EAT THE RICH: An Interview with Artist Todd Ayoung


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Todd Ayoung has generated a substantial body of socially engaged and political art since the late 1970s. For this first issue of Left Art Review, Ayoung produced a portrait of UAW leader Shan Fain.



Gregory Sholette: It is interesting in this era of endless attempted novelty and frequent shock imagery to see you produce a contribution for Left Art Review in the form of a fairly straight-forward portrait of Shawn Fain, the United Auto Workers President. I know that you have created several other pieces like this in recent years, including the print What Would MLK Jr. Say Today, so with this in mind, can you discuss this choice of approach and how it relates to the subject matter, as well as what it tells us about your take on contemporary art? 

Todd Ayoung: “How can interventions into temporality–materialized through creative acts of making—improve our struggle against present-day fascism?” 

This quote from T.J. Demos recent book “Radical Futurisms”references Robin D.G. Kelly’s take on oppression as an emergent  space of resistance, a radical state of exception linked to emancipatory futures and the possibility of generating collectivization. I see the current UAW leadership of Shawn Fain standing for this re-emerging space of class struggle as confrontation. The UAW has become formidable, unpredictable and many steps ahead of the ruling class’s response to the strike. When I saw Shawn Fain give a press talk wearing the t-shirt, “EAT THE RICH” I was inspired to create a ballpoint pen drawing that could visualize other possibilities of Fain’s televised confrontation. 

“I see the current UAW leadership of Shawn Fain standing for this re-emerging  space of class struggle as confrontation.”

Fain is not just being “theatrical,” he is also standing up in revolt. Pushing the point that the 1 percent is the problem, and that the working class needs to take control of their conditions. This in-your-face revolt of Shawn Fain also foresees that the UAW can  imagine a larger political agenda, that is why I inserted BLM, Land back and especially, ECOSOCIALISM as part of the placards surrounding the press conference of Fain.

The “EAT THE RICH” stance of Shawn Fain on October 6th, 2023  is confronting capitalist labor practices, and opening up possibilities of a labor movement that embrace other political “intersections” simultaneously. Fain’s unioning confrontation is anchoring a materialist stance of better working conditions for UAW workers within Capitalism. 

The point is the working class struggle should be the anchor and with this positioning, it affords other struggles to move in synchrony beyond  isolated causes to bigger picture systemic shifts. “How to make that revolutionary break” T.J. Demos asks in referencing Robin D. J. Kelly’s understanding of Walter Benjamin’s move “beyond the closed dialectic of crisis versus opportunity.” I am not saying the UAW is the “revolutionary break,” but that the  UAW’s recent strike and 400,000 strong membership can enact a political, social and economic structural shift beyond reforming disaster capitalism for the few. 

“Fain is not just being ‘theatrical,’ he is also standing up for a  space of revolt.”

For example, this solidarity of workers made it possible for the UAW to demand a cease fire by Israel in the current Israel-Gaza conflict after the UAW won their 46 day strike against the three big automakers:

From opposing fascism in WWII to mobilizing against apartheid South Africa and the CONTRA war, the UAW has consistently stood for justice across the globe,” Region 9A Director Brandon Mancilla said. “That is why I am proud that the UAW International is today officially calling for a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine.

GS: I also notice that the piece is in the format of a printable and mailable postcard, or one that can be distributed at rallies or strikes perhaps? Again, this is a format you have used before, and I wonder if this is also part of the concept here, and if so, why, and how is this aspect of your practice—graphic and easily reproducible—important to you?

“I am committed to an artistic passion that merges the historical, the artistic, and the political through notions of collectivization that opens up the emancipatory spaces for  oppressed subjectivities and non-subjectivities.”

TA: I am always interested in an art  format and size that implies  circulation, something translatable to other mediums and means. I do not want a political art expression that lives in only one place, one medium or for one action. I have made postcards, stickers, posters  for other venues, and I should do the same for this piece also. This way the piece for LAR can be reproduced either as a postcard or sticker.

GS: As a fellow artist I am interested in the technique that you selected for this drawing. It looks like you used several colored ballpoint pens or something similar to accomplish the straightforward, etching-like effect? As someone who does a lot of sketching from life in small notebooks I carry around with such humble writing instruments, I appreciate the directness and the unpretentiousness of this approach. Can you discuss this technique in more detail? 

“I am always interested in an art format and size that implies  circulation, something translatable to other mediums and means. I do not want a political art expression that lives in only one place, one medium or for one action.”

TA: Drawings seem to me a direct medium for expressing ideas, thoughts, observations. A type of writerly and readerly, to reference Roland Barthes, visual engagement similar to calligraphy.  For this piece I used many ball point pen colors to draw the image. Since it is non-erasable ball point pen ink, I use whiteout for correcting. I see the whiteout as a way not only to correct mistakes, but also as a way to build surface texture on the paper. That is to make the image visually visceral, tactile and or haptic. Drawing on whiteout varies the quality of the line. Sometimes the lines are exact and sometimes it is more blurry, clumsy and expressive. 

GS: Your many years of artistic practice reveals a wide range of decision making in terms of technical, aesthetic, and media types employed—photography, installation, graphics, and of course drawing, but also collaborative and collective work with Carlos Andrade and REPOhistory. Although this diversity of approach to art is no longer unusual among younger artists, you and I both come from an earlier era when such expanded art practices were frowned upon and marginalized. What was favored then, instead, was the adoption of a unified style using limited methods: one either made paintings, or sculptures, or installation art or video, and so forth, but one was not supposed to switch back and forth between all of these forms. How do you see this heterogeneity, both in terms of your own conceptualization of art, as well as with regards to the contemporary art establishment and your relationship to it?

TA: I have always embraced a range of mediums and aesthetics in my art practice and collaborations. This is a bottom up conviction, commitment and collectivization to social, political and generative practices. That is, I am committed to an artistic passion that merges the historical, the artistic, and the political through notions of collectivization that opens up emancipatory spaces for oppressed subjectivities and non-subjectivities. This “revolutionary break,” to meander back to the first question,  makes our world more JUST, SUSTAIN-ABLE, and ALIVE for the multitude, beyond the exploitative, genocidal survival mode of capitalist production: EAT THE RICH and make ECOSOCIALISM an actuality.