Emotional Activism

In the Eye of the Storm:
An Art of Conscience 1930-1970
Weisman Art Museum

THERE IS A little etching in the Weisman's exhibit In the Eye of the Storm: An Art of Conscience in which a "modern" artist is depicted at his easel in a gas mask, calmly working on a cubist guitar while a battle rages just outside his window. Printed in 1936 while fascism was building steam all over Europe, Joseph LeBoit's "Tranquility" provides a bitter (and somewhat reactionary) critique of the supposedly vanguard art of the time--and points out a central quandary of 20th-century art.

That progressive politics would rely largely on a conservative, figurative artistic tradition to tell its story is an ironic thing. Or maybe this case is just another reminder that what is aesthetically "radical" isn't always politically so. In any case, it's curious that the owners of this exhibit--Philip Schiller, a self-proclaimed political conservative, and his wife--would devote so much time to collecting work primarily by artists of the left. In the Eye of the Storm is certainly valuable as a survey of social-commentary art, but it's perhaps most interesting as an idiosyncratic personal collection based on a passion for the subject.

On one level, the stylistic choices represented in this show make a lot of sense: When an artist's objective is to communicate an idea as clearly and convincingly as possible to a wide and diverse audience, the best approach often involves sticking to a familiar representational style. And there's another irony: This exhibit suggests that, whether one's aim is to pander to the status quo (like illustrator Norman Rockwell) or challenge it (like the artists in Storm), the means to that end are, with a few notable exceptions, fairly similar.

But, as the opening text panel states, Storm documents a "history of content" as opposed to a history of form as an end in itself, the latter being art history's standard way of understanding the 20th century. While the work here is not oblivious to modernism's influence--expressionist figuration lends itself particularly well to the subjects at hand--form is always at the service of content.

Most of the artists in this exhibit were employed by the federal government through the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project, and the influence of that historical moment permeates the entire collection. Still, the range of work raises questions about what qualifies as activist art. Text panels claim that "social-commentary art arose from a willful redefinition by American artists who now sought to reform society and not merely to portray it." Such a declaration implies that "mere portrayal" is inadequate to the task of social change--yet paintings which sympathetically depict the everyday life of the working class, like Reginald Marsh's "Dance Hall Scene" and Louis Gugliani's "Morning on the East Side," seem to do just that. They are hung side-by-side with more pointed social criticism, like Ida Abelman's 1930s prints showing the alienation felt by poor city dwellers in the face of dehumanizing technology; and Peter Saul's "Feel It" (1966), a scathing critique of U.S. policy in southeast Asia, drawn in the artist's signature adolescent-boy surrealism.

That both of these approaches would appear together in a show about art addressing social issues seems appropriate, but it also raises the broader question of the degree to which the goals of art might be in conflict with a partisan social agenda. Where does one draw the line between art and propaganda? While the activist relies on visual rhetoric to clarify an idea--to reveal an injustice or spark a call to action--an artist often assumes the role of recognizing the contradictions inherent in a situation, so as to leave the meaning more open-ended.

A case in point is George Tooker's egg tempera painting "Lunch," arguably the show's strongest work. Under evocatively rendered artificial light that casts a deathly pall, anonymous workers eat identical sandwiches in a claustrophobic space. Each figure occupies his own little world, not acknowledging anyone around him. Among this throng is a black man. The accompanying text panel identifies Tooker as an equal-rights proponent who wanted to portray an African American as equal to the whites around him. One may find no small irony, then, that he's depicted as equally miserable and as insignificant as his co-workers--leaving the viewer to wonder, borrowing a phrase from another movement, "What the hell are we fighting for?"

One could say the poignant ambiguity of "Lunch" comes at the expense of its effectiveness as agit-prop. On the other hand, as this exhibit begs to be judged by the unreliable measuring stick of subjective emotion, it bears mention that several of the pieces in Eye of the Storm are undeniably moving.

In the Eye of the Storm: An Art of Conscience 1930-1970 is on exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum through March 22; call 625-9494.

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