Note:  At the time of this interview, the artist was 80 years old.

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J:  When did you start painting? 

 

Y:  Hey, I thought we were going to get into the issues, not into my personal biography!

 

J:  OK, then let’s talk about your process as an artist, a political artist.

 

Y:  First of all, all this talk about the “artist” and his “art” is a screen.

 

J:   A screen? 

 

Y:  A screen for personal advancement, for reputation.  Like everyone else, I guess, I’ve had my moments when I wanted to be rich and famous, that sort of thing.  I had a momentary flash of that, but it was really superfluous, idle thinking.  But I never had the proper ambition or desire to become a “real” artist. 

 

J:  But how long have you been doing art?

 

Y:  I always dabbled. My brother, an artist who had a studio, once gave me a canvas and some paints, and I painted a bit.  In the ‘40s I took a couple of courses in the the Art Students League.  So I decided I liked to paint.  But it was a cyclical thing with me.  Every once in a while I would pull out my oils and spend a day or two painting.  Then I’d give up and lose interest again, and pack up my kit and try again in a few years.  Many years later, in the 1970s, I started taking some art courses at Bridgewater State. 

 

J:  Your early works were landscapes, portraits, that sort of thing.  When did you begin making political art?

 

Y:  When I began to paint in earnest, in the 1980s.  

 

J:  Who were your influences?

 

Y:  I had always admired the Mexican muralists (although I became familiar with them mostly through books on the muralist movement).  Another influence was the American realists, figures in literature and painting, who took on social justice issues. 

 

J:  Have you always considered yourself political?

 

Y:   It was only during the war [WWII] that I began to realize something important about the true dimensions of social inequality.  But I was always political in the sense that I’ve always rooted for the underdog.  I just grew up liking all sorts of people.  I had a Mexican friend, a black friend, I hung around with the poor.  I just started nurturing these feelings as a kid.  In a sense I will always aware of how different people’s lives are.  Later, as a high school teacher [in Plymouth, Mass.] I liked to teach Studs Terkel’s work:  oral histories of ordinary people from all walks of life, often the stories of oppressed people.  

 

J:  Were you politically active before or after the war?

 

Y:  Not really.  I’ve never been fond of organizations (I was a Boy Scout once, but that didn’t last too long).  In college I was part of the Race Relations Committee—basically a group promoting what today we call “multiculturalism,” i.e. the importance of treating one another as human beings, that sort of thing. 

 

J:  You went to school at Swarthmore College, a Quaker school.

 

Y:  The Quakers are about the only religious group I’ve really been able to respect over the years.

 

J:  What about the Japanese-American internment, though, in 1942?  Wasn’t it that experience, when you and the rest of our family was sent to the Poston II camp in Arizona, that politicized you?

 

Y:  Not really.  I’d grown up as an All American Boy, in the Imperial Valley [of California].  Like other Japanese-Americans I didn’t think there were races, that type of thing.  When the curfew order came down [Japanese- Americans were prohibited from leaving their homes after 6:00 p.m. -- JS] I obeyed without really thinking about it.  I didn’t think, “this is wrong, I’m going to protest.”  I just went about my business.

 

J:  It seems to me that a lot of your artwork appeals to the art viewer’s compassion or empathy.  Can you say something about that?

 

Y:    Actually, there’s a big difference between compassion and empathy.  Compassion is akin to charity.  It’s wrapped up in this whole obsession in Western culture with thinking and talking about character--about how you’re going to stack up in the Final Judgment, how you’re going to measure up in your virtues.  Acting virtuously means that you get your little gold star of recognition later on.  Compassion is about the self-accolade, it’s self-centered--“I’m a good person,” that sort of thing.  People have a reputation to think about, they worry about their integrity.  The whole process of civilization has been about enhancing the position of the self vis-a-vis the Great Chain of Being. 

 

J:  I thought compassion was about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

 

Y:  Yes and no.  Take [Harper Lee’s novel] “To Kill a Mockingbird”:  you put yourself in the shoes of the “other” in order to be virtuous.  That book, by the way, is still a racist book—it doesn’t get into the heart of black people, and replies on racist stereotypes.  The white person is asked to put himself into the shoes of a poor or black person, etc.  But itsn’t that simple, because the white person or person in a position of power can always say, “Well, if someone said that to me it wouldn’t bother.”  I remember talking about the plight of black students with the Superintendent of schools and he said, in effect, “I don’t know why black people always complain, we Irish went through the same thing,” and so on.  But as bad as the Irish had it at one time, they were never persecuted in the way that African Americans were.

 

J:  And empathy?

 

Y:  Empathy, on the other hand, isn’t about self-reflection, about how “I feel good because I did this or that.”  No doubt George W. Bush feels compassion some times.  But he doesn’t reflect on other people, he reflects on his own self-image as a decent human being, a Christian, etc.  Compassion is like charity—it’s better than nothing, but it’s hypocritical.  So charity and compassion:  people do these things, but they create dependency and unfreedom.  With empathy, it’s just there. 

 

J:  How does empathy relate to the way we treat people as the “other”?  I’m thinking in particular of your many paintings about warfare, and the way elicit a feeling of outrage and disgust in the viewer.

 

Y:  People use difference all the time to portray someone as beneath them.  The “others” or “aliens” or “enemies”:  the people of the US sees themselves as Americans, everyone else is “other.”  Third World “others” gave the West the rationale they needed to conquer.  But even our own veterans are treated as “other.”  The American people in fact hate veterans.  The only group of American veterans who were treated with some respect after a conflict were those who came out of World War II.  After all the other wars, they’ve been ignored.  Our soldiers are shunted into battle as cannon fodder.  The heroes are the exceptions or tokens.  The upper classes need them to glorify warfare.  But most soldiers come from the ranks of the poor and are used as cannon fodder.  Think about all the things soldiers have had to put up with.  The soldiers in Iraq today without body armor because it’s too expensive, and so on.  Meanwhile, take Bush and Cheney—Vietnam cowards.  They get involved in crooked and dirty politics, get up into power, and begin to define the so-called great issues of the day, they bring us into war.  Do they really care about the deaths they are causing?  I doubt it.  They don’t want the bodies shown on TV.  They try to mute grief.  Mothers are to remain silent, never complaining:  they have to remain proud of their dead sons and daughters, and so on.  Unfortunately, every country believes in war.  People believe in the survival instinct--they don’t care if people have to die for it as long as it’s for “national security.”

 

J:  Your paintings and sculptures cover an extraordinary range of themes, from the Tiananmen Square massacre and racism to US intervention in Central America and the Gulf War.  How do you choose a particular subject of a painting?  What is it that you’re trying to do when you take on a particular issue?

 

Y:  Obviously the issues themselves abound.  My work begins with feelings, I feel the injustice.  So much needs to be said but is hidden because of the way issues are covered up.  I try to confront the public by exposing the atrocities.  Historically, the voices of the oppressed, those who suffer, are still there; they cry out, they demand to be listened to.  All I’m trying to do is to facilitate what the victims are trying to say.  There’s no unusual language or anything.  I try to be to the point.  In my painting on Indonesian human rights abuses in East Timor, for example, I include the numbers of those killed because numbers are important—just as at the Vietnam Memorial, words are important.  In my painting and installation, “The Rape of Nanking,” on Japanese atrocities in China during the war, I incorporate a book on the subject, so that the viewer will bear witness to actual photographs of the atrocities.  Like the Mexican muralists, I’m trying to give voice to all these sufferings.

 

J:  Would you say that art shouldn’t be about art, then?

 

Y:  Don’t bring in anything extraneous to what you’re trying to say.  It’s like over-acting:  you’re bringing in things that aren’t really part of the matter.  Don’t let the art get in the way.  I have no objection to aesthetics.  I appreciate a good drama, a good movie, a good book.  For example, I read something and I know something [as a former English teacher] about how artists and writers work their craft.  I like to be manipulated by them, I appreciate their ability to work on an emotional level.  But often that type of thing, the technique, gets in the way.  On the one hand, art is very rich--art should be everywhere.  But we also have to acknowledge what art and its pretensions do to people, that is to people who cannot express themselves, or who don’t live up to the “standards.” Personally I really don’t care about how good my art is.  Hey--I know I’m no great artist.  I wish I was able to this or that, technically. 

 

J:  What do you think about the direction art has taken in recent decades?

 

Y:  Artists today feel that they need to get grants, or to show their stuff off in juried art shows.  They are hyper-conscious of their standing in the art world.  But getting money to put on a show is part of the problem.  In the case of protest art, of course, it’s good for the message to be put out there.  But there’s also self-deception involved.  Social protest ends up taking a back seat to the art--the art and aesthetics becomes the primary thing.

 

Today’s artists are trying to bring down the barriers, it’s all tied up with money—how art is rated, it’s by money, the critics who are in the pay of the monied class.  The museum has become the Fort Knox of culture.  Today, you can’t separate the so-called values of art from money.  So you have an exhibit in Paris, in Kyoto, or wherever--big deal.  The value system’s all screwed up.  Life is ephemeral, but we ask, “what’s it worth?”  Something, the art work, has to be concretized, has to be made permanent, eternal.  This is where virtue and character come in again.  The artist signs his name, it’s all about posterity.  That’s such an important part of it.  But the critics, the art world--they don’t give a damn about everyday life, ordinary people.  During the years of the Reagan administration, a case came up before the Supreme Court that hinged on the argument that a judge’s life is intrinsically worth more than the life of a criminal.  The Supreme Court rejected that notion, because you can’t make that sort of an argument.  Once you do, you have negated the very idea of equality.  But in real life--do you think anyone gives a damn?  Art plays into the civilizational myth of Beauty, which always comes at the expense of the living.

 

J:  You just turned 80 this year.  Do you think things are getting better, politically?  Is society becoming more just? 

 

Y:  People in power still maintain that power.  They still control the media and government.  The people who suffer still suffer; they might not starve, they may have food stamps or housing or shelter.  Starvation does happen, but food problem has been settled in the US and the world.

 

J:  But the food isn’t getting to them.

 

Y:  My point is that there is now enough food to go around, it’s just that the powers that be, the ones who run the international monetary system, control exactly what’s allwed and what’s not allowed.  But the system, capitalism,  becomes ever less relevant.  People are gaining more access to things than ever before.  So the power struggle is shifting to an entirely different plane.  Society is evolving, things are happening, things are changing.  There’s hope that because the activity at the grassroots, the people themselves are going to make a difference.  They’re argue about rights to life, right to freedom in every sphere.  They’re putting the screws on the corporations.  But change takes a long time. 

This Is Not Great Art":
An Interview with Yoshiro Sanbonmatsu on the Meaning of Political Art
(interviewed by his son, John Sanbonmatsu, in Boston, 2004)