I think of myself as a “cultural subversive” artist. My hope and expectation is to contribute through my art and writing to changing the culture of inequality embodied in the patriarchal paradigm. Until late 2018 my personal style had been ironic but low-key, not prone to bold statements. I realize now that subtle and sublime may not be enough.
Two of my pastel paintings, Portrait of Konrad Heiden and Pretty in Pink, mark my departure from subtlety. The 2016 election of a con man and misogynist boor to the U.S. presidency was, I perceived, a political threat to democracy here and around the world. It was the stimulus for my departure from subtle.
Now more than ever, it’s apropos to provide some background to Portrait of Konrad Heiden, even more so in the context of last week’s historic impeachment of the would-be dictator.
Who was Konrad Heiden?
My ostensible subject was a German-American journalist and historian. He witnessed and documented first hand in the 1920s and 30s the rise in Germany of the charismatic if brutish Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. (I say “ostensible” subject; but the true subject of the best artwork is a dialogue between the mind of the artist and that of the viewer.)
Konrad Heiden documented how the cynical pragmatism of bankers, military and civic leaders sought to use Hitler and his army of street thugs in uniform, but contain him — and how this backfired upon the world.
In the wake of the bloody consolidation of Nazi power in 1933, Heiden fled into exile to various hideouts in Germany, Switzerland and France. He was captured and imprisoned briefly, but managed to escape to the United States with the aid of the International Rescue Committee.
In 1944, Heiden published the epic biography Der Fuhrer: Hitler’s Rise to Power, a book I first read in 1971 as a teen art student attending the LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts in New York City. Sadly, Heiden’s work is even more relevant today.
The Portrait of Konrad Heiden
This painting is dominantly dark monochrome pastel and pastel pencil, except for the spare use of color in the partial face of Heiden, who looks directly at the viewer. An enraged if cartoonish demagogue harangues a Congressional audience presided over by an applauding Vice President and Speaker of the House, a reference to Trump’s joint address to Congress in 2017.
The section below it was adapted from a historical photograph of Adolph Hitler addressing the German parliament or Reichstag in 1933, its members uniformly acknowledging him with the Nazi salute.
What does my painting have to do with Congressional matters, and what am I attempting to address? Fascism, moral cowardice, hypocrisy, short-sighted opportunism, in a few words. These words apply not only in the repugnant remnants of the Republican Party members of Congress who have forsaken any semblance of belief in Constitutional law, but sadly also in the existence of a so-called “base” of die-hard Trump supporters who have lost their sense of moral compass.
Fascism in America
Although the vulgar antics of Donald Trump gives high-profile encouragement to proto-fascist movements in this country and elsewhere, I must emphasize that the tragedy lies not so much in Trump himself. No, the actual tragic and frightening parallels are between the ordinary citizens of Germany who explicitly or tacitly supported Hitler in the 20s and 30s, and the legislators and ordinary citizens who continue to support Donald Trump and his administration today.
Trump is not the problem, but the ultimate putrescent symptom of the problems initiated by corporate greed and the fraud of so-called “trickle down” economics perpetrated over decades now.
For over forty years the American people have been stressed economically and socially like frogs simmering in a pot — and continue to be stressed in ways analogous to the German people stressed by the horrors of World War I and the aftereffects of the Versailles Treaty reparations policies. While individual historical details differ, the common threads between the two historical periods are fear and the debasement of moral conscience – great masses of the population in fear for their precarious livelihoods and communities due to imbalance in the concentration of wealth, and demagogues who play upon those fears and scapegoat an “Other” as the source of what people fear. In Germany, the “Other” was Jews, communists, Slavs, homosexuals, the mentally disabled… Today, the “Other” are immigrants, foreigners of skin colors other than white, persons of differing gender orientations and increasingly, simply those who have differing views on what it means to be equal.
In 2016 I witnessed this – and as an immigrant and person of color expressed my horror of it – when a Trump campaign rally spit in the face of the face of a Latino man, and no one there – surely not Trump – spoke out against it in the name of decency. Moral obscenities have only piled on since the election within government and outside of it.
We are closer now to fascism in America than ever before – authoritarian misuse of government, an economy of massive inequality, armed extremists emboldened by the sanction of presidential indecency and ordinary citizens having legitimate anger at their displacement channeled into support of an orange-headed walking colostomy bag of lies.
While in the history of the United States there have been fascist movements and fascist sympathizers before in low and high places, they did not have the military-industrial-information complex technology and mass social media resources that exists today. Now as then, cynical pragmatism in the halls of industry, government and religion believe Trumpism can be controlled and used to ends they believe benefit them, the ends justifying the means.
With a Republican-dominated Senate that acts in lockstep with Trump’s administration, the system of executive-legislative-judicial checks-and-balances is failing in ways that could not be imagined by the founding fathers as they first conceived that component of a constitutional democracy.
At the risk of belaboring the point, Trump is not the problem but the uglified symptom of the long-festering systemic problem of patriarchal inequality that is the parent of inequalities. Yes — he must be removed from office immediately lest the United States as a constitutional democracy goes down, taking the world with it; but if Trump were simply to disappear from politics today, the forces that created Trump, the spineless politicians and the populace who believed in him would still exist. Fear, hatred and the socio-economic environment in which these breed still exist. That’s my challenge as a creative. That’s our challenge in the period ahead.
Heiden’s Der Fuhrer ends in 1934 with Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, followed by the contrived burning of the German parliament – the Reichstag Fire – which Hitler and his administration used to murder his opposition in the Night of the Long Knives and impose blood-drenched rule on Germany. America itself has acquiesced to fear of the Other before: witness the incarceration of Japanese-Americans at the outbreak of World War II and the Patriot Act after 9/11. The rest is history.
The Shape Of Things To Come
With Portrait of Konrad Heiden (and its companion piece Pretty In Pink) I want to invoke a remembrance of the past with the hopes that we as a nation “are not condemned to repeat it”, in the words of the philosopher and poet George Santayana. Yes, I would have preferred to convey my thoughts in subtle visual metaphor; but we live in unsubtle times. 2019 has been for me a year of struggling with personal changes. When the spirit and conscience move me, my ironic images will be more iron-fisted in their delivery in 2020 going forward.