I read a great quote and question recently by an art writer and critic. The critic first quoted Chico Mendes, the murdered Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist:
“Environmentalism without class struggle is gardening.”
The art critic went on to pose a question based off of this quote:
“Is art without class struggle decoration?”
My answer to that question is emphatically "yes". As I have discussed, I work with images of immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border and secondly with images of victims of mass shootings. The people in these images are typically either poor or middle class. The interesting part is that this is not by choice. The upper class or "1%" do not come to the US on foot across the border. They fly here with visas. Additionally, the 1% don’t tend to inhabit the mostly public spaces where mass shootings take place. For example, their children inhabit private not public schools, where mass shootings have occurred some 94% of the time (source: here). The true elite 1% or less aren’t frequenting strip malls and big box stores; they have people who shop for them and at much higher end stores. The 1% or less don't have crushing poor or middle class jobs where mass shootings also frequently take place, and so on. That is to say, the people in the most violent conditions in the US are almost without exception working poor and middle class people, such as myself. I believe that this is by design and maintained as such in order to benefit a handful of people at the "top" of society. So, by the use of the subject matter that I focus on, my work is fundamentally about class struggle. This is why I so adamantly answer the art critic’s original question above with a yes.
First, my work poses a direct question: Why are the people who are the most terrorized by the American machine of empire poor and middle class? The answer is obvious: because we have a predatory elite class who run the empire and who depend on their predatory behaviors to sustain and grow the return in value of the empire to their pockets and to their family line. The elite class extorts "human capital" through violence not only at home but also centrally, to the very purpose of American empire, abroad, as it has for several centuries now as an extension of the original British Empire. We, Americans, love to portray class struggle as residual and as an albeit unfortunate outcome of our society but only in so much as it is an expression of those who cannot seem to manage a way up from the proverbial so-called "level playing field". In other words, the broken thinking goes: "They deserve it." or "They are too lazy, too inept or simply too stupid to improve their lot in life." or "Would we want them running society anyhow?" etc. Art not only mostly succumbs to these forces, but all too often sadly reinforces them, providing either decorations or momentary glimpses of guilt-cleansing for the Hampton class. I reject that class order completely. To be completely clear: I wholeheartedly believe that if art is not discussing class struggle and addressing it in some manner, some central manner, then it is decoration, fancifully wrapped financial investments for a fraction of the 1% and their seasonal cocktail parties and freeports, and that kind of work contributes zero to humanity, worse yet, I would argue, it provides deadly distraction.
I aspire for my work to contribute to exposing the violence of the American empire for what it is, an endemic and vile class mythology baked into our society. I want to bring up a discussion about cultural class oppression and how it functions as a disease within our society in every imaginable negative way, and that it is, and always has been, the lifeblood of our economic and fundamentally violent class based society and empire. As much as we Americans love to fancy ourselves as the great objectors of hierarchy, the great revolutionaries who threw out the abhorrent hierarchies of the monarchies that the forefather class left behind, that didn't happen. The Europeans that landed in the Americas brought along the greatest scar, the greatest anathema on humanity that ever was: slavery. Then they committed genocide upon the inhabiting people the minute they landed, dividing a land not theirs among an elite and landed gentry. We are defined by class division, by caste as Isabel Wilkerson so brilliant teaches us. Thus begins the course of American empire, and thus it remains. We all know this, though we don't discuss, dissect and consider this enough in our cultural healing, of which we have nearly none barring the marginalized courageous few. This violence runs deep through our veins; it is, as I said, our lifeblood, and my work is attempting to very loudly proclaim that this must stop, and that it is up to us, those preyed upon, to stop it, to change it, to heal it. We bear the burden, as we always have, and we cannot shy away from it.
Chico Mendes fought his struggle and died for it. I'm making paintings in the luxury of my studio. He and so many others tower over me and my efforts, and I give them the greatest respect and admiration. I would only ever dream of bringing as much true value to the world as someone like Chico Mendes, and I only dare use my name next to his as a tribute to a person for whom I toil in the shadows by comparison.