San Antonio, Texas. ART Magazine.
It seems appropriate to have something to say in such a turbulent era. With preoccupying environmental issues, political unrest throughout the world, recurring natural disasters, decaying ethical values, poverty, overpopulation, and a lot of unsettling circumstances, exploring and critiquing the world seems vital. The United States has a culture of isolation from the world and a characteristic numbness of the population towards international issues. Lately, there is a trend for humor and satire in American political work that is seen more often than the more serious and crude yet beautiful work that is being made in other countries. Deeply influenced by Pop Art and formal qualities, our political works often use popular imagery in a sarcastic or playful style that critiques public policy, culture, or war in a very cold and distant manner. For several years, there has also been a tendency for conceptual work that deals with egalitarianism within race, culture, and gender. In San Antonio, the art community devotes July as political art month but there are also other organizations such as the Esperanza Cultural Center or The Arts United who explore political issues throughout the year. However, in San Antonio the most common issues are mostly about egalitarianism or border and chicano issues and with some exceptions do not critique government or relevant contemporary issues as artists in other countries do. There is a big tendency for conceptual art in the United States that deals with several topics creating deep conversations with the viewer. However, openly activist work is not seen quite often as it is abroad.
We can compare the American Obey movement by Shepard Fairey to Banksy from England or the Voina group from Russia and find out that the American group is less critical than other political groups in the world. Event though all of them try to stay outside of the conventional institution of exhibition spaces by installing their work on the street, the obey group seems more mainstream than others. The Obey movement collaborated with Obama for a poster campaign, which was supporting egalitarianism in the United States by allowing for a minority candidate to raise to the presidency, but it was still collaborating with the system. If you see the projects made by the Voina group in Russia such as a masculine genital drawn with toilet paper on a rising bridge or Banksy’s exhibition at the Bristol Museum where he intervened with the usual museum setting criticizing the institution by placing several unexpected pieces for the viewer to find, the Obey installations seem much more conservative. Also, Fairey shows a much more computerized and cleaner style than Banksy’s raw imagery, which seems more appropriate for the activist and unconventional nature of its work.
In the book From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions by Murray Edelman he speaks about the political function of art. Edelman writes: “Works of art and literature offer conceptions and perceptions that can be adopted or changed to fit needs, fears, interests, or aspirations. There is no neat correlation between the conspicuous art of a period and the political ideas and discourse it stimulates. But the body of extant art does provide a reservoir of images, narratives, schemata, and models from which everyone draws”. He argues that all art is political since it will impact society in a broader sense. “Art is therefore an essential and fundamental element in the shaping of political ideas and political action. Ideas of heroes and villains, of planning for a more desirable society, of threats to well-being, of forms of action that will or will not achieve the goals we seek, and other paramount political conceptions emerge, as already suggested, from written and oral stories, novels, romances, films, paintings, and other forms of high and popular art”, explains Edelman. Art movements are not isolated from the social ideologies. Our communal thought is evolving and art movements derive from it while they contribute to it as well. For example, Surrealism was not only an art movement it was also a literary movement somewhat influenced by Freud’s psychological theories and the social desire to be removed from reality after Dada and World War I. We could say something similar about every art movement. They are created by our evolving mental state but also create new ways of thinking. A new image and a new ideology provided by art can promote change and innovation. Even though there is some very important introspective element to art, we must look outward to appreciate our social contribution to innovative thinking.
Is indifference and numbness in the American culture a reason for this conservative quality in our political art? Or is it a consequence of our artistic path? Let’s take a look at our history. During the New Deal times, the WPA and a Public Art Program were established. The Roosevelt administration wanted to merge Social Realism, which was a new current at the time influenced by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and the Mexican Muralists, with the new ideals and values of the American people after the Great Depression. Opposed to Mexican muralists who criticized the government upfront (for example Diego Rivera who painted Lenin on a public art commission for a mural in New York which was very controversial in the U.S.), American muralists during that time would make subtler controversies, for example, regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton, who depicted KKK members and slaves as part of the history of the states of Indiana and Missouri in his murals. However, not all artists followed through. There is always a reaction to an action and artists such as Milton Avery, who created representational paintings that lent more towards abstraction, abstained from social realism and placed the path for Abstract Expressionists. The abstract expressionist movement was more about art. The group experimented with process to provide different outcomes. In the 1950s, a pop art current started in England. Artists from the independent group, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Peter and Allison Smithson, Lawrence Alloway, John McHale, Nigel Henderson, and James Stirling, began incorporating popular images in their work. Of course appropriation had been used in the past by artists such as Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, but this time artists where attempting to illustrate art in the everyday life. However, what started as a critique on high art versus low art transformed into an assault on the social hierarchy in Britain. This set the path for artists to continue exploring culture in art (through the use of books, advertising, art history, and literature), instead of natural experiences. Unlike British Pop artists, American Pop Art was very apolitical in intention. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, detached the image from all its context becoming an object that is readily available in nature just like a tree or a cloud that we can perceive. However, this unintended exploration brought into question consumer culture and its emptiness. The latter sixties assumed an increasingly ideological and critical tone triggered partially by the Vietnam War. The performance art of the 60s and 70s addressed many political issues such as gender roles, art and its rules, and war. Artists such as Walter De Maria or Robert Smithson took art outside of the institution onto nature. Artists such as Piero Manzoni, Joseph Kosuth, or body artist Hermann Nitsch exemplify the critical eye characteristic of that time not only for art and its conventions but also for society as a whole. After the seventies, critics felt that there were no dominant movements and saw a prevailing pluralism where everything would go. A battle for egalitarianism began. Feminist artists fought for equality just as black and hispanic minorities strove to enter the art institutions. Since then we have kept commenting on egalitarianism, war, gender roles, and the emptiness of American consumer culture in a very sensationalistic, sarcastic, or humorous way.
The 1970s seem very alike to what we are currently living. With the international social upheaval that we live in, political commentary outside the gallery is in fashion. Political Art of the United States, especially San Antonio, still deals with egalitarianism, war, gender roles, and an overall critique of American culture. Criticizing the government might be more recurring among oppressed countries such as Mexico. However, the United States faces oppression in many hidden and obvious ways that are addressed by artists but in a less aggressive way. For forty years we have been defining what it is to be a minority, what it is to be a woman, what it is to be gay, what it is to be American, and what art is. Even though finding who we are is an honest exercise, we as artists might have a social responsibility with the world.