During the pro-business Eighties, Baby Boomers beginning their professional careers had fashionable fun ridiculing the Sixties counterculture of their high school and college years: bell bottoms, peace medallions, bongs, munchies, etc. Hippiedom certainly had its comic and even destructive sides, but, in retrospect, its utopian social ideals, even at their most unrealistic (and self-righteous) were and are a necessary counterweight to America’s capitalist-warrior cult o’ plenty.
One who kept the faith is political artist Doug Minkler. While studying art at Foothill College during the Vietnam War, he made a ceramic sculpture of his “Napalm-burned … head, complete with my singed draft card” that won an award. Then he dropped out to protest high-society draft-dodging. After leaving Hayward State just shy of graduation in order to concentrate on his art, he took “a variety of industrial jobs” that radicalized him: “I soon found myself fighting for worker rights by participating in contract negotiations, union organizing, and strikes.” A final stab at formal education (and teaching certification) also ended badly. After delivering a passionate lecture about artistic freedom, “the instructor for the painting class informed me that my work was propaganda — not art — and it had no place in the university,” Minkler said. “The instructor for the printmaking class told me that if he gave me credit for the [independent-study] work I was proposing his non-citizen status in the US would be put at risk.” Fortunately, his Foothill art instructor, Gordon Holler, gave him a silkscreen, and Minkler was set on his unorthodox path as sociopolitical gadfly. “Corporations want artists to glorify their wars, their products, and their philosophies. I make posters for my own preservation, that is, planetary preservation. My prints are inspired not by rugged individualism, but by the collective humor, defiance, and lust for life exhibited by those on the margins.”
Notwithstanding such communitarian principles, Minkler is as rugged an individualist as any merger mogul, as this survey of his engagé/enragé work of the past three decades demonstrates. Space constraints prohibit aesthetic discussion of the “propaganda,” but anyone determined to ignore “depressing” content will find style to burn — jazzy drawing, sprightly color, ferocious wit, and penetrating analysis, all in the service of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable — just the opposite of what Fox’s nattering nabobs of negativity get paid megabucks to do. Free art downloads from Minkler’s website. Reception on Friday, April 17. 4-6 p.m., free. 30 Years of New Work runs through May 1 at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). 510-849-2568 or LaPena.org