Don’t want life to carry on imitating art? Then keep protest alive and kicking.
Posted on January 11, 2023
Just under half a century ago I passed my driving test. On inspecting the precious, flimsy green document, I noted that it was due to expire in 2023 when I was 70 – a date as unfeasible as it was inconsequential. And now here we are. That unimaginable future is stark reality. It hardly needs pointing out that it’s not quite the leisure-filled, technologically serviced paradise that some of us had foolishly hoped for.
The picture above is by Andre Fougeron and it was painted in 1953, the year of my birth and seventy years before the expiry of my driving licence. Entitled Atlantic Civilisation, it bemoans what he saw as the Americanisation of Europe. Scattered beyond the domineering motif of the flashy, trashy car ploughing through the drudgery around it, the artist paints a miserable picture of oppression, deprivation, loneliness and neglect.
While some wash in a bucket, others find finery in which to dress their pet dogs. Mothers cradle starving infants and widows wail over the coffins which stack up as the inevitable consequence of colonial wars. Refugees huddle, children play in the toxic air and the old sit out their lives in lonely bewilderment. The threat of state-sponsored retribution, in the form of an electric chair, hovers over this tableau of despair. Rather than rise up in any sort of rebellion, the young are diverted by pornographic glamour.
Fougeron died in 1998 at the age of 85. In the forty-five years that followed Atlantic Civilisation, not much would have occurred to convince him that his central thesis was mistaken. He probably maintained the belief that the principal source of global repression emanated from the United States and the established colonial powers. But the painting, as is obvious, speaks across the intervening decades. He wouldn’t have been shocked to know that, with the passing of time, competing imperialisms would flex their industrial, military and technological strength, all with the same outcome – armed aggression, misery, famine, displacement and the ruined lives of those least able to withstand such shock and disruption.
Fougeron’s exposé of the wretched, careless abuse of power wasn’t just of the moment: it defines the next seventy years, identifying all the ills of the capitalist society he reveals here and in many other works. He was a committed socialist and so would have been aware of Marx’s maxim that it is the job of the philosopher to interpret the world, whereas the job of the activist is to change it. Rebellion and resistance may not have been central features of his work, but he’d have known that they were its logical corollary.
Now we know that we have war in Europe, public execution of protestors in Iran and a host of bewildering threats and missile launching in the East China Sea. We have copycat stormings of parliament, the standard set by blowhard egotists. We have ‘forgotten’ wars from Ethiopia to Yemen to Myanmar. Children starve, refugees squat in squalor, widows weep – and all the time, someone continues to drive a flashy car; someone can afford to dress a dog in a bodice. What to do? Paint a picture? Maybe we should start closer to home.
In the past few months, workers have taken strike action in numbers that were consigned by some to the dustbin of history. Such action may yet become more concerted and coordinated as a government committed to hiving off public assets to private interest continues to collude with employers more committed to shareholders than serving the public good.
People standing on picket lines – possibly for the first time and possibly never having imagined themselves doing such a thing – aren’t out to overthrow capitalism. They want their fair share and they want a society that is run for the benefit of many, not the profit of the few. It may well be that when they hear themselves and their actions commented upon by politicians and a slanted media, they’ll draw the conclusion that it is, after all, the overthrow of capitalism that’s the answer, but nobody’s holding their breath about that. For the moment, like all dissidents everywhere, they’re coming face to face with a system that works for the privileged, not for them. The fact that we now have a government so spooked by this level of resistance that it wants to limit the right to strike, tells us just how scared our rulers are about this awakening of consciousness.
So, it’s a shame that Fougeron didn’t find a corner of his tableau to dedicate to those prepared to stand up for themselves and others, but unless some angry seventy-year-old is going to be pointing out the currency of his work as we approach the next century – always assuming our rulers haven’t allowed the planet to combust by then – we’d better make sure we keep picketing, marching and protesting. And maybe even making our own art about it too.