The Intersection of Art and Activism for Social Change
From royals and influential merchants who commissioned some of history’s greatest masterpieces to the modern and often anonymous street art found in our cities, art often captures sentiment for people to admire and/or interpret for posterity. Of course, the expression of those sentiments can vary from decorative pieces to more socially informed imagery. The following works fall under the latter category; they were created to spark conversations about serious topics and were often painted and plastered in public spaces.
Beginning in the 1920s and lasting throughout the 1950s, Mexico underwent a major social and economic upheaval. The period gave rise to Mexican Muralism, a government-funded form of public art that attempted to establish a sense of unity and national identity as the country recovered from the Mexican Revolution (1910 –1920), which eventually evolved into a form of individualistic social commentary. Artists used blunt, brightly-painted, large-scale frescoes that were often situated in public spaces to express displeasure with certain reforms, fight for the rights of workers, or simply make art accessible to all people, independent of class.
The movement had its beginnings in artists such as Gerado Murillo, who went by Doctor Atl (1875 – 1964), but the most famous Mexican Muralist to come out of the movement is without a doubt Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957). Having spent time in Europe during his youth, he was strongly influenced by Social Realism. Although he painted murals commissioned by the government to promote land reform, he branched out and produced stark, attention-grabbing works such as The Uprising (1931) and The Perpetual Renewal of the Revolutionary Struggle (1926).
New Deal Art
In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression (1929 – 1939), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) singed the New Deal, a series of federal aid programs that helped stabilize the plummeting economy of the United States. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of these. It employed artists, writers, musicians and performers, giving people from all walks of life an opportunity to engage with the arts like never before. Because some art was inherently political, the arts also experienced a wave of backlash from those who were worried about them being an unnecessary drain on the economy or a vehicle for propaganda. The Communist Party used art to bring attention to racial divides; The 1936 work Lynching by Louis Lozowick (1892 – 1973) is a powerful example of this.
Anti-War and the Civil Rights Movements
This was an important time for political art in America. If propaganda art was previously created to be colorful and attention grabbing, the political posters of the late 1960s and early 1970s featured minimalist, often black-and-white images or emotionally stirring symbols, such the Black Panther, Nixon Swastika, or the Feminist Ankh. Their goal was to spread political messages as well as to advocate for Civil Rights, as such, they were especially common on college campuses, where draft dodging and social activism were strongly encouraged.
Fine art took up these causes, too. In 1969, antiwar activists across the United States planned the National Vietnam Moratorium. In what can be argued to be a commemorative move, but also a gesture of support, the Leo Castelli Gallery commission the now famous pop art poster, Moratorium for the event created by artist Jasper John (1930 – current). Artists such as Antonio Frasconi (1919 – 2013), Duane Hanson (1925 – 1996) and Leon Golub (1922 – 2004) created other now highly valued pieces during this period as well.
*Note: Image credits are as follows: The Uprising (1931) by Diego Rivera, private collection, Mexico. © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Rafael Doniz; Public Domain Image of Diego Rivera; "Lynching" (1936) by Louis Lozowick, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1936, Lee Lozowick, Gift of Adele Lozowick; "Moratorium" (1969) by Jasper John. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions