Philadelphia-based visual artist Morgan Craig calls out capitalism with the power of his art

by Joe McCarthy

Broken Chords 18" by 24" Oil on Linen Morgan Craig, 2017

Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so the conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other. ___W.E.B. DuBois 

Nevada Capital News’s Arts Beat interviews explore the roles that art plays in contemporary life, and the intersection of art and pressing social issues. We explore artists’ work in relation to the dimensions of art’s power and potency.

Our latest conversation is with Philadelphia-based visual artist Morgan Craig.  Craig is a visiting artist at the Resident Artist Program in Silver City, Nevada

Craig’s artist statement: “My work is not merely a method of documentation, but a sociopolitical/ socioeconomic commentary on the effects of hubris, avarice, free trade, outsourcing, deregulation, deterritorialization, neoliberalism, obsolescence, and international-finance-capital upon communities throughout the world.”   

Heartland of America
72″ by 54″
Oil on Linen
Morgan Craig, 2011

I asked Craig to tell us a bit about himself.

“I’m an artist and educator. Basically, I have two full-time jobs. One is being a painter, and the other teaching in the inner city of Philadelphia inculcating students with knowledge of art. 

“I’ve always had an interest in all things visual, and aesthetics, even going back to my youth. I guess that is what led me into the world of painting. I got my start basically doing a lot of drawing. I would draw all the time and I never really thought I was good enough until I was in college taking an elective painting class, the first time I’d ever painted. The head of the department was in the room … I was working on a piece and she came over and inquired about what my future plans were. I said I’m really not sure. She asked, did I think it was in the arts. I said I’m not so sure about that. I never really thought that I was good enough. I was quickly admonished for thinking such a thing and directed to her office, and the rest was history.”

Listen to the interview here

Morgan paints abandoned buildings as visual records of our society’s industrial past.  I asked Craig about what he believes his art has to offer and how his artistic themes and approaches fit into his work?

“Wow, that’s a hard question … a voice for the people, for the proletariat … for people that do not necessarily have a voice in today’s world, art gives you a way of expressing yourself in a fashion that can be heterodox, buck trends and, you know, work nicely into a dialectic of sorts.

“I use it as a tool to express my views and beliefs and my research and exploration on the destruction, the waste, the exploitation of capitalism on the people of this planet.”

Craig works in several mediums with an aspiration to include sound.

“I primarily will paint on linen. But I do also work with chalk, pastels, of course, pencil. I do explore field recordings. I’ve interviewed some people over the years and hope to eventually move beyond just the painting and incorporate sound, and thus, I guess it would fall into the category of installation, or where you would be able to walk into a space and not only would you be immersed in the visual, but you would also hear the voice of the people that are directly related to what you’re looking at.”

Cadaver of Capitalism
54″ by 72″
Oil on Linen
Morgan Craig, 2015

The soft-spoken Craig has a forthright and articulate ability to define what is integral to his life’s work. 

“What is integral … these issues with these monolithic structures … how they have devastated these communities, but I didn’t quite grasp what it was that had done this. And then as I read more and more, I realized that it was the capitalist system, that is the perpetrator. And, you know, invariably the capitalist.” 

Anterograde and the Anthropocene
60″ by 84″
Oil on Linen
Morgan Craig 2018
flockless
29″ by 36″
Oil on Linen
Morgan Craig 2018

More and more art is representing political injustice depicting institutional injustice and environmental degradation. I asked Craig to comment about the current controversy at the Whitney Museum in New York City, specifically how a number of the artists are pulling out of this year’s Biennial. The reasons include the influence of suspect philanthropy, how philanthropic money is made and whether the artists are approaching the boycott the right way?”

“I think it’s fantastic. But I think that in some ways, they didn’t move fast enough, like the Biennial has already been going on. They should have pulled out at the beginning. There should have been none of this … the same thing is applying to the Sackler family, (the pharmaceutical industry titans tied to the opioid crisis worldwide). Museums (such as the Met in New York, the Tate in London and the Louvre in Paris) are refusing their donations and removing the Sackler name off of every facade … which is just … I am totally in solidarity with the individuals that are jumping out of, or getting out of the Biennial due to the (Whitney’s) one gentleman on the board, (whose company is the manufacturer of tear gas used at the U.S. border with Mexico). I just think that it wasn’t done fast enough. I think that they should have when they realized that (the board member in question) wasn’t going to budge and that the Whitney wasn’t going to budge. At that point, they should have just pulled (out) within a couple of days of the start of the Biennial. Again, that is just my opinion, and I’m sure there would be (opposing) arguments. I’m sure there would be people that would disagree with me. Well, there’s plenty of arguments out there. And it’s fascinating.” 

Empire and the Rust of Humanity
45″ by 60″
Oil on Linen
Morgan Craig 2018

Craig’s work has evolved over time as he traveled the world. His art asks difficult questions and offers insights to understand the world in which we live. I asked him to elaborate on how his art has evolved. 

“I would say that there’s an urgency … as I’ve traveled the traversed the planet, so to speak. I feel that we are, it’s as Ralph Nader put it, we’re in a global catastrophe. This system has to be smashed, we have to move towards socialism. I saw … exigency – the urgency that there’s a need for significant change. And so I feel like that is elucidated in my work more now than it was, say, 15 years ago.  

“Of course … I am using painting as a tool to get out messages or to get people to question … to be the impetus for what I see is outrage over what the 1 percent corporations and capitalists have done to this planet in the name of profit, with no moral compass whatsoever.

“I’m making inroads into Africa, right now. I’m really excited about a trip that I’m taking to Zambia, I’m going to be doing an artist residency there for the month of August … I’m interested in not only the impact of capitalism in Africa, but I’m also looking at China’s investments and involvement in the One Belt, One Road program. Again, despite the fact that they claim that they’re communists, you know, they’re very much using a capitalist framework with these countries.”

Iron Flowers of Capital, For Your Blinding Spectacle
60″ by 45″
Oil on Linen
Morgan Craig 2018

Craig believes that public funding of the arts is critical.

“I think it’s been eviscerated in many ways by what Noam Chomsky once said, the most destructive organization on the planet, and that is the Republican Party. They really have … I can attest to that in Pennsylvania, individual grants have disappeared. We had a long history of individual grants … (now) the arts are always the first thing on the chopping block. And it’s funny because they then use these that you know, then they use this to cut every possible funding (opportunity), desiccate to the point where there’s nothing is left but dust. And then yet they use it as a tool for propaganda. You know, it’s like, they rely upon what they intend to destroy.

“Also, artists are one of the greatest threats to the system that we exist under, because art provides a voice to everyone, regardless of ethnic, gender, whatever, whatever background … I think that I’m really concerned about it … many of these universities and colleges are just money-making machines. They’re not promising a career or job opportunities after this. They just dumped these kids out on the streets after they got their money. I really think I see these MFA programs and what you are expanding? I’m just shaking my head because what is the sense in this? The government has cut funding astronomically already for the arts. There’s no support system. There’s also a complete misunderstanding of what is needed or the expense involved to become an artist. Some artists have no grasp of the cost, not only monetarily, but to the body to the mind that artists have to endure … it’s a really arduous road.”

I asked Craig to tell us what sustains him in this challenging environment?

“I would like to say in the words of the great Big Bill Heywood, ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’ We must get solidarity and we must fight and revolution is needed.”

Iron Flowers of Capital, For Your Blinding Spectacle
60″ by 45″
Oil on Linen
Morgan Craig 2018

Thursday, July 25, 2019, Morgan Craig will be giving an artist talk at the BRIC, 108 East Proctor Street, Carson City, Nevada 89701, 5 pm – 6:30 pm.

Craig will be joined by NYC artists Adrian Landon and Ewelina Bochenska, visiting artists at the Buffalo Creek Art Center in Douglas County. 

The artists’ talk is the second in a new summer series organized by Carson City local government, in collaboration with the Resident Artist Program in Silver City and Buffalo Creek Art Center in Douglas County.