art titles of interest to progressives
Lincoln Cushing, 2/16/2004, updated 11/12/2009
As a more radicalized Rodney Dangerfield might have said, "Political posters get no respect." Despite the role of graphic artwork in the social change movements of the late 20th century, very little has been done to document and study them. Other cultural genres, such as music, film, and even community murals have garnered more academic attention than lowly political posters. Recently, however, several titles have come out that bring sweet raindrops to that Death Valley of scholarship. All of these books place the posters in a cultural and political context, adeptly moving beyond aesthetic considerations to the situational impact that the images hoped to address at the time they were made.
Two China books (Picturing Power and Art of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) complement each other, drawing upon two geographically distinct yet significant curatorial collections. Both do a good job (each in their own way) of analyzing Chinese visual arts during this tumultuous and complicated political epoch. Through example and exposition they help us understand the genre and artist nuances that deepen our knowledge of what is usually considered to be a relatively homogeneous body of work. A new book, Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins, challenges many of the stereotypes about the Cultural Revolution and presents examples of how the GPCR influenced art and politics in the United States.
British Trade Union Posters and Troubled Images concentrate solely on poster art, and offer a historical survey of work in their respective subject areas. British Trade Union Posters focuses on a very narrow slice of the field by including only prints produced by unions, but does lend dignity and legitimacy to this important genre. Troubled Images is based on the significant archive of cultural material dating from 1966 that has been gathered by the Linen Hall library. One of the strengths of this collection, and this book, is the display of artwork representing different sides of a very charged and fractional issue.
American Expressionism and Artists on the Left each cover a similar period of U.S. history in order to make different points. Dijkstra's contribution thoroughly and meticulously supports the hypothesis that the uniquely American genre that began in the early 1930s known as Expressionism, characterized by social realism and attention to content, was methodically and deliberately sidelined from the art mainstream by the forces of capital, who favored the more innocuous and less threatening output of abstract artists. Hemingway's book offers a detailed history of the important link between cultural projects of the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) and progressive artists - Party members as well as "fellow travelers" and independents. Both works offer invaluable background on the forces that influence the production and distribution of socially-conscious art. At Work also covers a broad historical swath of all art genres. It is a catalog for a traveling exhibit by the same name, and represents a unique partnership between the California Historical Society, the California Labor Federation, and others to assemble a collection of over 100 images of California labor by artists both familiar and unknown. Although posters and prints play a far smaller role in these broad art surveys than in the other books described here, printmakers and print studios are given deserved credit for their contributions to the progressive art movements.
Lastly, Visions of Peace and Justice deserves a special notice. It is an ambitious self-publishing effort by one of the most significant independent political printshops in the United States. Long-delayed in production, the book reproduces more than 500 posters designed for more than 250 distinct organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. This book not only honors the graphic artists and the political groups that commissioned the works, it also sheds light on the important but undervalued role of print shops and technical services in the production of political art. Union printed, on recycled paper.
Finally, as brother Dangerfield might admit, we're getting some respect.
Lincoln Cushing has been a graphic artist and labor librarian at U.C. Berkeley's Institute of Industrial Relations and the Bancroft Library, and is the author of several books on posters.
return to Docs Populi poster archive