Interview With Muralist Mike Alewitz

by Joe Auciello / July 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

The following interview was conducted by Joe Auciello in written correspondence with the artist, Mike Alewitz.
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• Could you explain the organizing principles used generally in the murals, the designs, patterns, and geometric figures that draw in the viewer’s eye? How is your use of color connected to the overall political themes of your mural?

Alewitz: The formal qualities of my work are based on my years as a sign painter and scenic artist. It is through such crafts, and a more general organic
process in the entire working class, that innovations occur in visual art.

Art is produced socially in both how we create and how we see, but it is a very uneven process. For example: I do most of my drawing on a computer, and paint with airbrushes—departures from traditional mural painting—but the formal qualities of my work are often quite conservative. This is a conscious decision based on the utilitarian nature and content of my work.

• The references to past artists in your work seem more ironic than iconic. You have “quoted” designs from Matisse, Keith Haring, as well as “public art,” like Wobbly (International Workers of the World) posters. What purpose do you intend by these references?

Alewitz: Our class has been robbed of its history and excluded from participating in a rich cultural and spiritual life. Artists have an important
responsibility to bring this history back to working people. I try to make art that is accessible, yet requires investigation.

I want viewers to grapple with the art: What does a black cat symbolize? Why are the people green? You have to read something to find out.

Socialists, in particular, need to break out of the cultural shackles imposed on us by the ruling class and embrace the creative impulses of humanity in all
its forms. We need poetry in our meetings and humor in our press. We need to sing and dance.

• The idea that “art is a weapon in the class struggle” has often resulted in an art that is overwhelmed by the weapon, an art that is didactic and dull. How do you achieve a political purpose in your murals and still create a lively art?

Alewitz: Artists, especially in the U.S., need to relearn our rich tradition in agitprop art. The labor movement has inspired amazing creative activity: the
culture of the Wobblies, Paterson Silk Strike Pageant, agitprop work from the early years of the Russian Revolution—these movements and events revolutionized theater, film, and virtually all media. It was anything but dull.

But you need visionary politics to inspire visionary art. A spineless, bureaucratized labor movement will inspire mediocre and tepid art.

• What reception did “Insurgent Images” receive from the art world?

Alewitz: The book, and my work, have been completely ignored. While my projects are covered extensively in the mainstream press and electronic media, they are ignored in the art press.

I am probably the most censored artist in the country—but there has never been a mention about me in the mainstream art press. I am not invited to be a visiting artist or have shows in galleries or museums.

When you paint for the working class, you are not considered part of the art world. But workers proudly carry my banners down streets, and young people
protect my murals from being tagged. My art is inseparable from the international struggle of the working class to create a new world based on human need. That is my art world.