Towards the end of a 2011 interview about political art, artist and writer Victor Burgin remarks to his interlocutor that “The art world congratulates itself on the fact that art today has a larger audience than at any time in its history—but this is simply an epiphenomenon of the increasing mediaisation of art. As the saying goes, ‘we get the art we deserve.’” As I walked slowly around the Berkeley Art Center recently, that saying (which, as it turns out, was never actually said by anyone except Burgin) came floating up to the surface of my mind. The show I was visiting, ‘Alt-Left: Local Treasures,’ is described by its curator DeWitt Cheng as "a Bay Area Art response to the Alt-Right.’" The work of six artists: painters Mark Bryan, Michael Kerbow and Ariel Parkinson; collagists John Hundt and Vanessa Woods, and sculpture by ceramicist Pancho Jimenez, filled the art center’s eccentric but lovely space with beautifully-made images and objects that take the viewer by the throat with their content. So to speak.
Subjects include of-the-moment Trump caricatures by Bryan as seen above (as well as an older work—a savagely funny Alice's tea party/Last Supper featuring Bush 2, his unholy father and cabinet members) and dark, dystopic meditations on consumerism and its consequences by Kerbow. Parkinson’s works, rather than addressing present dilemmas, are all from the '70s, when she lived in Berkeley, and consist primarily of agitprop portraits and poster-worthy images of subjects like the Concorde—gone, but not forgotten-- or US Steel, rendered in ink on paper. (The portraits include figures whose contributions to our present dilemmas are profound: Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford and architect of what I would describe as our Crap Food Empire, as well as Howard Jarvis, one of the authors of Proposition 13, the single driving force behind the near-failure of California’s public school system.)
Jimenez’ sculptures, surreal agglomerations of cast or molded toys, small figures and other objects into other forms, seem to address both environmental and cultural issues, their imagery suggesting the way memory works by juxtaposing fragments into something whole.
Hundt and Woods’ inclusion here begin the tilt the show towards a more abstract interpretation of Cheng’s avowed intention, as their collage works—exquisite, intelligent, intriguing—seem to have more tangential relationships to art as sociopolitical criticism. Hundt’s titles: Conspiracist ideation, Blown Away (Assassination of Liberty), Alt-facts (all 2017)—suggest that current events are on his mind, but the images do not.
Woods’ pieces utilize subversive associations to nudge the viewer towards a new understanding of images drawn from many sources, ranging from National Geographic-esque ethnography to art history.
Thinking about why these collagist's work was included made the experience of seeing the show both more memorable and more troubling. If these are political works, what does that term mean? Cheng quotes Peter Selz’s assertion that “Some critics and artists have argued ‘if it is political, it is not art,’ while others stipulate that ‘if it is art, it is not political.’ My contention is that not only can artists comment significantly on politics in their work, but political engagement in specific situations can produce authentic art.” While I am not completely sure what this means—something that often happens to me when I read Selz’s prose—I think he might be saying that art which focuses on issues can be good art, partly because of the artist’s desire and willingness to engage.
I love the works in this show. And I want to believe that art changes lives (another unattributable catch-phrase). California has a rich history of deeply political art; works from 1945 to the early 2000s are explored in the book by Selz from which Cheng draws his quote. And Bryan and Kerbow’s pictures have a clear place in current Bay Area figurative practice: painters such as Chester Arnold, Walter Robinson, Louise Stanley, and Scott Greene (well, he studied here, and shows his work here).
And maybe it’s important that art engage with social issues. No. There’s no maybe here: for some artists, an address of the unfolding drama in front of us-- whether direct or not-- is the only acceptable response. Seemingly, that’s the case for the individuals here, in a variety of ways. But can art push the future in another direction? Or can it only register our anger, frustration and desire for change? I just don’t know. The only thing I am certain of is that whether or not art addresses politics, it is political.
Epilogue: Some years ago, I worked on educational materials for a show that restaged the Degenerate Art exhibition. This recreation was originated at LACMA in 1991 by its brilliant curator Stephanie Barron and then traveled to Chicago, Washington DC and Berlin. The 1937 ‘Entarte Kunst’ show was an attempt by Nazi Germany to destroy modern art through vilification. Works by artists affiliated with such movements as the Bauhaus, Blue Rider, and New Objectivity were shown next to slogans painted on the gallery walls saying things like “crazy at any price.” Though culturally valueless, according to the Nazis, works stripped from museums were then sold to raise money for the Third Reich.
As one reviewer of the LACMA show reminded readers, “Nobody can imagine President Bush ordering NEA chief John Frohnmayer to strip our museums of all art from Picasso to Warhol, declaring it obscene and selling it to pay for the Persian Gulf War. That is absurd. It is not, however, impossible to imagine a good number of American citizens who think modern art is bunk having a fine old time razzing it were it be somehow stripped of its cultural cachet…(the) show has become a cautionary tale about what symptoms signal a culture that may be in danger of going off the rails. Just a gentle reminder. In 1937, Germany had already jumped the track. We have not.”
And neither have we, some twenty-five years later. Not yet, anyway. But we shouldn’t feel too comfortable: which is, in the end, the takeaway of this show. There may be no NEA soon, so stay tuned.
 Art of Engagement: Visual Politics and California and Beyond: Peter Selz and Susan Landauer, UC Press 2006
 William Wilson, “Revisiting the Unthinkable: Nazi Germany’s Degenerate Art Show at LACMA,” Los Angeles Times, 2/15/1991