Can art help to bring about political change today?
If you watch Fox News or MSN, you’d think that this country is on the verge of the next Civil War. However, statistics show that Americans are more united than divided on some important issues.
72% of Americans overall, say that the decision about whether to have an abortion should belong solely to the pregnant woman. 1
9 in 10 Americans are in favor of background checks and returning to stiffer gun legislation related to banning high-capacity magazines. 2
65% of Americans think the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of climate change. 3
The hold-up in enabling our laws to reflect the will of the people comes down to 50 recalcitrant Senators who refuse to depart from the Republican party line and do what’s right. Whether it’s fear of losing their job or more specifically being called out by the MAGA fringe, the time is now to galvanize people to get them out. With women’s rights in the balance, innocent citizens being massacred by lone gunmen, and the planet facing an existential threat due to climate change – time to get voters to see that we have more in common and stand with delegates who will bring about desired changes. These are not right or left issues – but American issues.
In the 1920’s the Mexican government commissioned artists to create public art to inform the poor, most of whom had little education and ability to read to learn Mexican history and envision “a powerful vision of its future…depicting peasants, workers and people of mixed Indian-European heritage as heroes who would forge its future.4
Today, even though most Americans are literate, their world view is limited to either Fox News or social media, with little understanding of American’s history, the facts, or critical thinking. They hear the pundits, but don’t see that behind all this noise, there’s much more going on to lessen the rights to vote and ensure individual freedoms and social justice. Where is a unified vision of the future, which working class people can identify and work towards?
Back in the 1930’s and 1940’s under the influence of the Mexican muralists and in particular Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, American artists like Harold Lehman learned ways to use art to amplify political messages directed towards working class people. From the frescoes created by the Block of Painters to bring attention to racism and the harsh treatment of Black people in America and the exploitation of labor by capital, these young artists had a message to share to bring about social change.
The basic thing about mural painting is that it’s a message that the artist is giving to the public and, in turn, the message must be received by the public. This kind of give-and-take is an extremely important and valuable one, to both the social and artistic life of this country.
In a review of Vida Americana: Mexican muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945, Peter Schjeldahl in his article, The Lasting Influence of Mexico’s Great Muralists, mentions a myriad of American artists including Thomas Benton, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White, whose subject matter was influenced by Los Tres Grandes (the Big Three) -- Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros. Schjeldahl writes, “Rivera inspired American painters to create tableaux of laboring or protesting workers (police brutality figures often) and of historical events and themes.”5
When Siqueiros and Lehman started the The Siqueiros Workshop, it gave rise to not only experiments using new tools and paints to create “accidental images”, but also public art inspired by the political ideas espoused by Siqueiros. Much of the large-scale public artworks created were in support of the anti-fascist cause reflected by the floats created for parades, demonstrations, and rallies. From the floats created for the July 4, 1936 Anti-Hearst Day activities being organized by the American League Against War and Fascism to the May Day Parade of 1936 and 1937, the objective was to create “art for the people – not art for the elite.” Although the Anti-Hearst float never made it to sea, the initial plan was to sail it past the masses enjoying the July 4th holiday at Coney Island where they knew it would get attention.
The ideas for early works were the public use of art, big banners, floats, and big demonstration pieces and things of that nature for parades, gatherings, conventions, meetings. Not particularly for exhibit.
Art can bring powerful messages to invoke change. But the art must meet the people where they live, work, and play. Having art with political messages limited to galleries and museums reinforces the feeling espoused by the right that these ideas are only embraced by liberal and left-wing progressives.
So, the question is – where are the artists today who will use art in a way to bring the issues to the people? How can political organizations find money to help support artists to construct installations and floats that aren’t just political and serious, but attention-grabbing, humorous, and audacious enough to gain public support and go viral? Where are the public demonstrations, rallies, and parades that could include art to unify the people behind the topics of today – like pro-choice, gun legislation, and climate change?
The time is now to take the art to the streets, make some noise, and ACT UP6 in an effort to make more Americans identify with a larger movement and unify behind getting politicians to bring about the change that most Americans desperately want. And once we, the voters, speak in more of a clear unified voice, our elected representatives can either do their jobs and bring about necessary legislative changes that are in the interests of their constituents, or we the people can make sure they are voted out.
1. America’s Abortion Quandary. Pew Research Center. May 6, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/05/06/americas-abortion-quandary/
2. How Americans actually feel about gun rights versus restrictions. NPR/WNYC. May 26, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/05/26/1101568191/how-americans-actually-feel-about-gun-rights-versus-restrictions
3. Two-Thirds of Americans Think Government Should Do More on Climate. Pew Research Center. June 23, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/06/23/two-thirds-of-americans-think-government-should-do-more-on-climate/
4. Mexican Muralism. MoMA.org. https://www.moma.org/collection/terms/mexican-muralism
5. The Lasting Influence of Mexico’s Great Muralists. Peter Schjeldahl. The New Yorker. Feb 24, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/02/the-lasting-influence-of-mexicos-great-muralists
6. Act Up, an activist group that was started in the 1980s to address the AIDS crisis, https://actupny.com/