Art as Agitprop

Sue Coe dresses like a Viet Cong guerrilla—all in black with a black beret. She also thinks like a Viet Cong guerrilla, for she is an unrepentant Marxist-Leninist. But Sue Coe is also a painter—and enjoys all the fame and honor the bourgeois world can lavish on her. Her paintings are currently on display in the prestigious Hirshhorn Museum located on the Mall in Washington, D.C. And the story of her success reveals a deep contradiction running through American culture. Sue Coe's paintings are political broadsides against America. They're populated with stereotypical images that look as though they were lifted straight from old-style Soviet propaganda posters. On Coe's canvases, capitalists are wolves with top hats; political leaders are police dogs; judges are vultures. The colors are harsh: black, white, and blood-red. This clenched-fist style of art was the only style permitted by the old Soviet regime. And it's clear that Sue Coe is a hard-line Communist at heart. She also applies leftist categories to contemporary causes, such as feminism and animal rights. In a painting called Porkopolis, Coe depicts pigs screaming in a slaughterhouse. The fact that a Communist like Sue Coe has won a place of honor in highbrow American culture shows just how schizophrenic our culture has become. Her propagandistic put-downs of America are welcomed as great moral insights by our cultural elites. Her show in the Hirshhorn tops a successful career as an illustrator for such impeccably bourgeois publications as Newsweek, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. Why are bourgeois Americans so eager to embrace art that attacks the very principles they themselves live by? This is completely contrary to the role that art has played historically. Most societies celebrate art that reflects their own outlook and values. Ours may be the first society ever to celebrate art that attacks its own values: adversary art created by an adversary culture. And you don't have to go to museums to see adversary art. Movies, TV shows, and pop music likewise taunt mainstream views and values. These entertainers devour the hand that feeds them—yet we continue to hold out the hand. It's time for Americans to wake up to the fact that art and entertainment have the power to support or destroy a society. As Christians, we ourselves have plenty to criticize about modern society. But the things you and I would defend are often the very things the hip artists attack—namely, Christian morality, biblical teaching on the family, and classic Western liberties. I say it's time to turn the power of art to supporting those ideals. Christians ought to be creating art that expresses a rich biblical world view. Churches can play the role of museums, hosting shows for artists. Christian businessmen can commission works from struggling young artists. Christian magazines ought to search out and nurture artistic talent. After all, as Christians we worship the God of truth and beauty, and we ourselves ought to be producing works of truth and beauty. In the process, we can defend what is best in Western culture from the attacks of adversary art.  


Chuck Colson


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