Every artwork is political in the sense that it offers a perspective—direct or indirect—on social relations. Andy Warhol’s images of Campbell’s Soup cans, for instance, celebrate consumer culture rather than criticize it. Jackson Pollock’s abstractions proclaim the role of the artist as a free agent unencumbered by the demands of creating recognizable images. The politics are almost invariably easier to spot in premodern works, such as portraits of kings or popes that frankly announce themselves as emblems of social power.
Milestones of twentieth-century political art include Soviet avant-garde art from about 1920, Mexican mural paintings, the United States’ WPA projects of the 1930s, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), and the American sculptor David Smith’s antifascist Medals for Dishonor (1936–40). Many of these works take leftist positions supporting the distribution of art to mass audiences or criticizing official policies. Right-wing views were expressed in the art and architecture of the Nazi and Fascist regimes. Paintings of Aryan youths promoted Hitler’s genocidal dreams, and ambitious architectural programs linked the Italian and German governments with the authority of classical Greece and Rome. During the 1930s and 40s, debate raged among American artists such as Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky over whether an artist should make straightforwardly political art by using recognizable imagery or create abstractions free of overt politics. The latter viewpoint eventually prevailed, largely due to the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, which many artists and intellectuals regarded as a betrayal.
In current usage, political art refers to works with overtly political subjects made to express criticism of the status quo. Political artists include Rudolf Baranik, Joseph Beuys, Victor Burgin, Sue Coe, Robbie Conal, Leon Golub, Felix González-Torres, Hans Haacke, Jerry Kearns, Suzanne Lacy, Hélio Oiticica, Martha Rosler, May Stevens, and collective groups such as the Border Art Workshop, Feminist Art Workers, Gran Fury, Group Material, and the Guerrilla Girls. The efficacy of political art becomes a thornier matter when questions of distribution, context, and audience are considered. Can a painting sold for $100,000 to a bank or a multinational corporation function critically? Some politically inclined artists have turned to conceptual art or to making posters for the street in order to control not only the production of their art but also its distribution and context.
Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.