Magazine article USA TODAY

The Art of Conscience

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Art of Conscience

Article excerpt

The art drawn from the collection of Philip J. and Suzanne Schiller demonstrates the aesthetic and social concerns of two individuals. It also represents, in condensed form, a particular period in history -- one marked by a worldwide economic depression, two world wars, the Cold War, and the flowering of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the U.S.

The artists represented felt compelled to use their energies and talents to create critical visual commentaries on these pressing economic, political, and social developments. Their efforts for the most part are denuciatory rather than affirmative. Instead of celebrating patriotism or military victories, these artists point to the poverty and despair caused by military conflicts. They document the lives of "common" people rather than public leaders or celebrities, making heroes out of those traditionally dismissed as unimportant by other artists, politicians, and historians.

What prompted these artists to produce such an art; what enabled them to feel justified in taking their work out of the studios and into the streets; and what inspired them to believe that one could use art to change the world? The answers could help to explain why their creations still hold significance for many people today. The complexity of such an investigation is suggested by a passage from artist Louis Lozowick's 1936 essay, "Towards a Revolutionary Art":

"When the revolutionary artist expresses in his work the dissatisfaction with, the revolt against, the criticism of the existing state of affairs, when he seeks to awaken in his audience a desire to participate in his fight, he is, therefore, drawing on direct observation of the world about him as well as on his most intimate, immediate, blistering, blood-sweating experience, in the art gallery, in the bread line, in the relief office. But ... experience to him is not a chance agglomeration of impressions but is related to long training, to habits formed, to views assimilated and at a definite place and time; to him experience acquires significant meaning by virtue of a revolutionary orientation. In sum, revolutionary art implies open-eyed observation, integrated experience, intense participation and an ordered view of life. And by the same token revolutionary art further implies that its provenance is not due to an arbitrary order from any person or group but is decreed by history, is a consequence of particular historic events."

Lozowick's words challenge art historians to cast a wide net in their efforts to understand the significance of particular works -- in this case, revolutionary art -- one that encompasses the personal, political, and professional aspects of an artist's life and how it unfolds at a particular moment in time.

The exhibition, "In the Eye of the Storm: An Art of Conscience, 1930-1970, Selections from the Collection of Philip J. & Suzanne Schiller," was organized by the American Federation of Arts and has been touring the U.S. for almost two years. The art begins with the 1930s, a decade that occupies a particularly powerful symbolic position within public discourse in this country. Whenever the American economy takes a turn for the worse, political and media commentators immediately express fears of another depression like the Great Depression of the 1930s. There have been other long-term economic crises in U.S. history, but none has seized the public imagination as firmly as the one that began with the stock market crash in New York City on Oct. 29, 1929. Perhaps that is because this depression is closest to us in time. Yet. it also is because the Great Depression self-consciously and systematically was recorded by artists in all the visual and performing arts, a coverage made possible by the Federal arts projects of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

This government patronage allowed the images produced by thousands of American artists to reach a wide and varied audience throughout the nation. …

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