What we like
Art, Art Workers, & Artistic Activism
In conversation with (perhaps) political artist, Andrew Mulhearn
Welcome to the new ZNetwork.org, Andrew! I’m a fan of your art, and you are a fan of Z’s work, which recently lead us into a conversation about art, labor relations, and activism. Thanks for agreeing to this interview, and sharing our conversation with the Z community…
To begin, could you introduce yourself?
My name is Andrew Mulhearn, and I work as a commercial artist. There are many different markets for commercial art, but I create illustrations for print and digital publications that accompany their articles. When I make an illustration, I try to condense complex socio-economic and political ideas into a conceptual piece of art that utilizes surreal imagery and visual metaphor. My work constantly forces me to explore new topics that broaden my understanding of major political issues around the world, and I hope in doing so, it does the same for the people looking at my art. Ultimately, I want the people who look at my work to become better-informed citizens that are more empowered to participate in our society.
How did you become a political artist? Did you find art through politics or did art give you a means of expressing yourself? Are you involved in other types of activism or social change projects in addition to creating illustrations?
I never considered myself to be a political artist until my interview with you, but it makes sense. I guess I became a political artist because politics and history have always been interesting topics for me. I’ve been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember, it’s something I’ve always derived a great sense of meaning from.
I consider myself to be an artist first and foremost. It just so happens that there is a market within the field of commercial art that suits the kind of work I create.
I donate to political campaigns when I can, but I’m not much of an activist outside of my art, and it didn’t really occur to me that the work I make is a form of activism. For me at least, activism is something that is collective and has a set of objectives or plans that advance a political movement. The process in which I create my art is very individualized, though I work with art directors and send them sketches for feedback.
For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you why I make my art the way I do. I could tell you about how I make my art, and I’m certainly passionate about what I do, but I can’t figure out why. Some artists can write down explanations for why they became an artist specifically, but whenever I try to do this, I’m never satisfied with the answer. There’s just this creative impulse that I have that I’m always called to fulfill in the back of my mind.
I see art your art as political and as a form of activism because it is giving expression to ideas and information about society that should be accessible to all people, but is very often obscured. As you put it, “[you] want people who look at [your] work to be better-informed citizens who are empowered to participate fully in our society.” You are empowering others with information, understanding, and even questions so that they can actually self-determine their response – this is a big part of social change, and though the process of creating art can be solitary, the effect is communal and participatory.
I know I’m supposed to be interviewing you, so I will keep it short, but I’m also hedging against your humility by bringing this up. As an “activist”, I hate calling myself an activist. So, I will spare you the discomfort and say that to me, your art is a form of activism. I see political art (including your art) as a strategic component of consciousness raising and commitment building, which are two foundational building blocks of any movement.
Let’s switch it up… It can be both a joy and a challenge (under our current economic system) to fuse your work with your passion, as a creative worker and as a political artist. This leads to the topic of artists as workers. I’d like to ask you to first describe your own experience of what it means to you personally, to be an artist in the context of labor relations.
For most artists, you are a freelancer. There are some markets within commercial art like concept art for film/interactive entertainment or pattern design where you see some more staff positions. Mostly throughout its history, the field of commercial art has been freelance work and will continue to move more towards that as the economy moves away from salaried jobs. The pitfalls of the gig economy in terms of health insurance and stability are well known, but staff artists have their own issues too. The big one I know of is that oftentimes when you work for a studio, they own the copyright of the work you produce. I can’t speak much more about this, since I haven’t worked for a studio myself and I wouldn’t want to speak for those who have. In my experience and the experience of most artists starting out, it’s very slow going. You have to cold email a lot of art directors who get hundreds of emails from other illustrators. For all illustrators, even the successful ones, the return rate you get for those cold email and postcard campaigns is 3-5 percent. As you get published more, the work you make becomes your self-circulating promo card, as Yuko Shimizu once explained to me in an email exchange we had.
More generally, considering the sphere of economic relations, do you see artists as workers? What sort of systemic pressures and constraints do labor relations put on art workers? I am thinking of hot-button issues like AI-generated art, crowdfunding (and the platforms that host the ability to crowdfund), and the gig economy that all pose precarity and a constantly changing landscape for art workers, but possibly all have systemic similarities.
Artists are absolutely workers, but it gets a little tricky to classify them sometimes because of how diverse the field is. Generally, artists are self-employed professionals. Even artists with staff jobs typically run an art business on the side.
I’ve never used crowdfunding platforms myself, and I haven’t read enough about them to be able to give you an intelligent opinion about them, I can tell you what I think about AI and art.
The question of AI and art is a complex topic, but you can break it down into the technical and legal aspects of the problem. The technology is impressive in some ways, but when you read more into what it does, it isn’t designed to do the same things that commercial artists do. From my rough understanding of the field, Artificial Intelligence has been divided into two warring camps since its inception. The first camp is symbol manipulation, which is based on manipulating abstract symbols and understanding how these symbols relate to each other. The second camp is called deep learning, which is where you train a program to look at billions of points of data and develop a statistical model that allows it to generate results based on how it reads the data.
The second camp has been dominant since the 80s and 90s and the current crop of image-generation programs is based on that. One might point out vague similarities with how artists will paint hundreds of times to improve and hone their skills, and how AI image generation programs will look at hundreds of images to dictate their output, but the similarities end here. When you design an image as an artist, what you’re doing is arranging different shapes of different values into a composition that uses these abstract shapes to represent things like light, anatomy, perspective, good shape language, good composition, and visual metaphor, among millions of other things. These are tasks that involve symbolic, abstract thinking. Some of the things I mention, like “good shape language,” and “good composition” are very subjective. If the programs are given prompts like “Sketch a bicycle and label the parts that roll on the ground”, or “Sketch a ladder and label one of the parts you stand on”, they rarely, if ever produce the result you’re looking for because of what I describe.
The current technology needs to incorporate symbol manipulation in a hybrid system if it even has a hope of achieving its goals, but even there I’m still skeptical of what it can do. Gary Marcus has been advocating for hybrid systems for years, though focusing on AI generally and not art programs specifically. I developed a lot of my reasoning and argumentation from his work here. Now it seems like the argument for hybrid systems is convincing even more mainstream researchers like Yann Lecun, Chief AI Scientist at Meta.
So, at the technical level, you would not consider AI generated art a widespread threat to commercial artists, in the same way that technology has negatively affected workers under capitalism in say, manufacturing. The “products” you produce and the “labor” you sell cannot (as yet) be considered interchangeable with AI generated art. Perhaps it never will be exactly interchangeable, if people value art made by humans more than art made by AI. Or, perhaps people will come to consider AI just another tool that people can use to make art (like photoshop, illustrator, etc) therefore not replacing artists, but adding an option to their toolkit.
This is more of a debate about what is art and to who, but I’d like to drill down into the current situation of art workers and their struggle for just economic relations. If we consider AI generated art as a tool that could be used by people to make stuff, and also used by corporations to extract value and cheapen labor, what should art workers (and all workers) consider in their struggle?
This leads to the other aspect of this problem as it relates to art workers, the legality of what independent research labs are doing with the technology, and I think in this scenario the problem is far more black-and-white. Not all, but some of the people working on this technology are trying to generate images based on the style of specific artists. The end goal of this, I believe, is to replace artists with programs that can generate images the way they would for much cheaper. Assuming that AI overcomes all of the hurdles I describe above, the technology would necessarily change how fair use law operates. People get swamped in abstract debates about what is “transformative” in art, but ultimately it boils down to markets.
Copyright law in the United States is designed to protect and promote artistic production by giving artists a monopoly over markets that generate profit from the work they create. Personally, I don’t necessarily like the current system we have, and it’s liable to be draconian and abused by large studios, but it’s the one we have. I can talk more about alternatives in later questions.
Fair use law acknowledges that you can use someone else’s art in ways that don’t infringe on their markets and creates a new work of art (parody and satire are heavily reliant on these protections). A program that can be trained to generate images the way a specific artist would create them does not pass the test of being transformative, even if they’re “new” images, because they’re designed to infringe upon and undercut artists in markets that are typically reserved for said artists alone. If the programs are being used to create an image in the style of a specific artist and are being trained on examples of the artist’s work, I don’t see how you could defend that as anything other than derivative. If the courts let this happen, they might as well toss out the rest of copyright law too.
The response I’ve gotten to my opinion here is usually, “What if they type in the prompt (art in the style of this artist + this other artist)?” Some of my old art teachers believe that your style comes from the combination of your inspirations and influences, but I disagree here. In my experience, finding your personal voice as an artist is a matter of training your eye to observe, your mind to comprehend, and your hand to follow both. You may be inspired by the work of other artists, but what you’re really doing is chipping away and refining what’s already inside you, like carving a statue. Everybody has that innate potential, but some have more of a drive and a knack to do so.
I love the pen and ink drawings of David Levine, and I’ve tried to do what he does many times. I can’t, but I can do what Andy Mulhearn does. Your work might end up having some similarities to your art heroes, but ultimately it comes from within. That’s why I don’t think the “this artist + this artist” prompt in an image generator would work, because art doesn’t really work like that, and as I mentioned before, AI image generators aren’t designed to deal with abstract ideas like “perspective” “good shape design” and “composition”.
If by some miracle this does change in the future, I don’t see it as something that will be used to cheapen art labor, because, by the time you create machines that can replace visual artists, there’s no reason to believe that you couldn’t create machines that could replace animators, musicians, and writers. It would be the death knell for small independent artists and big studios alike because everything they could produce could be gotten for free. Our society would need to find new ways to support artists rather than giving them a monopoly over markets that generate profit from the work they create. In some ways, that might not necessarily be a bad thing, but if you live in the U.S. that simply means that the arts won’t be supported at all.
Could you talk about the various responses to these challenges and threats you have described? Is there a history of artists organizing as workers? Are artists also participating in the recent upsurge of labor organizing?
It’s not easy, because the precariousness of being a self-employed professional makes it harder to organize for better working conditions. It’s a little easier for animators and other art forms where you need a lot of manpower and it’s more collaborative. The Screen Cartoonist’s Guild managed to organize all the animation studios by the thirties and forties. There was a strike at Activision this year, but it only dealt with quality assurance workers, and the union wasn’t recognized.
There is a union for my field of commercial art, the Graphic Artists’ Guild, but the nature of the type of employment that members work in make it more of a copyright protection advocacy group, rather than a union as one would typically imagine it. They do offer healthcare and a legal referral network, so I do plan to join it one day when I make more money from my art.
Of course, like all of us, artists are not solely workers and do not exist solely in the realm of economics. Art itself and therefore artists can be a source of care, connection, and expression in our community and kinship spheres. Art can certainly be political as a form of either dissent or consent. It can be rebellion, celebration, solidarity, education, propaganda, etc. I’d like to widen our discussion and ask you about artistic activism. Could you talk a little about other artist activists whom you admire or specific works of artistic activism?
The great all-time example of art as activism was Picasso’s Guernica. Even though it was commissioned by the Spanish Republic to protest the Fascist bombing of Guernica, it still has power to this day. When Colin Powell went before the U.N. to ask for authorization to attack Iraq, U.N. officials covered up an embroidered copy of the painting that Powell was standing in front of. Of course, people still knew what painting was behind the tarp, and the fact that they felt the necessity to cover it up only highlighted the irony and terrible injustice of the situation more. That’s what art as activism looks like to me.
My field of commercial art is not bereft of examples either. A powerful example of art as activism was the work of David Levine. During the Vietnam war, when things were beginning to look bad for the administration, Johnson circulated a picture of himself showing his gallbladder scar when it got removed. He had a reputation for liking to be seen as “tough” and that was him trying to do that. David Levine did a caricature of that but replaced the gallbladder scar with the topography of Vietnam. At that point in the war, the cartoon was devastating for the Johnson administration.
Another commercial artist who I really admire, Art Young, nearly got put in jail for one of his cartoons about WWI. Some of the artists and editors of his paper The Masses got put on trial for violating the Espionage Act for “trying to halt or obstruct recruitment of soldiers for the U.S. Army.” His cartoon was of an editor, a clergyman, a capitalist, and a government official all dancing to a devil’s tune and advocating for the war, and it was titled “War is Hell.” Some people thought it was dangerous enough in those days that he should go to jail for it. Thankfully he was acquitted both times.
I know this is a little outside of the scope of the question, but I think it’s important to warn people on the left that they shouldn’t take art for granted as a tool for social change. In historical terms, it’s very unusual that art is being used to promote left-wing causes at all. For a long time, at least in Europe, art was used to legitimize the Catholic Church, absolutist monarchs, and the mercantile elites of the Dutch Republic and England. The latter is what gave us our current “fine art” market. Art can be used to envision a better world and rail against injustice, or it can be used to legitimize the status quo.
We’ve covered a lot of ground and discussed the world as it is today, the struggle of art workers, and the roles that art can play in all our struggles. This wouldn’t be a ZNetwork interview if we didn’t finally dig into the political imaginary and ask, “what do you want”? What is the better world you seek? Have you personally engaged with any post-capitalist, liberatory, utopian, or other kind of vision that informs your struggle?
Absolutely, I learned from Alexander Cockburn a long time ago that any transformative vision of the world ultimately needs a utopian vision to back it. My utopia is pretty simple, and in some ways pretty selfish. The world I seek is one where we use the greater efficiency of modern technology and a more rational organization of labor to drastically cut the hours of the working day, to a degree where everybody does jobs that are as necessary to the functioning of society (such as sanitation work) but have far more free time than they do working hours. This would ideally allow everyone to pursue art if they so wished. Artists wouldn’t have to deal with the economic pressure of supporting themselves with their work, so issues like Copyright would become a vestigial organ of the bad old days. We’re very far away from that vision right now, but everything can change faster than people ever expect, for better or worse.
What does an artistic future look like? From the fiction of LeGuin, to Chambers, to solarpunk art, to music, there are endless creative ways we can imagine a better world and inspire others to fight for it. How about we finish off with some of your recommendations…
I talked a lot about visual art in our interview, so I’ll start my answer off with some musicians. I think the reader will likely be familiar with names like Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, and Phil Ochs, but they probably haven’t heard of Leon Rosselson. He’s my favorite left-wing folk musician, and I can’t think of any other artist who’s better at poetic metaphor than he is.
I already mentioned David Levine and Picasso, but I also like looking at WPA art, both the murals and the posters and graphics that were commissioned by it.
Molly Crabapple is a great artist too, and someone who combines reporting and art in a way that nobody else can compete with, in my opinion.
Yuko Shimizu makes brilliant illustrations and she’s one of my inspirations. Steve Brodner is a masterful caricaturist too.