Art & Social Change

In 1934, as a huge strike paralyzed San Francisco, a group of artists embarked on the single largest federally funded collective art project in the United States. These muralists, many of them with radical politics, set to work on painting the equivalent of 3700 square feet of canvas. The canvas was Coit Tower, a cylindrical white building finished the previous year atop Telegraph Hill. The artists were inspired not only by the American legacy of mural painting in the city, but also the work of Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist who had visited San Francisco three years before and left behind two stunning works.

Some of the Coit Tower artists were deliberately apolitical and sketched pastoral scenes or tranquil views of San Francisco bay. The rest drew their inspiration from the political ferment around them. John Langley Howard’s California Industrial Scenes portrayed the collective power of a multiethnic group of workers. Victor Arnautoff’s City Life depicted radical newspapers on sale and a soldier waving a red flag. William Hesthal, in Railroad and Shipping, showed the effects of the Big Strike: an empty shipyard and the railway workers sabotaging the tracks.

The artists also reacted to the news in February 1934 of John D. Rockefeller’s infamous decision to destroy a Diego Rivera mural. Rivera had refused to erase his picture of Russian leader Vladimir Lenin from his half-finished mural at Rockefeller Center. The Coit Tower artists loudly protested this act and then decided to include the incident in their own murals. In Bernard Zakheim’s library fresco, for instance, a man reads a paper with the headline of the destructive act. There were calls in San Francisco to follow Rockefeller’s example and whitewash the radical Coit Tower murals. But except for a detail from Clifford Wight’s contribution – which included a hammer and sickle and prompted the city to lock the doors of the Tower during the summer of 1934 until the detail was effaced – the murals survived and are proudly exhibited in Coit Tower today.

As the Coit Tower murals suggest, art and politics are inextricably linked. The murals are public, convey political content, and were part of a larger debate over political power and its effects. Even though all art can be political – including the work of those who strike an “art for art’s sake” stance – not all artistic production is connected to an activist tradition. As critic Lucy Lippard argues, activist art is “accessible work of any kind that cares about, challenges, involves, and consults the audience for whom it is made, respecting community and environment.” Such art is engaged with its audience in articulating a differently understood past, an alternative present, or a set of possible futures.

Activist art, whether visual, plastic, musical or written, is sometimes explicitly didactic, sometimes ambiguous in its content. It comes in many forms. Activist art can be found in public sculpture gardens, spray-painted through stencils on city streets, created out of earth and rock in the countryside, intoned in poetry slams, sent out as songs on the radio airwaves, staged as a spontaneous theatrical performances at a political demonstration, or imagined in the form of novels. Some activist artists are avant-garde and, like scouts, try to light a way forward for their audiences. Other activist artists follow their audience in an attempt to better understand the current moment.

Does activist art ever get too political? Where is the role for beauty in activist art? Is activist art only done by those who oppose current political arrangements? Is Milan Kundera correct, in his novel Life is Elsewhere, in correlating artists intoxicated by political visions with the crushing conformity of state power? Are museums and galleries the proper place for activist art or do these venues necessarily tame the more radical spirit? Should there be government funding for the arts, particularly if that art is explicitly anti-government? Who is the ultimate interpreter of activist art – the artist, the audience, the activist?

On a trip to Provisions, read activist-artists describing their own work in Nina Felshin’s But Is It Art?, check out the Canadian contemporary art scene in the magazine Parachute, leaf through Robbie Conal’s guerrilla poster collection, listen to veteran Utah Phillips and young blood Ani Difranco sing labor duets on the album Fellow Workers, log on for the best in world graffiti, and watch Ararat, Atom Egoyan’s haunting meditation on the artist Arshile Gorky and the horrors of the Armenian genocide.