by Joe Auciello / July 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
Book Review: Paul Buhle and Mike Alewitz, “Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), paper, 160 pp., $27.95.
“Insurgent Images” is a literary and political collaboration between Paul Buhle, a radical activist and scholar, and Mike Alewitz, a muralist, teacher and socialist. The text, written by Buhle, is evidently based on interviews and documents provided by Alewitz and gives a context for and commentary on
The chronological structure of the book provides a kind of portrait of the artist as, first, a young man, then as a politically conscious and mature one. The
focus of the book, though, is the art itself, which dominates almost every page in striking color reproductions.
Full disclosure: I met Mike Alewitz about 25 years ago when we were both members of the Socialist Workers Party in Boston. (Political disagreements and a highly factional national leadership eventually led to my resignation and Alewitz’s expulsion). Though we were not close friends, I did get to know him fairly well as we collaborated on various political activities.
Perhaps this experience leads me to feel that though the artist’s work is generously displayed throughout “Insurgent Images,” the artist himself remains elusive. Admittedly, this may seem like quibbling. Alewitz’s murals are, after all, intended as public art that makes a political statement, yet his vivid and many-layered personality is evident in each painting.
The Alewitz I recall was hard working, demandingly honest, and deeply principled. He was also highly articulate, flinging words like stones, deftly
dropping sarcastic comments, especially whenever some pretension was available for puncturing. And still, there was something disarmingly naïve about Alewitz, something oddly touching, even endearing.
Those qualities of irony and humor are characteristic of Alewitz’s art, though they may not be the first traits one notices in the otherwise earnest and even
dramatic subjects of his murals.
The typical Alewitz work continues the tradition of “agitprop” (agitation and propaganda) that places art in the service of the class struggle. This is not art
as decoration or adornment, but art as a weapon, intended to stir the emotions and deepen the political consciousness of its viewers.
Alewitz’s murals are readily understandable and direct, though careful observation shows they are not as simple as they seem at first. Often, a central figure is placed prominently in the foreground, balanced on each side by supporting or explanatory images in the background.
The overall pattern draws a viewer’s eye to the center of the mural. For instance, the mural reproduced on the cover of “Insurgent Images,” “The Worker in the New World Order: Production,” consists of three complementary triangles, with the central figure making up the largest triangle. That figure, a familiar image of a worker in a cap, is rendered quite unfamiliar by the unexpected use of purple as the worker’s skin color.
Complementary and balancing colors heighten the prominence of this purple figure. The choice of flesh tone is not purely fanciful, though whimsy is a characteristic element of Alewitz’s work. Color, in art as in life, takes on a political significance. As Alewitz explains, “Agitprop artists need to experiment and develop a visual language to express the diversity of the living labor movement without having to rely on clichéd images of ‘diverse
looking’ groups of people.
“I have often used androgynous looking people painted in purples, greens and blues. Besides, it’s much more fun to paint purple people.”
That fruitful combination of politics and fun, typical of Alewitz’s murals, is one reason why his work never descends to the dreary didacticism that can make
political art meaningful but dull. His satire and wit, often expressed through smaller, background figures, frequently enlivens the paintings.
Ultimately, though, Alewitz’s art is driven by a deep political commitment and a radical social consciousness. In the Foreword to “Insurgent Images,” actor Martin Sheen rightly notes, “Mike’s work provides an important example of how an individual, by basing his art on the creative power of the working-class, can create a body of work which helps to educate, organize and agitate for a better world.