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15 Influential Political Art Pieces

November 29, 2016

What is political art? Is it different than the art itself and could it be the art beside the politics, as we know the political truth is the ruling mechanism over all aspects of humanity. From its beginnings, art is inseparable from the societies and throughout its history authors always reflected the present moment bringing the artistic truth to the general public. For Plato and Aristotle, mimesis – the act of artistic creation is inseparable from the notion of real world, in which art represents or rather disputes the various models of beauty, truth, and the good within the societal reality. Hence, position of the art sphere is semi-autonomous, as it is independent field of creation freed from the rules, function and norms, but on the other hand, art world is deeply connected and dependent from artistic production, ways of curating and display as well as socio-economical conditions and political context.

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Théodore Géricault – The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819

Realm of Political Art

In times of big political changes, many art and cultural workers choose to reflect the context within their artistic practices and consequently to create politically and socially engaged art. Art could be connected to politics in many different ways, and the field of politically engaged art is rather broad and rich than a homogenous term reducible to political propaganda. There are many strategies to reach the state of political engagement and it includes the wide scale of artistic interventions from bare gestures to complex conceptual pieces with direct political engagement intended to factual political changes. But when disputing politically engaged art we must not forget that art is not and could not be the mere means of political action nor reduced to this specific function; although it could be an active part of activist practice.

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Ahmet Ogut – Bakunin’s Barricade, 2015

Beyond the Aestheticization of the Politics

In the 20th century, aestheticization of the politics was heavily criticized as a try to conceive regular practices of life and societal behavior as innately artistic, and to introduce politic values to art, by structuring it as an art form in order to normalize emancipatory or revolutionary practices and enclose it to the autonomous field of art. This was the concept first coined by Walter Benjamin and later developed in the thought of Frankfurt School. It was also the philosophical reaction to the appropriation of the art by the Fascist regimes in Europe. In the light of this theory, the polar opposite of these practices of aestheticization would be the term of the politicization of aesthetics – a kind of revolutionary praxis of rethinking the depoliticized field of art production and adding the wider political or rather emancipatory character to the art work.

hitler art by anthony
Adolf Hitler Painting

Liberation of Art

The main idea behind the liberating art from the corrupting politic movements such as Fascism, Nazism or any other reductive and destructive social agenda, is to reclaim its autonomy once again. For any artistic work is crucial to be free from the function and especially transgressing its subordinate position when art is reduced to the political tool of ruling mechanism. The very act of negation or disagreement with the negative or harmful within the politics is crucial for the understanding the core value of the politically engaged art in whole. As artistic practice is the act of creation, intervention into the body of real world, art, as a form of social action, is a very mighty tool of the political imagination, by (re)presenting the world, not in a sudden, but in some further or better condition.

female inmates art by anthony
The Women of York Shared Dining exhibition at Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Andrew Lamberson for the Wall Street Journal

Political Role of Art

When questioning the role of art today, we must be aware of the illusive borders between art and life, art and media, art and society, as well as art and activism. In so many cases of artist works, it is hard to formulate not just the notion of art but even its position within the society. In contemporary societies, it is important to abandon the romantic visions of art’s mission, but at the same time to insist on the constant questioning dominant politics within the art, maintaining and fight for the inherent artistic freedom of speech and expression. The role of political art has always been crucial since it is one of rare uncorrupted forces of emancipatory action and battlefield of the crucial dispute what is and what could be beauty, truth, and the good.

Andy Warhol - Big Electric Chair. Image via letsexploreart.wordpress.com
Andy Warhol – Big Electric Chair. Image via letsexploreart.wordpress.com

Influential Political Art Pieces

In the course of art history there are many examples art was the crucial reflection of political context. Moreover, analyzing and disputing the art pieces, we learn about life and circumstances from which we are far away in space or time. The art pieces were critical or undue to the dominant values of its time, we often understood as a political avant-garde, the announcement of the political changes that followed. Here, we would like to present different politically engaged art works, trying to display the wide specter of political action within the field of art, without pitfall of losing the art qualities and becoming the political agenda itself. The selection we made addresses the questions of wars and political conflicts, rise of fascism, revolution and social change, as well as human rights activism, feminism, autonomy of art or various problems of artistic production and work itself. Methodologies, media or artistic strategies are numerous and proving that politically engaged art is not reducible to propaganda.

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso – Guernica, 1937

Featured images:Norman Rockwell – The Problem We All Live With, 1964; Pablo Picasso – Massacre in Korea, 1950; Dmitri Vrubel – The Kiss, 1990; Banksy – Flower thrower, 2003; Ai Weiwei – With Flowers, 2013; Yoko Ono – Sky Landing, 2016

Vladimir Tatlin - The Monument to the Third International from 1917

Tatlin’s Constructivist tower was planned to be the moving sculpture of the Revolution, the dynamic metaphor of uprising the modernity, revolutionary thinking and the new world order. Besides its monumental and poetic value, the structure should have architectural functions and could have been used for conferences and different governmental functions. Due to economic crash in post-revolutionary Russia, the Monument to the Third International has been never built but its smaller size models are situated in Stockholm, Moscow and Paris.

Featured image: Vladimir Tatlin – The Monument to the Third International, 1917

Diego Rivera - Man at the Crossroads from 1934

Man at the Crossroads was a mural by Diego Rivera in the Rockefeller Center, New York. The process of painting and the life of the fresco painting itself raised a big controversy since Rivera included images of V.I. Lenin and motifs of a Soviet Russian May Day parade on it. Despite protests from artists, Nelson Rockefeller ordered its destruction before it was completed. There are only few black and white photos of the finished paintings, photographed by artist himself.

Featured image: Diego Rivera – Man at the Crossroads, 1934, detail

Max Ernst - Europe After the Rain from 1940-42

Europe After the Rain is surrealistic landscape of dystopian Europe after the enormous destruction in Second World War, painted by Max Ernst who was personally affected by the Nazi politics in Germany. The paysage is dominated by pessimist feelings of emotional desolation, physical exhaustion and deep fears, which are rather archetypal concern over the humanity than just actual reflection on war horror.

Featured image: Max Ernst – Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942, detail

Peter Kien - Watercolor of Terezin from 1944

Concentration camps are always considered as an epitome of the war horror. Jewish artist Peter Kien was imprisoned in Terezin, where he use stolen artistic materials to witness the living conditions in the Terezin ghetto. His artworks transgress the field of art, being are the one of the most important documents recalling the truth on a concentration camp and the inhuman conditions of inmates. In 1944, the same year he painted the Watercolor of Terezin, Kien was deported in Auschwitz, where being brutally killed at the age of twenty-five.

Featured image: Peter Kien – Watercolor of Terezin c1944, detail via azdaily

Pablo Picasso - Massacre in Korea from 1950

Pablo Picasso was the heavy critic of the American war intervention in Korea, so the painting Massacre in Korea is often considered as one of Picasso’s communist works. The artworks posses strong reflection of one of the first paintings of the new age – Francisco Goya‘s masterpiece The Third of May 1808 from which it derives the political statement comparing the American forces in North Korea with the imperialistic Napoleon army, Tyrant of Europe. The artist openly depicted civilians killed by anti-communist forces as heroes standing erect and mocked the misshaped firing squad.

Featured image: Pablo Picasso – Massacre In Korea, 1951, detail via thecahokian

Norman Rockwell - The Problem We All Live With from 1964

Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With is directly addressing the racism in America and the universality of the people being affected with this harmful politics. The painting reflects the real fact that the African-American girl was escorted on her way to elementary school by four US marshals, walking in front of the protesters in 1960 at New Orleans. Racist graffiti, limited freedom of movement, racial segregation at schools were the reality of the American south in 1960s so the artist rise a voice against it.

Featured image: Norman Rockwell – The Problem We All Live With, 1964, detail

Barbara Kruger - We don't need another hero from 1987

Conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, is best known by subversive design work concerning consumerism, feminism and women identity politics. We don’t need another hero in one of the main examples of her reduced agitprop style, with use of black and white photography, red banners and a single bold font, where Kruger reflects the gender roles from earliest age. The art piece strongly recall popular 1985 song by Tina Turner, also featured in blockbuster movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Featured image: Barbara Kruger – We don’t need another hero, 1987

Guerilla Girls - Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? from 1989

The Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of female feminist artists and art-world professionals in 1989 placed the poster illustrating the statistic data that less than 5% of artists included in Modern Art Sections were female, but more than 85% nudes are women. Do women need to be naked to get into the Met. Museum get a big echo in the world of art, since it make people rethink the consequences of exclusively male gaze on women body in the dominant art canon.

Featured image: Guerilla Girls – Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? 1989, detail

Dmitri Vrubel - The Kiss from 1990

The world famous graffiti at the Berlin wall, originally named My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, but also known as The Kiss, The Kiss of Death or the Fraternal Kiss is depiction of a historical kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker at the ceremony of the foundation of the German Democratic Republic. It is interesting that the graffiti was created by Dmitri Vrubel in 1990s after the Berlin wall was down and it reflecting the continuation of the politics from the cold war era in the time of changes.

Featured image: Dmitri Vrubel – The Kiss, 1990, photo detail via disappearingman

Banksy - Flower Thrower from 2003

Flower Thrower is one of the most iconic images of the famous street artist Banksy. The stencil art piece depicts the man, bombing the establishment with flowers. The image is reminiscent of images from the 1960s campus and street riots and it is connected to the Jerusalem gay parade incidents. The name originates from a Poem “Wage Peace” by Judyth Hill, written after the events of 9/11 in 2001.

Featured image: Banksy – Flower Thrower, 2003

JR - Face2Face project in Gaza from 2007

In 2007, two street artists JR and Marco organized the largest illegal photography exhibition ever under the project Face 2 Face. At the streets in several Palestinian and Israeli cities, the artists placed the portraits of Israelis and Palestinians as face to face, in large formats. In conflicted zones, this project brings unavoidable identification and humor while looking at series of laughing people separated only by their national and religious affiliation, but united in humanity.

Featured image: JR – Face2Face project in Gaza, 2007, photo

Shepard Fairey - HOPE poster from 2008

The Hope was created in 2008 as grassroots imagery and at the time it said ‘progress’ but after the Obama’s campaign team fancied the work, it was changed to ‘hope’, and become the unofficial visual of the elections. Shepard Fairey is an American contemporary street artist, graphic designer, activist, illustrator who inscribed the political statement of the expected progress and hope in United States in 2008, within this effective propaganda poster. After many years, it becomes a document on the political positions of the people as well as their unrealized hopes.

Featured images: Shepard Fairey – PROGRESS poster, 2008; Shepard Fairey – HOPE poster, 2008

Terry Richardson - Portraits of President Barack Obama from 2012

As a first African-American US president, Barack Obama was the endless source of inspiration for artists, who frequently inscribe their emancipatory politics into his figure. In his series of portraits, Terry Richardson tried the counter strategy – to liberate the celeb face of the president from the symbolic and to fit his appearance into own pop culture aesthetics.

Featured image: Terry Richardson – Barrack Obama, 2012

Ai Weiwei - With Flowers from 2013

With Flowers is a part-protest part-performance art piece of the famous Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, started as a reaction against the confiscation of his passport. The artist placed a bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle in front of his studio in Beijing and action of endured for about 600 days. Ai started the performance on November 13, 2013, more than two years into his confinement.

Featured image: Ai Weiwei – With Flowers, 2013

Yoko Ono - Sky Landing from 2016

Sky Landing in the Garden of the Phoenix in Jackson Park in Chicago is the first permanent installation in Americas by the famous conceptual artist Yoko Ono. Sky Landing is created as a symbolic gesture of peace, harmony and healing. In her concept Yoko stated “I want the sky to land here, to cool it, and make it well again”.

Featured image: Yoko Ono – Sky Landing, 2016