The exhibition of down-home-prophet Jesse Clyde Howard, “Thy Kingdom Come,” curated by Jeffrey Uslip at the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum, has drawn to a close. As the CAM website puts it, Howard was “a self-taught artist, evangelist, and keen advocate of ‘free thought and free speech’ who lived and worked in Fulton, Missouri, from the 1940s through the early ’80s.” For four decades Howard turned his home (inside and out) into an evolving installation of hand-painted signs and assemblage: “religious exhortations, political denunciations, and autobiographical details…”—much to the consternation of his neighbors.
Of course there is little to value in Howard’s actual politics, a semi-libertarian hodge-podge of conspiracy theory and John Birch society fever dreams, lamenting a nation under threat by “communism and progressivism.” But the work is beautiful, a seamless fusion of pathos and politics, of spiritual and social concerns. That Howard was a (mostly) right-wing nut does not change this. His methods and contributions should be stolen by our side—in favor of “communism and progressivism,” in favor of a radical cosmopolitanism, in favor of workers, in favor of the oppressed, in favor of “combination” and direct democracy. Most of all the mythology of the prophet in the wilderness should be taken for our side. In these semi-apocalyptic times we are all John the Baptist—raving in the desert. And the church of socialism will likely be rebuilt after we are long gone.
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Adam Turl is an artist, writer and socialist currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge and is presently pre-occupied with exploring past and present Marxist strategies in studio art. Turl is an MFA candidate at the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes the "Evicted Art Blog" at Red Wedge.