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SCHOOL ZONE,  ©2013, still from the film Gun Shop

Alan Magee interviewed by Brita Konau for the Farnsworth Art Museum, 2013

Britta Konau: Obviously, you believe that art can and should play an activist role. Have you always been of that opinion or was there an event or experience that galvanized you into this decision?

The Vietnam War was the common, galvanizing experience that led me and others of my generation to question the pronouncements of government.

When I was sixteen, in 1963, I drew a picture of the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc who burned himself to death in protest of the Diem regime in Vietnam. I had forgotten about that drawing until a classmate returned it to me. Seeing it reminded me that I was already using art to comment on society back then. Other awakenings occurred later. An early example was seeing the Diego Rivera retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1987, and more recently, visiting the Käthe Kollwitz museums in Köln and Berlin.

The power of Rivera's paintings, and the profound decency of Kollwitz's life and work challenged me.

B.K.: What are the specific issues you address?

I don’t set out to address a particular category of issues. My motivation usually arises from an unrelenting concern over some instance of cruelty or injustice. When I begin to pull on the thread of a single issue—the American obsession with guns, for example—the entire fabric of inhumanity starts to move with it. Looking into the controversy over gun rights, I see that our Second Amendment has its roots in the eighteenth-century need to maintain America’s institution of slavery. The racist origins of our national gun fixation can still be seen in our recent Stand Your Ground laws. Connected to that racism is the age-old justification for war and colonial expansion— overthrown and subjugated peoples are always portrayed as a little less-than-human. It seems to me that there is a single, overriding malady— indifference to the other—a disease with many symptoms.

B.K.: What do you hope to achieve using your art in this way?

I am not expecting to achieve anything beyond making my own position clear. Expecting measurable results, in my view, would be naive and could lead to discouragement—to giving up. We will not see the end of any of these problems.

B.K.: What would you say to detractors insisting that art and politics should not be mingled?

The issues that engage me are ethical, not political. But, it would be helpful if those who parrot the art-world’s injunction against social commentary could understood the history of this prejudice and the reason that it prevails. The rise of Abstract Expressionism was concurrent with the eclipse of Social Realism—an international art movement that was inconvenient to conservative business and political interests. The radical modernism of the 1920s and 30s in music, in theater, and in visual art, removed art from the exclusive control of an aristocracy which it had previously served, but the late modernism of our day is once again deeply entrenched in the worlds of money and investment. Political art has been deemed unfashionable and the term "daring art" is reserved for work that is unthreateningly cryptic. My friend Nicholas Von Hoffman once said to me, “The most daring thing any of us can do is to be clear about what we mean”.

Tim Robbins’ insightful screenplay for The Cradle Will Rock (1999), and the late Peter Fuller’s book, Beyond the Crisis in Art, (1981) provide glimpses of how socially-conscious art was successfully banished from contemporary art-world discourse.

B.K.: What do you think is the obligation of the artist in these times?

An artist has to follow the inclinations and beliefs that drive his or her work. There are many artists who have no interest in social issues, and they may recognize, as well, that there can be a professional price to pay for engaging in a genre that is not valued.


Brita Konau was the Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Director/Curator of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.   

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