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Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement
November 20, 2005 - March 5, 2006
The relationship between art and politics within the history of modern art has been particularly troubled. Käthe Kollwitz's haunting pleas for the working class, Pablo Picasso's brutal antiwar protests, and George Grosz's venomous satire appear to stand firm within the canon of modern art. Yet there has often been a deep ambivalence about mixing art and politics, even in periods of tremendous turmoil. Morality and art seemed to make for uncomfortable bedfellows; to be explicit about politics was to court banality and naiveté. This was at no time more evident than during the sixties when New York's avant-garde responded to the Vietnam War with what Susan Sontag called the "aesthetics of silence."
In California, however, this ambivalence has been remarkably absent. What we find instead is a striking confluence of political agitation and passionately engaged art. California's role in twentieth-century politics is itself extraordinary. It is difficult to ignore California when considering the peace and social justice movements of the sixties and seventies. The San Francisco Bay Area took a leadership role nationally with the founding of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, and with the birth of Beat and hippie countercultures, which catalyzed profound social change across the country. While the civil rights and peace movements grew simultaneously in cities nationwide, California played a significant role in their development. In their wake came the Chicano labor movement in the San Joaquin Valley, shortly followed by the revolutionary Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1966, as well as some of the most radical manifestations of the women's movement, gay liberation, and environmental activism. All of this activity was accompanied by an outpouring of political art unmatched elsewhere in the United States.
But the political ferment in California, does not explain the artistic response that made for such a striking contrast to the near-silence of New York's avant-garde. One basic reason for the disparity was that the structure of art production was entirely different in California. In cities across the state teaching positions rather than art sales provided support for artists, which gave them greater independence from the constraints of commerce.  Thus, conditions in the West -- particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, which had few commercially successful art galleries until the early seventies -- were conducive to a far greater range of artistic expression. This lack of competitive pressure meant that California artists were not locked into the market-driven orthodoxy that held New York artists in its grip.
As a result, it could be argued that political art is one of California's more noteworthy contributions to American art of the twentieth century, and it is significant that the San Jose Museum of Art has placed emphasis in recent years on collecting contemporary art with a political focus. Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement will survey a broad range of political works drawn entirely from SJMA's permanent collection. From Irving Norman's surging masses of protestors objecting to the Vietnam War in Rebellions and Revolutions (1970), to Hung Liu's commentary on the U.S. treatment of immigrants in Resident Alien (1988) and Helen and Newton Harrison's Serpentine Lattice (2005) proposal for restoring the watersheds of the entire Pacific Coast temperate rainforest, many of the works included in the exhibition express artists' responses to socio-political upheaval, while others function as catalysts for political activism.
Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement demonstrates that California continues to be an place where artists can reinvigorate the genre of political art using any means they choose, whether old-fashioned easel painting or the latest forms of new media. The artists in this exhibition strike a particular chord of relevance today -- reasserting values of commitment to the concerns of the collective heart and mind.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a major book entitled Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement in California and Beyond, co-published by the San Jose Museum of Art and the University of California Press. It is authored by art historian Dr. Peter Selz with an essay by Susan Landauer.
-- Susan Landauer, Katie and Drew Gibson Chief Curator
1. See Paul J. Karlstrom, "Art Sketches: Notes on the Central Role of Schools in California Art and Culture," in Reading California, 84-109.
Wall text for the exhibition:
VISUAL POLITICS: THE ART OF ENGAGEMENT
The relationship between art and politics within the history of modern art-with its emphasis on formalist aesthetics-has been particularly troubled. Within European modernism, Kathe Kollwitz's haunting pleas for the working class, Pablo Picasso's brutal antiwar protests, and Georg Grosz's venomous satire appear to stand firm within the canon. Yet, there has often been a deep ambivalence about mixing art and politics, even in periods of tremendous turmoil. This was at no time more evident than in the 1960s, when New York's market-driven avant-garde responded to the Vietnam War with Pop Art, Minimalism, and hard-edge abstraction, which cultural critic Susan Sontag characterized as the "aesthetics of silence."
In California, however, this ambivalence has been remarkably absent. What we find instead is a striking confluence of political agitation and passionately engaged art.
California's role in 20th-century politics is itself remarkable, beginning with Berkeley's Free Speech movement of 1964, and with the birth of the Beat and hippie countercultures, which catalyzed profound social change across the country. In their wake came the Chicano labor movement in the San Joaquin Valley, shortly followed by the Black Panther Party in Oakland, as well as some of the most radical manifestations of the women's movement, gay liberation, and environmental activism.
All of this activity was accompanied by an outpouring of political art that continues into the present with responses to September 11 and the war in Iraq. Drawn mostly from the San Jose Museum of Art's collection, Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement showcases a broad range of political commentary and dissent since World War II, demonstrating that California continues to be a place where artists can reinvigorate the genre using any means they choose, whether old-fashioned easel painting or the latest forms of electronic art.
AGAINST WAR AND VIOLENCE
At times glorified, while other times condemned, war has always been a major subject of Western art. In the aftermath of World War II, confronted by the monstrous cruelty of the Holocaust and the atomic devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, many wondered how artists-who at the time were enamored with abstraction-could possibly begin to address these unfathomable atrocities. Nevertheless, the response in California was art with a personal message about our human predicament. In postwar San Francisco, a number of artists took on political art, including several attending art school on the G.I. Bill. With the American involvement in Vietnam, anti-war art reached an unprecedented level of intensity. Artists joined activists in their outcry not only against the war, but also in questioning the motives for our engagement in it. These questions continue to engage contemporary artists today.
RACISM, DISCRIMINATION, AND IDENTITY POLITICS
Living in a democracy, Americans hold close their inalienable rights to life, liberty, equality, participation in government, and freedom of expression. But it is one thing to declare these rights and another for everyone to actually realize them. In times of crisis-World War II, the McCarthy years, and now in our post 9/11 culture-history has repeatedly shown that our rights can be arbitrarily and selectively revoked, ironically in the interest of protecting our national way of life. Even in more optimistic times, citizens of color, immigrants, women, and homosexuals have all been fighting for their fundamental rights in an ongoing battle against discriminatory laws and practices. Artists have long been engaged in this struggle to highlight and eradicate the prejudicial attitudes and actions we take against one another.
TOWARD A SUSTAINABLE EARTH
"Compared to the environmental crisis, all other social, political, economic, and scientific issues pale into insignificance. Obviously, if humanity expires from global warming, over-population, pollution, starvation, and a lack of water, it will matter very little whether civil rights have been achieved, the Middle East is at peace, an AIDS vaccine exists, or the national debts have been paid. In point of fact, all these threats to our survival are directly or indirectly related to environmental destruction."
James Wines, Green Architecture, 2000
Following the counterculture revolution of the 1960s and
70s, the 1980s experienced a new surge of fiscal and moral conservatism,
ushered in by Ronald Reagan's supply-side economics, growing political influence
from the Christian Right, and the identification of the AIDS virus, while
the 1990s brought us the first Gulf War, NAFTA and the new global economy.
But while most of the country was caught up in yuppie materialism, followed
by the "irrational exuberance" of the dot.com boom, artists were
keeping a critical eye on the American establishment. Today, artists are
more earnest than ever about the self-destructive swarm of political scandals,
arms proliferation, corporate exploitation, celebrity obsessions, rampant
consumerism, and our growing commercial culture of excess and waste.
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