Watching Congressional leaders exult in their re-written tax code favoring the well-off over the worn-out middle-class brings to mind an almost 50-year-old etching by social realist painter Jack Levine. The image shows three government officials puffed up with self-importance. Titled “Feast of Pure Reason,” words taken from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” are plainly mocking. The eyes of the figures are notably closed, as if their opinion is fixed and there’s no point in trying to change it.

Activist art

Levine, a Boston native, drew the image in 1971 to satirize corrupt politicians in his hometown.

But it also is an unwitting proxy for the way the GOP rammed the tax legislation through last week without a public hearing, expert testimony or a single Dem vote. That’s the way with good art: it transcends time. Levine wanted more painters like him to take on current events, famously saying that the world needed more artists who make art, as well as Ted Williams, could hit – a clear dig at the Abstract Expressionists. (More about that in a moment).

The emperor wears no clothes

Given the tribal politics in the Trump era, the scathing imagery by Levine, who died in 2010, serves as if it were made this morning. Of course, he’s not the only painter who turned to satire to make art. In the 19th century, Honore Daumier pilloried the French king Louis Philippe by likening him to a gargantuan eating his people alive.

The same goes for the painter Francisco Goya toward the end of the 18th century who pictured abusive rulers as monsters.

Rebels with a cause

Levine, then, was a latter-day Daumier and Goya- fiercely against corruption, which made him uppity about Abstract Expressionism: “You can’t disrespect the whole world for some silly paint spots,” he wrote in the exhibit catalog for his show at the Whitney Museum of Art.

“Before anything, I have to find out the valid thing to do as an artist...therefore I shall always have to repudiate certain contemporary concepts because I’ve got a job that has to be done.” I can’t agree. Abstract Expressionists were part of a counter-culture, rebelling against so-called norms as diligently as the Social Realists.

Crime and punishment

It’s worth mentioning that painters who put their brushes aside to draw political satire did not escape punishment. When Daumier pilloried King Philippe, he was jailed for six months and prevented from doing it again. Goya was called before the Inquisition, although friends in high places kept him out of jail. And Levine was subpoenaed by The House Un-American Activities Committee. But by then, the purge was losing ground and that was that. Levine took pride in the government’s attention: “You get denounced by the president of the United States, you’ve hit the top.” But the way things are going in the Trump era, who knows if artists who fault him will escape punishment.

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