Learning about Political Art in the Classroom and Community

By Ulbricht, J. | Art Education, May 2003 | Go to article overview
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Learning about Political Art in the Classroom and Community

Ulbricht, J., Art Education

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.

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Learning about Political Art in the Classroom and Community


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