Political and social issues in art have been around since the Greeks exalted multiple deities and the Romans put conquering Emperors on pedestals. With Christianity, came the Church with a capital ‘C’, that great supporter of artists and in the business of visually elevating God through aesthetically glorious visual spectacle. Where some would call it blessed, others might call it propaganda. Artists of the time were there to augment the secular and religious powers of the times and so secure their livelihoods.
Always an integral part of society, artists provided labor, talent, ideas, and craftsmanship. From illuminated manuscripts and Gothic cathedrals to the monuments and religious architectures of the East, Egypt, and Middle East, their contribution is clear. Their skills embellished the objects of everyday life, the religions of the day, and their talents amused and elevated the status of kings and emperors alike. For centuries they were brilliant illustrators of life and culture in the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age and the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Japanese 17th through 19th centuries.
It wasn’t until the 19th century however, when a Spanish painter named Francisco Goya painted his famous work The Third of May 1808, completed in1814, when a giant shift in visual art began. Goya’s piece, showing a man blindfolded in front of a firing squad at the moment of firing is widely considered the first to critique the horrors of war, and as such ushers in a modern age where the artist is freed to be overt portrayer and political commenter on global events. Goya’s print series The Disasters of War (1810-20), which are not for the faint of heart, became a springboard for countless artists of modern times, who dared to critique the social and political landscape. Goya paves the way for Edouard Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1868-69) and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, (1934) depicting the destruction of an entire town at the hand of the fascist leader Francisco Franco.
In America, numerous European artists escaped the aftermaths of WWI and WWII and settled in New York City with the memories of global conflict still fresh. In the case of Arshile Gorky it was the memory of Armenian genocide and in Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali’s surreal landscapes that bear witness to devastation and human suffering.
War wasn’t the only topic for socially concerned artists. In this hemisphere, at the early part of the 20th century, Mexican artists David Siquieros and Diego Rivera were depicting the laborers, working poor and bloody histories of Mexico. Rivera’s murals were in demand and he created the Detroit Industry Murals depicting the skilled laborers of a then booming and cutting-edge car industry. His Rockefeller Center murals didn’t fair so well, when he centrally located a portrait of Lenin into a group of figures of celebrated leftists. The murals were censored and painted over in their Art Deco surroundings and survive only in the photographs of Swiss photographer Lucienne Bloch.
American artists working for the Works Projects Administration documented the crisis of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and regional aspects of American society. The works of Bronx-born artist Ralph Fasanella, recently celebrated in an exhibition at the National Museum of American Art, portrayed the “common man” and working conditions, as the artist himself was a laborer and labor organizer.
Fast forward to the 1960s, that decade of some of the most rapid change America has ever seen. Pop artists thrived while they depicted consumer goods and replicated mass production. Warhol is always noted for his soup cans, and his Hollywood idols–all accessible all of the time, but how familiar is his broader audience with his Electric Chairs prints?
In the late 1970s, an epidemic descended on the world and artists were some of the first to lose their friends and associates. Keith Haring in New York was one of the first to dedicate a significant number of works to the scourge of AIDS in his figurative and delightfully “animated style. Part graffiti artist Haring took his work to the streets for all to see, making his point on walls and on midtown sidewalks. Haring was on the front lines and died of AIDS.
Artists may focus on social issues as their life’s work and oeuvre as do contemporary artists Sue Coe, Leonardo Drew, Thomas Hirschhorn, Glenn Ligon, Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker and nearly countless others, or they may be moved to create a singular piece in response to specific events, as in an unusual work by Willem DeKooning. Known for his expressionistic figurative works of women and an overriding focus on the formal aspects of painting, it was discovered in the late 1990s that DeKooning was so affected by the assassination of John F. Kennedy he portrayed a reclining male figure with the recognizable face of the president.
Throughout history, artists with political leanings and concerns have been censored, jailed, mocked, blackmailed, blackballed and killed in attempts to silence their voices in times of political jockeying. Luckily, in most cases, the work and the artists survive. Work is shown in waves or cycles, and remembered or not as politics ebb, flow and change. Sometimes artists have couched their ideas and communication depending on the tenor of the times, but others are more direct. As with most things and in art there is a season, a time to reflect and a time to communicate, a time to evoke and a time to provoke, a time to debate and a time to “activate.”