Politics is a great topic for art. As a political artist I’m often inspired by today’s hot political climate. I also find inspiration in many other places. Mass media. Television. Movies. Political blogs. Cable news. And just everyday conversation. For me there’s one more great source of inspiration. Great work by other artists. What follows is a list of my personal favs. Most are from the past. And one is from the present.
5. Barack Obama Hope Poster by Shepard Fairey
Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Barack Obama Hope poster became an icon almost from the start. It features a stylized stencil portrait of Obama in solid red, beige and blue. “Progress”. “Hope”. And or Change appear below the portrait.
The work was made in one day. And printed first as a poster. Fairey sold 350 of the posters on the street right after printing them. It was then more widely distributed. It appeared in various forms during the 2008 election season.
The image went out with the approval of the Obama campaign. It became one of the most popular symbols of election 2008. There were many variations and imitations. There were even a few commissioned by the Obama campaign itself.
This led The Guardian’s Laura Barton to say that the image “acquired the kind of instant recognition of Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster, and is surely set to grace T-shirts, coffee mugs and the walls of student bedrooms in the years to come.”
In January 2009 Obama had won the election. Fairey’s mixed media stenciled portrait version of the image was acquired by the Smithsonian. It’s now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Fairey was sued by the AP once the original photo was revealed. This might have been political retribution. The image came from freelance photographer Mannie Garcia. It was shot in April 2006. Fairey sued in response in 2009. He claimed his image was fair use of the original photo. The parties settled out of court in January 2011. The details were never released.
What happened next may be proof of an old adage. “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover up”. In February of 2012, Fairey pleaded guilty in a New York federal court. He destroyed and fabricated documents during his legal battle with the AP.
During the course of his 2009 lawsuit Fairey claimed that he used a different photo for the poster. Not the Mannie Garcia one. He was forced to admit that he had lied. Fairey tried to hide this by destroying documents and faking others. This is why he plead guilty to one count of criminal contempt.
4. From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz to the Revolution by David Alfaro Siqueiros
Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was very active in left-wing politics. And he was an active member of the Communist Party. In 1923 he helped found El Machete. This is the newspaper for the artist’s union of Mexico. He wrote many articles. Even a manifesto. He expressed the need to reach hard-working Mexicans through art. Thus, highlighting its social value. Not its value to the individual.
In the 1930s he was exiled. Forced to leave his beloved Mexico. His Communist activities were just too much for those in charge. It wouldn’t be the last time he suffered state repression.
Throughout his life, he was often unjustly imprisoned for his politics. This includes going to jail in 1960 at the age of 64. This inspired an international campaign calling for his release. The unfair treatment didn’t sour Siqeros on public art. He remained committed to public art as a way to spread an anti-capitalist message until he died in 1974.
In 1936 the Spanish Civil War began. Siqueiros put down his paintbrush to join the anti-fascist fight. Fighting in the war shaped much of his work. One of the most famous paintings to represent that is Echoes of a Scream. The image focuses on the pain and suffering of a child surrounded by bloodshed and destruction caused of war. His images were effective. So was his passion. And his willingness to go fight for the cause. He inspired many in Mexico to become involved with efforts to support the anti-fascist struggle in Spain.
Siqueiros was unique. He had the ability to express movement and conflict between clashing forces. He said his art was a depiction of the past while connecting with the present. From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz to the Revolution. This painting captures this theme perfectly. The mural was painted in a time of political upheaval between 1957-65.
The mural shows the forces of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. But there’s an implied reference to the political climate of its own time. Its time just happened to come at the height of the Cold War.
President Adolfo Lopez Mateos became a staunch U.S. ally. This began a shift away from the populist agenda of his early years in office. And much repression for his opponents.
This resulted in labor unrest. Strikes and political agitation grew. The left saw this as proof of that the Mexican elite had sold out. They were going to help Washington take over Mexico.
The mural represents a union of opposites. On the left hand side are the main forces of the revolution. They are political leaders. And the masses of armed peasants. If we look closely into the crowd, we’re able to recognize those leaders. Zapata. Obregon, Villa. Carranza. Siqueiros’ intent was to blend these revolutionary figures in with the people. He wanted to show how they are products of the social forces from which they came.
On the right hand side is Porfirio Diaz. He was Mexico’s dictator from 1876 to 1911. In the image he’s surrounded by luxury and his political stooges. Finally, Siqueiros’ central image shows the struggle for independence. We see the miners of Cananea facing off with Willian C. Green. He was the leader of the Consolidated Copper Company of America. They’re fighting for control over the national flag of Mexico. The labor strike at Cananea in Sonora in 1906 was the event that began the Mexican Revolution.
Siqueiros uses a potent symbol to sum things up. We see a horse that has made a sudden stop. The stopped horse represents the stoppage or suspense of the revolution. It’s a reminder of the internal threat of reaction and counter-revolution. Many of Siqueiros murals stressed similar points to his viewers. Mexico has achieved a lot through struggle. But, as the saying goes, the struggle continues.
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