Traditionally, most art teachers have not emphasized political art in their teaching. Some may see political art as being irrelevant to the lives of students, while other teachers may be afraid of awakening big moral or political questions and the sensibilities of one group or another. Although art teachers often teach about the formal qualities of art, they should be more concerned with its functions, including those that are political. Such a concern would show the power of art and make it more relevant to students. This article addresses political aspects of art and makes suggestions for teaching about it in the classroom.
When thinking about political art, most people envision posters and images that support various candidates, parties, or points of view. Commercial artists produce campaign literature for candidates, and some artists give their blessings to various causes in their art. For those teachers who started in the late 1960s, political art in the form of posters, banners, and tie-dye apparel became especially noticeable during the Vietnam War (Lippard, 1990). Historically, one thinks of prime political art examples to include Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Goya's The Third Day of May, Picasso's Guernica, and Rivera's murals (Von Blum, 1976). Students and teachers can find additional examples of political art by Courbet, Daumier, Beckman, Kollwitz, and Grosz in thematic art history texts such as those by Lewis and Lewis (1994) and Lazzari and Schlesier (2002).
We can define political art narrowly with the examples listed here or more broadly to include the results of critical pedagogy and activist artists (Von Blum, 1982). Contemporary artists often express what some would call political points of view through their art, and the reader can see examples of this in the work of Lynne Hull (pollution), Fred Wilson (racism), and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (unjust treatment of Native peoples).
Although readers may think of political art as a special category of art, limited in its scope and quantity, Eisner (2001) stated that almost all (art) ideas are political, but he questioned the use of political art and ideas in the classroom because of insufficient teacher interest and education. Although there may be insufficient interest, we should remember that since almost all art is political in some way or another, any selection and presentation of art in the classroom is a political decision. While some teachers may not want to bother with the political analysis of art, Feldman (1978) stated that art is a catalyst that makes things happen, and he urged teachers to teach about the important ideas that artists try to communicate.
McFee and Degge (1980) encouraged teachers to include political art and related activities in the art curriculum, and they presented Hanson's Race Riot, Tooker's Subway and Kienholz's The Wail as exemplars. Although authors have included political art in art education texts, some teachers have not embraced its discussion in the classroom even though it is historically significant and may be of interest to students.
Especially in conservative communities, teachers should be concerned with the possible ramifications of political art discussions, but this should not hinder their attempts to include them in a manner appropriate to students' understandings. Social studies teachers deal with political ideas in their courses everyday. Why is the study of issues acceptable in social studies but not in art? Could it be that some administrators, parents, and teachers see art as more about craft and decoration and less about important political, environmental, and social concerns?
Stinespring (2001) expressed his belief that contemporary art education could become a handmaiden to social studies if art teachers spent less time on aesthetics and more time on the social aspects of art. In this regard, we often overlook the fact that most art documents, supports, or opposes social constructs. Smith (1996) implied that if teachers devoted more time to art's social concerns, then art instruction might be seen as useful and have a more secure place in the school curriculum.
In our compartmentalized society, some individuals see art and politics as separate subjects, even though influential people have often inspired artists to create art on their behalf. In the last 50 years, Modern artists tried to assert their independence from powerful people and ordinary citizens, but lately Postmodern artists made art as if the world mattered (Gablik 1991, 1995). Recently, a number of contemporary artists have assumed a new role that includes the reshaping of the world through social criticism (Becker, 2002).
Some artists depict their concerns overtly, while others simply present topics and ideas for viewers to contemplate. Readers can see an example of the latter in the work of Peter Saul (1989) who produced over a dozen paintings about capital punishment in his typical opaque Pop-art style.
Although teaching about the political aspects of art has not been important, Coles (1986) found that children have a developing awareness of many political issues, and teachers could provide opportunities for students to see the artistic and expressive applications of their knowledge. Also relevant to a discussion of political art is the work of Kincheloe, Slattery, and Steinberg (2000) who emphasize contextualizing education by making meaningful connections between teaching and communities. Such a community concern is important to many contemporary and community-based artists. In 2001, jan jagodzinski called for socially responsive art activities to change conditions that are of major concern to students. Personal and social changes often take years to achieve, but students can compose initial steps through art to increase awareness of their concerns.
Political art is not just about social protest and criticism. Periodically, artists and architects portray and promote powerful people and regimes in a manner seen by some as self-serving. In a similar manner, our visual culture often promotes products, services, standards, and stereotypes. Students should consider the significance of all visual imagery by looking at its ideology, source, and sponsorship (Duncum, 2002).
At a time when most teachers try to take into consideration the genetic and cultural differences of their students, it is important that they learn about the political art of multicultural artists whose work may call attention to special circumstances. Multicultural artists often challenge the power structure in the wider society in order to foster social and political empowerment. Viewers can find relevant examples in the work of Barbara Kruger, Yolanda Lopez, Robert Colescott, Michael Ray Charles, and Luis Jimenez.
Similarly, art by artists from previously colonized countries often refers to "invisible" cultures and acknowledges intersecting histories and streams of thought. When viewers look at art from the artist's perspective it can shed new light on what the viewers have come to know and believe (Dimitriadis & McCarthy, 2001). Readers can see a relevant example in the art of Haitian artist Edouard Duval Carrie who mixes local religious themes with comments about political and religious leaders (Hayes & Robinson, 2002).
Many think of folk art as anti-political since it is concerned with, and often preserves, traditional values. However, when repressive government officials assert their will on the traditional values of citizens, the people often use folk art in protest to preserve their heritage (Zug, 1994). Some might regard this function of folk art as political.
Traditionally, Western philosophers and critics emphasized formal (Bell, Greenberg, Feldman), expressive (Langer), and representational (Socrates) criteria in their judgments of art. Other theorists (Plato, Tolstoy) emphasized the instrumental qualities of art. For many, instrumentalist art was a tool, a shaper of political attitudes, and its function was social (Barrett, 1994).
Having learned about the rationale, scope, and controversies of teaching about political art, the teacher may find the following suggestions useful for teaching about political art in the classroom.
1. To explore the implications of political art in schools, teachers need to help students investigate relevant and known historical and contemporary examples for reference and discussion. For some teachers and students obvious examples might include the art of artists such as Delacroix, Goya, Shahn, Rivera, Picasso, Lange, and Ringgold. Once students evaluate artworks that they can understand and appreciate, they should be encouraged to identify the political aspects of all art, including those that are more contemporary and of non-Western heritage.
2. For further discussion, art educators can find contemporary political art in many communities both here and abroad. Viewers often find that artists produce political art in countries where oppression, individual rights, and current events are of serious concern. As we become more knowledgeable of many world cultures, we begin to engage the political art of some oppressed people. In such cultures, we can often find artists who portray and support their leaders and beliefs while others dream of life beyond restricted borders.
An example that teachers and students might consider can be found in the work of Jose Toirac (Block, 2001), apolitically motivated Cuban artist, who critiques his government in his paintings that superimpose commercial logos (e.g., Marlboro Cigarettes) with propaganda images (e.g., Fidel Castro) found in Cuba's official press. The superimpositions synthesize (and critique) the globalization of Cuba with the ways in which Cuba desires to represent itself.
3. In addition to historical and foreign political art examples, teachers and students might look to their communities, homes, and local media to find further examples of art with political implications. Self-taught artists often make and exhibit art that refers to their love for community and country. Some may consider art that includes American flags and replications of the Statue of Liberty as political. Readers can find such art in communities where people hold strict conservative values or where immigrants and citizens are thankful to be in a "free" country.
One can also find art that uses the flag and other popular images to express dissatisfaction with the status quo. McNeill (2002) identified M. T. Liggett, a self-taught artist, who displays his welded scrap metal life-size political figures along highway 154 near Mullinville, Kansas. His totem pole-like caricatures lampoon current events, denigrate villains and the bureaucratic nonsense of politicians. Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, and Monica Lewinsky are subjects of M. T. Liggett's vilifications. Teachers and students may find similar examples in their communities.
In many neighborhoods, mural art can have a variety of functions including those that are decorative, instructional, promotional, and political. Often local muralists present and promote concepts of concern that are appreciated by some but not others. I visited one such site in Austin, Texas, where images of Sandinista rebels and Cesar Chavez adorned interior cafe walls. The proprietor/artist was very selective about his guests, wanting only Democrats in his establishment!
Murals and other forms of public art become active sites of social interaction (Van Laar & Diepeveen, 1998) when people consider the artists' intentions and meanings. Sometimes murals become active sites when people with opposing points of view repaint or destroy old murals. In a similar manner, graffiti and tagging are often the result of individuals who paint over other artists' markings.
Can teachers and students find other examples of political art for study? Yes, but aside from the traditional political cartoons, posters, banners, and obvious examples of God and country, students may find it difficult to detect or recognize the political aspects of what they encounter. To see the political in art, teachers need to help students assess the objectives of artists and the effect of their art in the community.
4. Teachers can help students engage in the fabric of their communities through personal artistic responses (jagodzinski, 2001). When students create political art they may motivate community involvement and show others the relevance of art in the community. Teachers need to give students opportunities to identify personal and community concerns and help identify the political structures that could inspire meaningful student art creations.
What personal and community concerns need attention through art? What can art students do about them through art? Milbrandt (2002) called our attention to the need for a more socially responsive art curriculum that deals with topics such as racism, sexism, and pollution. Possibly through personal response to global concerns, students could explore many of the unresolved problems that we have previously encountered.
Blandy (1987) and Birch (1990) provided examples of teachers who incorporated socially responsive student art in their teaching. Blandy (1987) documented the reactions of students to a public art proposal by an out-of-town sculptor in Lima, Ohio. The students protested a local arts council mall sculpture selection by designing and temporarily installing their own papier-mache sculpture that they felt more closely reflected the interests of the people in Lima, Ohio. Although the temporary installation did not remain in place for long or change the arts council decision, it did show students that they could try to change community affairs in a democratic society.
In school and university workshops, Willie Birch (1990), an African-American artist/teacher from New Orleans, helped students produce art that was rooted in the notion that art can motivate social change. In his teaching, he encouraged students to produce art to raise people's social consciousness about their cultural backgrounds, and he created a series of projects to empower students. After an introductory art slide presentation at each workshop, he asked students to identify and discuss social concerns that they later illustrated in posters and group mural projects.
5. In a similar manner, art teachers could show students how they can have a voice in the community through art. To identify specific global or regional issues, teachers could help students analyze local newspaper headlines, editorial cartoons, and advertising imagery. Student discussions should focus on the motivations of editors and sponsors. Certainly art students could find an abundance of social, economic, political, environmental, educational, and civic concerns to evaluate and respond to in the media (Wyrick, 2002).
Through reflection, teachers could help students identify more personal and local topics of concern such as school or home violence, social isolation, oppressive policies, intolerance, limited student support, and stereotypical expectations. With attention given to related art projects, students should be able to make connections between their lives and the world. This approach encourages students to look at environmental and social structures from multiple perspectives. Such an effort may divert students from harmful forms of expression to more constructive endeavors.
By analyzing art from a political point of view and encouraging students to think of the political aspects of their own work, art teachers can make both the presentation and production of art a more meaningful endeavor. Because many artists and some art educators think of art as socially responsive, certainly art students can find a way to reflect on and respond to their place in the world in a productive manner. With such an approach, students will see art as an active site for contemplation and it will have a demonstrated function in the community.
Once students evaluate artworks that they can understand and appreciate, they should be encouraged to identify the political aspects of all art, including those that are more contemporary and of non-Western heritage.
The students protested a local arts council mall sculpture selection by designing and temporarily installing their own papier-mache sculpture that they felt more closely reflected the interests of the people in Lima, Ohio.
By analyzing art from a political point of view and encouraging students to think of the political aspects of their own work, art teachers can make both the presentation and production of art a more meaningful endeavor.
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J. Ulbricht is Professor and Chair of the Visual Art Studies/Art Education Division, Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The author wishes to thank Christopher Adejumo, Paul Bolin, and John Hicks for reviewing several earlier drafts of this article.…