Self-taught artist George Kagan: "That's where I learned about alienated labor"

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Before the radios were exhibited, Kagan barely had room to move around his house.
  • Jordan Larson
  • Before the radios were exhibited, Kagan barely had room to move around his house
For a man whose creative life is centered on the value and pleasure of craft, self-taught artist George Kagan seems awfully preoccupied with modern mass production. "Ex-Static," Kagan's solo exhibit at Intuit: the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, features dozens of the fully functional radios he's built in his kitchen since 1997, working with such eclectic materials as car parts, floor tiles, cosmetic cases, and upholstery. Yet the thoughts he shared during a public discussion held at Intuit on August 16 tended to focus on manufacturing and planned obsolescence.

Kagan talked with fellow artist Laura Shaeffer, who brought his works to the Hyde Park Kunstverein before they made their way to Intuit.

From an early age, he recalled, he liked to figure out how things work, building stuff with his friends in his free time. "By the time we were 12 we were going to junkyards. We got an engine and put it in [my friend's] mom's garden. She didn't like that very much because of the oil."

Kagan, who remembers the period in the 50s when radios started giving way in popularity to television, took mechanical drawing and industrial arts classes in high school and dreamed of a career in the auto industry. But he found himself at the University of Chicago reading psychology instead. He finally ended up in dentistry, a profession he fears has become more focused on management than skill in the past few decades. "We were taught that the goal of every profession is to put itself out of business," he said. Dentists learned their business from the bottom up, and their education emphasized the importance of understanding the entire process rather than a few parts of it.

Kagan kept circling back to a summer job he had working on a factory assembly line while he was in college. Naively thinking that he'd be allowed to build a piece of machinery from start to finish, he was disappointed to find that his contribution was only a small part of the process. "That's where I learned about alienated labor," he said. "That later became a social science paper at the University of Chicago. I got an 'A' on it."

The radios run the gamut from elaborate and ornamental to simple and sturdy.
  • Jordan Larson
  • The radios run the gamut from elaborate and ornamental to simple and sturdy
The idea of being connected to your work is intrinsic to Kagan's art. His radios are as much a political protest as anything else—a rebuke to a society veering away from craftsmanship and satisfying labor.

"If you want something now, all you have to do is give some money to China and they'll ship it over," Kagan noted. "We're not manufacturing much in the United States. And I would hope that when we are manufacturing something, it's in a way that gives the worker satisfaction."

After the discussion Kagan took to the gallery to point out his favorite pieces. "I don't think I can pick out just one," he said. From a simple piece with a rural aesthetic to one inspired by a Louis Vuitton cosmetics case, it was clear that Kagan cherished his radios.

"They took me back," he told the crowd, "to a time before I knew certain things about the world that I was happier not knowing."

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