Art and Politics


I often receive emails about my blog, and a recent one from Dan had me thinking for a very long time. Although I wrote a reply to him directly, I’d also like to encourage a wider discussion.

On Nov 18, 2007, at 7:51 AM, Dan ______ wrote:

Hi Wandering Spoon (aka Thy):

While going through the NY Times today on-line, I found an article about veggie cuisine in San Francisco that you might enjoy. However, I’d like to make one thing clear: my tastes run toward the rib shack side of “omnivore.” The photos in this article show nicely plated food, so that’s what attracted me. Check it out.

I have a comment to you about your “calendar” blog. Last May, my wife and I went to Soledad, CA for part of our holiday. What attracted us was the hiking at Pinnacles National Monument, but we also had the pleasant surprise of finding a great Mexican homestyle cooking restaurant in town. One evening while we were waiting for our food, I was admiring the framed Latino artwork dotting the stucco walls, and I noticed a few prints by Diego Rivera. Didn’t know much about him, at the time so a few days later I went to the SF Museum of Modern Art and saw a few originals, plus did some asking around and hunting on the Internet about this artist.

It seems that Rivera created these wonderful portraits of Latinos performing manual labor solely to promote his political agenda. As such, the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the photos from “2008 Gracias por los Campesinos” was “Rivera on film.” On one hand, it’s very important for Americans to understand how we get most of our food–from the sweat and labor of low-wage, hard working Latino farm hands–so to facilitate a political dialogue about improving this market sector. Then again, if the analogy to Rivera is accurate, what is the merit in exalting these hard workers if it is simply to promote politics?

Compare paintings by Rivera with something like, say, Anton Breton’s [sic] “The Weeders:”

Breton admired the French peasantry, and as such he created numerous paintings portraying their daily life. Was Breton’s paintings pure homage to a hardworking sector, or were they deliberate designs from a politico?

Perhaps the meta-issue is the wedge issue of immigration that has been stimulated by the current administration. It’s such a complex issue, and seeing photos such as those in the calendar will draw varying responses. Art as homage to a laboring class or political motivation?

Thanks for sharing your blog. I just wanted to let you know what’s been going through my brain the last few days while driving to work. Yesterday, while at work, I saw for the thousandth time one of the Mexican contractors cleaning the bathrooms in the building. I thought to myself, Should a calendar be created for this?


P.S. I like to stir the pot a little with politics, and although I certainly lean left with most things involving government, it’s important to explore the issues from many points of view so to keep one’s beliefs fresh. That also includes food!

Hi Dan,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write a thoughtful, provocative response to my calendar piece. You’re asking some important questions, and although I’m not sure I have the answers, I will certainly try to explore the issues with you.

If I read you correctly, you’re asking: What’s the value in mixing art with politics? Why can’t we enjoy a purely aesthetic view of laborers, the poor and the disenfranchised?

First of all, I should explain that I come from community development and nonprofit arts, so I’m not sure I will be giving you an entirely objective view. That said…

Jules Breton certainly bucked the expectations of his wealthy family by becoming an artist. It’s important to note, however, that his depictions of agrarian life are very much an idealized, romantic view from a distance. For example, his own bride was the model for “The Gleaner.” The woman in that painting is healthy, well-fed, well-clothed and — most impressive of all—holding an entire sheaf of heavy-headed wheat. Gleaners of that period were never so lucky. Breton’s pure homage is based on pure fancy.

Breton’s use of fine brush strokes, soft light, attractive women and balanced composition in “The Weeders” is a less blatant example of aesthetic white-washing. But it’s there. Those who paid for this painting could look at it and think “Such a peaceful, beautiful moment” without really bothering to consider that anything in the world might need to be changed.

Is there anything wrong with this kind of art? Certainly not. But it should not be compared to Rivera’s murals.

Although commissioned by private entities, Rivera’s works were meant to be seen by a wider public. Influence and change were part of his very medium; a privately displayed painting does not aspire to this. So yes, politics is a part of his art. And yes, he managed to stereotype Mexican mythology, too. But I think it unfair and simplistic to dismiss Rivera’s murals as solely the agenda of a politico. He had a true gift and he expressed it. Along the way, he managed to address his real-world concerns. Would I want him as a friend? Probably not. But his murals never fail to pull me in and keep me looking ever more closely, again and again. The mural at SF City College is, after countless viewings, as stunning as when I first stood before it. That he is trying to convey a clear message is secondary for me. That I agree with his message is even less important.

To be honest, the aesthetic value of Celia Robert’s calendar photographs are debatable. They are not artful in the way that many other photographs, whatever their content, can be, and the production value of the calendar itself leaves much to be desired for anyone who values true black or warm shadows. However, they are real. The photo of the strawberry harvester staring straight into the camera breaks all hope of romanticizing farm labor.

You seem to separate politics from aesthetics in a way that is mutually exclusive. Consider the writings of the Futurists. As supporters of Italy’s Fascist government, their politics disgusts me. Yet what they were trying to do at an aesthetic level with their dinners and cookbooks and happenings and manifesto impresses me. The forces that lead to any expression of creativity are like a braid. I want to see the separate influences yet not deny that they weave together toward a specific end. Intention and execution, history and biography, commerce and politics: all are part of art. There’s some well-meaning but horrible art out there, and there’s also some breath-taking works doing damage.

You might be interested in this review of Tim Robbin’s “Cradle Will Rock” that addresses similar questions of art and politics. It even mentions Rivera’s work in the context of a patron supporting his art without supporting his revolution.

Latinos workers and their children also purchase the calendar. Like that bathroom cleaner in your office building, my mother is one of those workers who makes possible a clean, healthy, convenient life for mainstream Americans. I still remember the day, many years ago, when she first saw a photograph of another Vietnamese woman in our local newspaper. Never underestimate the power of realizing that one does not have to be invisible.

I don’t think Celia would compare her calendar with Breton’s painting or Rivera’s murals. If given a choice, she and I would call ourselves educators over artists. But then again, must we choose?

As someone who lives and works here in ever-aware San Francisco, I’m still amazed by how often people forget the reality of what they eat. Since I carry a strong mission of social justice through my work, I try to educate at every possibility. I imagine it grows tiresome for my readers. But there are nights, truly, that I lie awake worrying that I will not live long enough to do what I must—given my skills, my access, my own experiences—to ensure that my children will have a better life than my parents.


Author: Thy Tran

San Francisco-based writer specializing in history and culture of food.

One thought on “Art and Politics”

  1. This is far and away the most thought-provoking exchange I have read on the web of late. Thank you both! I stopped by the Wandering Spoon today because I came across a mention of migrant workers in the NYTimes and it made me think of your calendar post. Here’s the article:

    Infuriating, but I was happy to hear about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. It has renewed my desire to participate in my local migrant worker advocacy group.

    Also, if you are interested in a different look at gleaners (and art, including Breton’s work), I recommend the documentary “Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse.” Here’s the IMDB record:

    It’s a touching film; I can’t even really describe it except to say that I wasn’t quite myself for a few days after watching it…and I think that was a good thing. It certainly left an impression.

    Keep fighting the good fight, Thy.

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