Art and Political Resistance

Notes from a recent talk but without the slides...

ART/RESISTANCE A Talk by Paul Kittlaus for the opening of his exhibit at the Claremont United Church of Christ January 28,2018


I’ve been a local church pastor for UCC churches in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Madison, WI

I was director of theological training at an urban training centering LA, a civil rights activist and went to Selma with Dr. King, an full time anti-Vietnam war organizer, and a lobbyist for 10 years in Washington DC directing the UCC public policy work. My life in the church has focused on social action, organizing demonstrations, practicing acts of civil disobedience and putting myself at risk.

At age 80 I needed to reinvent self again.

In August 2014, as part of the recognition of my 80th year, I spent a week at Ghost Ranch in Northern New Mexico at a workshop in abstract acrylic painting. This has transformed my life and given me a new vacation.


Now I am engaged in the Intellectual work of finding the connection between the work of an artist and political resistance. I’ve been researching the generation of abstract expressionist painters in the US working in the 50s, 60s and 70s in New York who together established the status of Americas painters alongside the European painters as the leaders in global art recognition. I will mention several of them, show you photos of their work and some other painters who saw their vocation as seeking to shape a new vision for humankind.

And the connection of art and resistance takes many forms: some connections are obvious: picket signs, posters, political cartoons, even on the East side of the Berlin Wall. I captured these photos in 1981.

In LA there is “the Great Wall of LA” painted by Judith Baca and her students at LA Valley College in the San Fernando Valley. It is full of resistance images especially from the perspective of Chicano historical experience.

I show several serigraphs by Sister Mary Corita, (1918-1986) later known as Corita Kent. Her work is called pop art which was popular during the 1960s. There is a museum of her work near the former Immaculate of Mary Convent in LA of which she was a part and a small collection of her work are in the Napier Center at Pilgrim Place.

I will show slides of several painters who have roots in some political energy. Some are obvious and some abstract.

Some are obvious by seeing paintings that tell political stories or are based on historical events. Some show agony which is understood better when you know the back story. “Guernica” 1937 by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is an 11 feet x 15 feet painting on canvas painted to show the terrible pain as a result of a bombing attack on a Basque town at the time of the Spanish Republic and Civil War carried out by Hitler’s “Luftwaffe” in support of Franco’s Fascist army of the civil war. Picasso shows the agony of that brutal attack.

The Spanish Republic was a cause that many leftist patriots and artists of the time supported during the Spanish civil war in the late ‘30s. Pete Seeger sings songs from that period in Spain and tells of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of volunteers from the US who went to fight in support of the Republican forces. Hemingway was a volunteer ambulance driver. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

The well known Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) used his art to paint multiple giant murals telling the story of the suffering of the Mexican peasants and workers in a clear socialist vision of society.

The following 5 painters from the New York School of Abstract Expressionists working in 1940s, 50s and 60s. At the end are a sample of other painters.

This photo is of most of the painters in this group. They are all men except the one women, Lee Krasner, who standing on table in the rear of the photo was not about to let the men push her aside.

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) painted a series of more than a hundred very abstract paintings calling all of them “Elegy for the Spanish Republic.” The word elegy is defined as “mourning for something dead that ought to be remembered.” This is real abstract territory, marks on the canvas that have no objective reference. Nothing seen in nature is being attempted. And it takes a sensitive and patient observer to enter into the experience of the painting. I can’t imagine a viewer of Motherwell’s work would ever, without prompt, get to the Spanish Republic. If you see the film “All the Money in the World” toward the end there is a scene in a very wealthy attorneys office. On the wall, just to show his wealth, is one of these Motherwell elegies.

Next is Mark Rothko (1903-1970) whose work toward the last most productive part of his artistic life were what have been called “color fields.” Some experience their power to move people to tears. There is a chapel in Houston Texas, the Rothko Chapel, that uses a set of massive color field painting as points of entry into sacred space. Rothko was a socialist along with a a cadre of other artists in New York saw their work as political statements. He was especially passionate about the freedom of expression. Janet and I have seen the play “Red” written by John Logan featuring a conversation between Rothko and an unnamed young assistant about the raging conflict between generations of painters each generation seeking to overthrow the status of the previous generation. The play opened in 2009 in London with Alford Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as the assistant.

Next are paintings by women who were in some sense members of the movement, two of the actually married for some years to two of the men in the group—-Kraser to Jackson Pollock and Helen Frantkenthaler to Robert Motherwell. They are Lee Krasner (1008-1984) Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) and Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) were major contributors to this burst of artistic energy creating a new abstract expressionism.

I will discuss in a moment the task this group of painters together committed itself to.

The last painter I show is Jean-Michele Basquait. (1960-1988) Born and died in Brooklin. He died of a drug overdose at age 27 having already made a major impact on the art world. His painting, the Skull, sold at auction in January last year for the most money ever paid at auction for a painting: $110.5 million.

slide show

Here are some additional clues I find interesting in my search for connections between art and political resistance.

In the Sunday, November 30, 2014 issue of the Arts&Leisure section of the NY Times the acclaimed Film reviewer A.O. Scott wrote:

Ever since the financial crisis 2008, I’ve been waiting for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe “A Raisin in the Sun,” or a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad—something that would sum up the injustice and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.

This is a call to artists to engage the hard times now, to join the political resistance.

The New York school of painters were deeply concerned about the emergence in Europe of Fascism, Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. Fascism is defined as a species of radical authoritarian nationalism defined by strongman politics, dictatorial rule, corporatist control of industry, suppression of dissent, and the mobilization of society that rejects reason in the name of a glorious myth of national will.

The worst things happen after people freeze in fear at the occurrence of bad things. This is the inner choking of tyranny.

This story illustrates the potential function of art in a time of tyranny.

Frieda Dicker Brandeis, a Bauhaus trained art teacher, brought art supplies rather than extra food or clothing with her when she and all the Jews in her Czech town were sent to the Theresienstadt fortress by the Nazis in 1942. Until her death two years later she helped terrorized children forget their troubles, if only temporarily, by engaging them in art projects. The children of Theresienstadt, Fifteen thousand children under the age of fifteen, passed through the Theresienstadt prison and fewer than one hundred survived. Resistance in this camp can be seen through the words and pictures written and drawn by the young inmates later found hidden after the camp was liberated.

Mike Kinman, rector of All Saints Episcopal church in Pasadena began his Christmas Eve sermon in 2016 this way:

The tyrant fears the poet…

Tyrants have always been with us. They try to silence dissenters with their power and bind us with anxiety and despair. Tyrants will try to convince us that following them is patriotic and glorious, the people difference from us are our greatest enemy, that might makes right, that resistance is futile, and that hope is little more than a foolish dream.

The Tyrant hates the poet…and I add the painter, the dancer, the potter, the weaver, the photographer, the writer, the whole violin section.

The evening after John Kennedy was killed Leonard Bernstein was asked what is the musicians response. He said: “This will be our response: to make music more intently, more beautiful, more devotedly than ever before.” He wrote Chichester Psalms at that point.

Berthold Brecht said: “art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer to shape it.”

Alice Walker said of one of her books: “The story is one we need as a kind of medicine. We are a sick culture and I believed art can help.”

Kinman’s sermon ends this way and will serve as my ending:

Tyrants will seem invincible and yet they can be taken down with a verse, with a caress, with a kiss, with the truly invisible power of wonder and hope. For the tyrant fears the poet. And in the birth of Jesus, God is forever re-awakening the poet in us.

And the painter of course.


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How do painters know when their painting is done? Picasso’s answer was, “When somebody buys it.”

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