POLITICS ON PAPER: Art with an Agenda from the SUArt Collection

SUArt Galleries

August 18 – September 18, 2016

For centuries, artists, publishers, and activists have utilized the process of printmaking as a vehicle to inform the public, to illustrate a point of view, and to incite change. While Dickens’s quote is mainly motivated by the import of the printed word, the impact that the art of printmaking has had on our shared history transcends books and text. For centuries, the art of the print, and later photography, have had significant dual roles as both visual art and a tool for social commentary and change.

An essential ingredient to the successful long-term marriage between the print and politics is the inherent nature of the process itself—the ability to make work in multiple. The multiplicity of working from a matrix, a carved block, etched plate, or stenciled screen allows the maker the ability to reach a larger audience than that of a singular painting or sculpture. Prints can be portable, numerous, and economically accessible.

Pioneers of social commentary used the print process to create works on paper that would illuminate the mass public to the atrocities witnessed during periods of war and tyranny. Jacques Callot (French, 1592-1635) is one of the earliest and most influential examples of the artist/printmaker as social commentator and documentarian. Trained as an engraver, Callot was a pioneer of the burgeoning process of etching, well-known for his vast, multi-plate views of battles and battlefields. Callot’s arguably most important work, Les Grandes Miseres de la Guerre (The Miseries of War) from 1633, would influence the artist’s role in society for centuries. Consisting of 18 small etchings, the series depicts the atrocities and warmongering observed firsthand from the Thirty Years War in Europe. The prints were small, portable, sharable, and “exposed in realistic detail the day-to-day consequences of military affairs. Their bitter social commentary…has inspired antiwar depictions ever since.”[i] Francisco Goya’s Capricios (1799) and Disasters of War (1810-1820) series, Käthe Kollwitz’s depictions of the Peasants’ Revolt in post-World War I Germany, and William Gropper’s stand against McCarthy-era politics are all legacy to Callot’s insightful and gripping etchings.

The 19th century saw the introduction of the industrial press that laid the foundation for the information age. Mass-produced periodicals, rich with illustrated texts, were now printed in the tens of thousands. Artists such as Thomas Nast, Honoré Daumier, and John Pughe found great appeal in social cartooning and utilized the new pictorial press as the soapbox for their political cause. This spirit of social cartooning flourished into the 21st century and is evident in the work of Charles Martin, Paul Szep, and Barry Blitt.

The past hundred years have been fertile ground for artists and satirists making artwork with social purpose. Between the two world wars, the Works Progress Administration championed artists who made work that instilled hope, gave purpose, and delivered a distinct nationalistic propaganda to a then economically suffering nation. The political upheaval and radicalism of the 1960s saw innovation in how artwork was used and created. Photographic techniques mixed with traditional print processes and introduced the art of appropriation, exploiting readily available images from the media, advertisements, and industry that were re-interpreted by artists to create a new context. Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Sister Mary Corita Kent all used recognizable images from society to state an alternative point of view. Civil rights and race equality continue to be central themes to many African American artists, as seen in the work of Calvin Burnett, Elizabeth Catlett, and Kara Walker. Gender issues, economic reform, and war are all represented in the contemporary work of May Stevens, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and Enrique Chagoya.

Today, the art of the print is one of many effective instruments in the arsenal of art with motive, but the tangible nature of work on paper is still one of the most effective in its impact and appeal. In a modern society where few issues are out of bounds, artists continue to find effective outlets for social commentary through the art of the print.

[i] Theodore K. Rabb, Artists and Warfare: A Study of Changing Values in Seventeenth Century Europe, from “Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series”, Vol. 75, No. 6, The Visual Arts and Sciences: A Symposium Held at the American Philosophical Society, pp. 79-106.Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1985.


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