I recently came across this piece of writing from Eugene V. Debs that struck a chord with me, reminding me of this particular painting from a few years back, The Heart’s Standard Bearer. I think it captures what I would like much of my work to represent– the flag of high hope and high resolve, as he puts it. I know that in these politically divided times invoking the name of Debs is probably a risky proposition.
He was, after all, a prominent Socialist, a term which raises the hackles of many, most who have no true idea of what it truly means or has represented in the not so distant past. Debs, who lived from 1885 until 1926, was absolutely committed to the fight for fairness and rights for the poor and the working class, spending several stints in prisons over the course of his life for the stands he took. He ran for president from his cell in 1920, the last of the five campaigns he led for the high office as the candidate of the Socialist Party. You may cringe at the current populist interpretation of socialism but you should realize that we have all benefited from the efforts of Debs and others like him who fought for living wages and decent working conditions for all citizens and against exploitation of all sorts.
I am often asked why I use the color red in many of paintings. Red trees. Red chairs. Red roofs. Red fields. I always struggle to describe what meaning it has for me. But reading this made me feel that the red in many of my paintings might somehow be, as described in Debs’ words, the pure red that symbolizes the common blood of the human family, the equality of mankind, the brotherhood of the race.
Debs’ The Crimson Standard was published in 1905 in Appeal to Reason, a weekly progressive/socialist publication of the era that featured the writings of Upton Sinclair, Jack London and Helen Keller. It was an extremely popular magazine, with the fourth highest circulation of any weekly at the time. As I said, socialism was not the anathema then as now.
A vast amount of ignorant prejudice prevails against the red flag. It is easily accounted for. The ruling class the wide world over hates it, and its sycophants, therefore, must decry it.
Strange that the red flag should produce the same effect upon a tyrant that it does upon a bull.
The bull is enraged at the very sight of the red flag, his huge frame quivers, his eyes become balls of fire, and he paws the dirt and snorts with fury.
The reason for this peculiar effect of a bit of red coloring upon the bovine species we are not particularly interested in at this moment, but why does it happen to excite the same rage in the czar, the emperor and the king; the autocrat, the aristocrat and the plutocrat?
Ah, that is simple enough.
The red flag, since time immemorial, has symbolized the discontent of the downtrodden, the revolt of the rabble.
That is its sinister significance to the tyrant and the reason of his mingled fear and frenzy when the “red rag,” as he characterizes it, insults his vision.
It is not that he is opposed to red as a color, or even as an emblem, for he has it in his own flags and banners, and it never inflames his passion when it is blended with other colors; but red alone, unmixed and unadulterated, the pure red that symbolizes the common blood of the human family, the equality of mankind, the brotherhood of the race, is repulsive and abhorrent to him because it is at once an impeachment of his title, a denial of his superiority and a menace to his power.
Precisely for the reason that the plutocrat raves at the red flag the proletaire should revere it.
To the plutocrat it is a peril; to the proletaire a promise.
The red flag is an omen of ill, a sign of terror to every tyrant, every robber and every vampire that sucks the life of labor and mocks at its misery.
It is an emblem of hope, a bow of promise to all the oppressed and downtrodden of the earth.
The red flag is the only race flag; it is the flag of revolt against robbery; the flag of the working class, the flag of hope and high resolve – the flag of Universal Freedom.