behind the P9 strike, especially when it began to take on a radical character. When P9'ers linked up with the ANC, an officer of the parent UFCW stated, "I see no correlation between the struggle in black South Africa with the all-white population of Austin, Minnesota." After the Washington-based bureaucrats seized control of the Austin local, the first thing they did was invite Twin Cities contractors to sandblast the mural from the wall. When no union sandblasters would step forward, the bureaucrats' flunkies did the job themselves.
Although "Insurgent Images" does not really address the overarching questions of the relationship between art and society, it does suggest that art can be decommodified in the course of struggle. Neither Alewitz nor the people who worked with him (including Christine Gauvreau, his long-time companion and fellow Marxmail subscriber) were in it for the money. Given the tortured descent of Jackson Pollock, who began as a radical muralist and then was seduced by the art establishment onto a desperate treadmill effort to remain fashionable, we can say that Alewitz's road is more fulfilling if less lucrative. On and off the Internet, I am frequently challenged to define what socialism would look like in the USA or some other advanced capitalist country. I respond by saying more often than not that the new society and its government will emerge out of the spontaneous mass organizations of the working class in struggle, like the Soviets in Russia or the various grass-roots committees in Spain during the civil war. My guess is that the art that Mike Alewitz has created over nearly 20 years, which has been incubated by the very early stages of such struggles, give us a hint of what art under socialism will look like at least.
Other Mike Alewitz murals:
"Insurgent Images" can be ordered from Monthly Review