Previous: Try these proposals! | Peter Liversidge | The Art Assignment
Next: Landscape Archaeology | Mariam Ghani + Erin Ellen Kelly | The Art Assignment



View count:311,599
Last sync:2024-06-10 03:30
Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here:

This week we explore some of the most powerful artworks ever made, making the case for political art one work at a time. Pablo Picasso's Guernica, Kathe Kollwitz's prints, Kazimir Malevich's Black Square, Iri and Toshi Maruki's Hiroshima Panels, and Martha Rosler's House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home photomontages. What do you think of as political art?

Follow us elsewhere for the full Art Assignment experience:
Extra Credit Group:
All responses tumblr:
and maybe Reddit?:

 (00:00) to (02:00)

This episode of The Art Assignment is supported by Prudential.

(PBS Digital Studios logo)

You may be unhappy about the recent US presidential election.  You may be elated about it, or you may not care at all because you live in a different country and have political issues of equal or greater importance to think about, but regardless of the politics that occupy your mind and populate your Twitter feed, I would imagine you have thoughts about them, and if you're lucky enough to live in a country that affords you freedoms of speech, I believe you should exercise them, and that our various and dissenting opinions should form a loud and cacophonous and dissonant symphony, and artists are part of that symphony and have been throughout history, using a wide range of materials and techniques to explore ideas that relate to the government or public affairs of a country.

Their art has been in support of a movement or leader.  It's been resistance to prevailing powers, and it has addressed a huge expanse of issues.  I'm calling this political art, but it's not art that is only political.  It's other things too and you can call it by many other names.  Now, you can easily argue that all art is political in some way, and I'd agree with you.  Even a pile of yarn or a landscape painting can be interpreted through a political context, but the artworks I'm gonna talk about today from various moments of the 20th century are political in an obvious way and in each case, I'd like for us all to consider how each of these works is political.  How each artist used the materials and platforms of their own times to make unforgettable statements and how these approaches might inform our own modes and means of expression.

These are cases for political art.  

German artist Kathe Kollwitz turned to printmaking in the early 1890s, depicting oppressed, poverty-stricken, and yet still defiant workers.  She realized the prints' potential for social commentary.  They were inexpensive and easily reproducable and her work was widely circulated and admired.  Kollwitz bore witness to both World Wars, losing a son in the first and a grandson in the second.  Fusing her own experience of tragedy with the suffering of those around her, women and children often take center stage in her prints, showing in graphic, intimate detail the realities of war and the incommensurate toll it takes on society's most vulnerable.

 (02:00) to (04:00)

A socialist and outspoken pacifist, Kollwitz in 1933 was forced by the Nazi government to resign her post as the first female professor appointed to the Prussian Academy and she was forbidden to show her work.  She died in 1945, just two weeks before German surrender, and the power of her work has not diminished in the ensuing decades.  Her images are of universal human experiences, familial tenderness, mourning, and death, and the pain they depict is so raw and so real and so present.  

Looking at her work, I can't dismiss these agonies as long past, but instead feel their urgency.  The fact that parallel moments are playing out now throughout the world.  This is anguish that happened then, which must be avoided at all costs, but it's also anguish happening now that we must be awake to and do all in our power to remedy.

Kazimir Malevich, a Russian artist of Polish descent, took a vastly different approach from Kollwitz and pretty much everyone else who were using realism to address the horrors of the early 20th century.  Malevich wrote, "In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square."  He unveiled his painting The Black Square to the St. Petersburg public in 1915 and it was just that: a black square on a white canvas, part of a new language of shapes and forms he called suprematism whose radical simplicity presented a challenge to all art that came before, but he hung the painting in a top corner of the gallery, in the place traditionally reserved for the display of Russian icons in many homes.  

Russia in 1915 was firmly entrenched in World War I and hurtling toward the Bolshevik uprising and October revolution of 1917.  The world as people knew it had been upended, heierarchies overturned, and Malevich felt that art should be overturned as well, beginning at what he called the zero of form.

 (04:00) to (06:00)

It wasn't an escape  from reality.  For him, it was its own reality, and he called the painting an icon of our times.  In a sacred spot, darkness.  After the revolution, Malevich's abstract approach was put to use by the Bolshevik regime, creating propaganda for the new government.  Other artists like Vladimir Tatlin answered Lenin's call to replace the monuments of the Tsarist period with art more fitting of the revolution.  Tatlin's proposed monument to the third international was never built, but his model and plans for the abstract sculpture ignited generations of artists eager to explore ways other than figuration to express their ideals.

Perhaps the best known indictment of the horrors of war, Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" is the artist's response to Germany's April 1937 bombing of the small village Guernica in the Basque region of Spain.  The country was embroiled in a civil war and Hitler had aligned in support of General Franco and the right wing nationalists, who sought to overthrow Spain's left-leaning republican government.  Understood to be a training mission for the German airforce, the bombing of Guernica not of strategic military value lasted for three hours and killed or wounded 1600 civilians.  The news reached Paris soon after and the atrocity was well documented in the papers.

Picasso's monumental painting represents the horror of what had transpired, but not in specific or realistic terms, and when it was presented in the Spanish Pavillion of the Paris Exposition later that year, it served as a powerful protest to the atrocities perpetrated by Germany's Third Reich, whose own pavillion was on display not far from Spain's.  Complex and much debated iconography is at play in this work, whose careful composition echoes more traditional European history painting, but it veers decisively away from that in its abstraction and depiction of war as thoroughly unheroic.  

Presented in the context of a fair celebrating new technologies, this 25-foot wide painting instead confronted the public with the brutalities that new technologies had made possible, compounding the growing aggression of Hitler's fascist regime.

 (06:00) to (08:00)

After the fair, the painting traveled through Europe to help raise funds for Spanish refugees and was loaned to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for safekeeping, until it returned to Spain in 1981.  It remains an incredibly potent and memorable image of not just the tragedy that occurred at Guernica, but of all that was about to occur and all that still may happen in the future.

Have you gotten the idea that war is bad?  No?  Let's continue.  Iri and Toshi Maruki entered the city of Hiroshima, Japan just days after it had been destroyed, on August 6, 1945, by an atomic bomb dropped by the United States during the final stages of World War II.  The Marukis stayed for weeks to tend to the injured and dead and three yeras later, began painting a series of panels that described the trauma of that experience.  Engaging the long tradition of Japanese screenpainting and using a style that blended (?~7:07), or inkwash techniques, with a more Western style of illustration.  At first, they intended to create just one panel, but as soon as survivors saw it and began to share their own experiences with the artists, they were determined to make more.

Over the course of 32 years, the couple painted 15 large panels over which unfolds a narrative of unimaginable pain and suffering.  Photographs of the actual devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were often censored and a number of people who viewed the panels were seeing images of the catastrophe for the first time.  After they were shown in the US in 1970, the artists went on to create further panels that offered an even wider view, showing the American prisoners of war and Korean forced laborers who were also victims, but the Hiroshima panels are not simply an indictment of wartime atrocities, they're also images of rememberance and hope, as well as continuing protest against the use of nuclear weapons.  

 (08:00) to (10:00)

Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, the Marukis dedicated their lives to an intensely thoughtful working through of a disaster and loss of epic proportions.  They visited and revisited the subject, incorporating the views and experiences of many, chronicling an event whose consequences are still playing out.

Jumping forward to the 1960s, American artist Martha Rosler began collecting images from magazines and creating a series of photo montages she titled "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home".  The war in question was the Vietnam War, which by 1967, the year she began making the collages, was reaching the peak of US involvement and public opposition to the war was growing.  That year, over 100,000 anti-war protestors gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. made public his objection the war on moral grounds.

Using the technique of collage pioneered by the dadaists, who were also responding to war in their time, Rosler brought together images from Life Magazine of the warfront with advertisements and photo features of pristine US homes from House Beautiful.  The Vietnam War was called "the living room war" and marked the first conflict in which journalists were given near unlimited access to combat zones, and their reporting and photography permeated the news, in print and on TV.

Rosler said, "The images we saw were always very far away, in a place we couldn't imagine," and her incongruous images take us immediately there.  Pat Nixon smiling beneath a gilt frame featuring a twisted body.  A well-dressed woman vacuuming her damask drapes, parting them to reveal soldiers in the field.  The home here is not a space of escape, but of engagement, of confronting the realities of war in a place usually understood as separate.

Rosler published the images in anti-war journals and distributed them as photocopies and flyers, keeping them out of an art context for a number of years, but no matter where you see them, the images retain their ability to shock, to compel us to confront and try to reconcile the jarring barrage of images we look at every day, whether within a magazine or browser window.

 (10:00) to (12:00)

What does it mean to look at these images, and what do we do with that information?  There is a lot of political art that is not explicitly about war and there are so many superlative works of art that I'd like to talk about that engage with political ideas.  Elizabeth Catlett's wood block prints that forged powerful images of the civil rights movement.  Group Material's 1989 AIDS timeline.  Alfredo Jarr's earth-shattering, we'll never look at the world the same way Rwanda series.  Emily Jacir's "Where We Come From", for which she enacted the wishes of Palastinians who lack the freedom of movement between Israel and the West Bank.  The Women on Waves healthcare advocacy group that docked a floating clinic in international waters to provide access to abortions in areas where it was illegal.  The Yes Men's "Bhopal Disaster Dow Chemical Hoax", and the Cause Collective's ongoing Truth Booth, which travels around the world to record peoples' responses to the prompt, "The truth is..."

Each of these are works that have made an indelible impact on the way I see the world and remind me of a statement artist Tania Bruguera made in 2010.  She said, "Political art is the one transcending the field of art, entering the daily nature of people, an art that makes them think.  Political art has doubts, not certainties.  It has intentions , not programs.  It shares with those who find it, not imposes on them.  Political art is uncomfortable knowledge."  Personally, I want the creative output that comes out of this time to be carefully considered and not a confirmation of what I already think or know, or think I know.  I want art that helps me to understand the motivations of people other than myself and that calls me to be an attentive, well-informed, and compassionate person.

It's that uncomfortable knowledge that sticks with us when we're not in front of the art.  It's the tiny seed of doubt and reminder that informs and shapes and frames our values.  What I appreciate about political art is the way it encourages us to constantly reframe our values, to reconsider what we hold to be right and wrong and true and false at every turn.  For me, that is an art that is undeniably worthwhile.

 (12:00) to (12:55)

Thanks to Prudential for sponsoring this episode.  It's human nature to prioritize present needs and what matters most to us today, but when planning for your retirement, it's best to prioritize tomorrow's needs over today's.  According to a Prudential study, one in three Americans is not saving enough for retirement and over 52% are not on track to be able to maintain their current standard of living.  Go to and see how if you start saving more today, you can continue to enjoy the things you love tomorrow.