There is a particularly cynical groan that comes out of a critic’s voice when the term politics is paired with art or music, especially when the politics in question is current. When politics is buried beneath layers of conceptual academic skulduggery it is much easier to swallow. If it is historical it can also pass – otherwise terms like agit-prop, doctrinaire, and didactic are used with abandon. This attitude may be a side effect of the post-war boom years, or maybe it was the rise of theory-based art education, which turned its back on craft in favour of lofty intellectual pretensions. Regardless of where it comes from, it is clearly myopically misguided in a world where civil rights are eroding as fast as arable land.
In hard times, a vanguard of artists always emerges whose work responds to the political climate – art that inspires movements and reveals injustice. Whether it be William Blake’s reactions to industrialization, Woody Guthrie’s championing of labour struggles, or the German Expressionist’s reflection of Weimar Republic – it is one of the great traditions of the artist. Often these artists emerge out of activist movements, and spread the word beyond their communities to larger, more diverse audiences.
We are unfortunate to be living through some hard times right now, but we are fortunate to have artists like Eric Drooker to empower and enlighten us. Born in New York City, Eric Drooker grew up amidst the economic catastrophe of the Regan years. He saw the slow wheels of gentrification eat away at his childhood stomping grounds of the Lower East Side, and channelled his energy and talent into activism and art. His woodblock inspired expressionistic posters caught the eye of Allen Ginsberg, and a chance meeting evolved into collaboration on Ginsberg’s last book Illuminated Poems. Eric Drooker has also translated his idea’s into the comic genre – resulting in his lyrical novel Flood, a reflection on an individual’s struggle in an alienating metropolis. Rendered in the stylistic tradition of Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, Flood caught the attention of Art Spiegelman, and led eventually to Drooker’s celebrated New Yorker covers. Since then Drooker has completed a second graphic novel, Blood Song, post card series’, more posters, and the elaborate animated sequences for the 2010 film Howl.
Drooker’s visual language draws directly from the political art traditions of German Expressionism, the Ashcan School, and the murals of Diego Rivera. Rather than being mere mash-up, Drooker has extended those aesthetics in a deeply personal way while reflecting the current political landscape. His cover work for The New Yorker, for example, draws on the subtly dehumanizing effects of the city on people and nature, while also celebrating the potential for beauty. His graphic work, which once was monochromatic and hard edged, has evolved with evocative uses of color that breathes humanity and hope into the bleakest tableaux. Because of his chosen mediums, Drooker’s work has reached an incredibly diverse audience, from literary New Yorker readers, to Rage Against the Machine fans.
For those in the Montreal area, Eric Drooker will be appearing at two upcoming events. On Friday Oct. 21 Drooker will be giving a slide show and artist’s talk at Artists Against Apartheid XVII and on Saturday Oct. 22 he will be presenting a lecture on Art and Activism, at the Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore.