Review by DeWitt Cheng
In 1930, John Heartfield, the German Dadaist and a Communist who fought Nazi fascism with brilliantly mordant photomontages, created the image of a soldier in uniform with his head completely bandaged like a war casualty (or like H.G. Wells’ invisible man), or helmeted in metal like a knight, accompanied by the caption, “Those who read bourgeois newspapers will remain blind and deaf. Away with these debilitating bandages!”
We who remember the complicity of America’s mainstream media in various financial and military shenanigans and debacles over the past several decades are likely to agree with Heartfield’s judgment — even if his target at the time, three years before Hitler gained power, was considerably to the left of our current center of the road: Socialist newspapers seeking an alliance with the Communists.
If Heartfield was wrong about that issue, as it now appears, he was right about Nazism — and about the power of an unfree press on an uninformed, malleable public — lessons that Americans who apparently see shouting and marching as acts of existential assertion should take to heart. Democracies need dissent to keep them honest. America’s origin myths of easy money and Horatio-Alger individualism are still powerful, even as their financial and moral failures become more evident daily. The recent kerfuffle over the deficit ceiling makes clear the ideological blindness of those who parrot the buzzwords of demagogues.
Heartfield proved that visual art could be an incisive cultural weapon, and many socially concerned artists (some of them, socialists) followed his example during the Depression and after, although they have been relegated to the sidelines of art history since World War II.
A new book by the San Francisco activist artist, Art Hazelwood, Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present, examines the legacy of political artists from the Great Depression to the Great Recession. It also serves as a concise catalogue to a traveling art exhibition of the same name sponsored by Exhibit Envoy, and funded by the James Irvine, LEF, and Fleishhacker Foundations, on view now until Dec. 4, 2011, at the de Saisset Museum in Santa Clara University.
The show is an eye-opener to those too long blinkered by America’s capitalist cargo cult. So is the book, which serves as a kind of remedial civics lesson for student badly served by mainstream mythology.
Hazelwood’s political convictions are clear, but his prose is mercifully free of leftist rhetoric. The facts speak loudly enough for themselves, after all.
In 11 chapters, he provides the essential information on Bonus Marchers, Hoovervilles, the New Deal, Glass-Steagall, NAFTA, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and the responses of artists, which were for a time — it’s almost inconceivable in today’s political climate — supported by the federal government through the Works Progress Administration and Farm Services Administration.
Many of these socially conscious artists were printmakers and illustrators, employing both fine-art and commercial methods of reproduction to disseminate their images. Victor Arnautoff, Richard V. Correll, Fritz Eichenberg, Rockwell Kent, Dorothea Lange, Giacomo Patri, Anton Refregier, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Herman Volz and Paul Weller may be familiar names to fans of political art (and if not, they should be).
Contemporary artists who continue to carry the torch, many from the politically progressive Bay Area, and well-known within political circles, include David Bacon, Jesus Barraza, Francisco Dominguez, Eric Drooker, Ed Gould, Christine Hanlon, Art Hazelwood, Doug Minkler, Claude Moller, Rachael Bell Romero, Jos Sances, Robert L. Terrell and Jean McIntosh, and the S.F. Print Collective. The 57 images in the book are well chosen to supplement the text, and nicely printed. The clear layout makes the wealth of information easy to take in.
During the Depression, one of Ben Shahn’s wealthy collectors joked that the paintings would protect her Fifth-Avenue mansion from the anger of the dispossessed. The art was never put to that test, of course.