Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Artists Rule; Revolutionaries Drool

     Quick—What do you think when you see this image?
     A. That Che dude is too cool for school.
     B. Marxist martyr and hero of the revolution.
     C. Where can I get me a t-shirt like that?
     D. Artists rule the world.

     Me, I go for option D. Because if Alberto Korda hadn't taken the photo that Jim Fitzpatrick turned into a poster, millions of kids searching for an image to demonstrate their ideological superiority while also freaking out the parentals would be without not only a logo, but also the gear to demonstrate their affiliation. Art not only rocks; art rules. Literally.
     I remember the first time I saw this iconic poster. I was very young, and I thought this guy with the idealistic gaze and the fashion-correct beret must be something really special. And he was obviously TOTALLY COOL. Because the image of him is totally cool. So he couldn't not be cool, if a cool  poster featuring his beautific face existed. Right? Okay, okay—show a little compassion; I was very young, and my logic circuits weren't fully hooked up yet.
     Funny, though, how adult people (who presumably have all logic circuits up and functioning) manage to make the same mistake I did as a child.
     If all we had to remember Che by were his writings, he would be pretty much a footnote at this point, because when you look at what he actually accomplished, it turns into Not So Much, Really.
     He genuinely cared about the downtrodden and dispossessed (which is a mark in his favor, and yet you don't see the face of Mother Teresa, who also was all about the downtrodden and dispossessed—and managed to offer many of them more actual aid and comfort—on nearly as many t-shirts as you do the face of Che). He truly believed Marxist revolution would make their lives better. He had one successful Marxist revolution, with Castro in Cuba*, and then kind of a long fizzle. He traveled to Africa and South America, among other countries, fomenting revolution, but it never took. He was executed in Bolivia by the government he was trying, unsuccessfully, to overthrow. And most of us would never know about him  (because let's face it, Marxist revolutionaries are just so last-century) if it weren't for a couple of artists who made him into an icon.
     Korda's photo captured the implacable idealism in his gaze, and Fitzpatrick's rendering stripped out all the unnecessary detail, so what we are left with is an image that conveys pure idealism. I'm sure you can get that same sense from his writings. But so few people actually read them, and so many people saw—and still see—the poster or t-shirt or bobblehead or belt buckle or lighter**. Che would have been a footnote in history—the guy who helped Castro overthrow Batista—without artists.
     Both Korda and Fitzpatrick admired Che, and so it is deeply and deliciously ironic that the idealistic anticapitalist icon they created has gone on to become the idealistic anticapitalist icon of capitalism. Viva la revolucion.

*But you really have to qualify that success, as it's not completely clear that the proletariat in whose name said revolution was undertaken actually profited from it.

**There exists a thing called The Che Store. This makes me giggle. 
The little bat asks Che, "Would you still prefer to die standing than to live forever kneeling?" Che replies, "You know, I really don't care! Today I just wear a trendy t-shirt!"

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