The kids, particularly those at the University of Miami, are all right, especially given their interesting show at the Lowe Art Museum, The Changing Face of Art and Politics, an exhibition about something real. Every year, for the ArtLab at the Lowe series, students and faculty put together an exhibition culled from the museum’s permanent collection of some 17,750 works. This effort, coordinated by Joel Hollander, a lecturer of art history, features the budding curatorial chops of museum-studies students bent on examining the age-old intersection of art and the great fray of public life.
Art and Politics skips through the centuries, spanning Hieronymus Hopfer’s circa 1525 Combat Between the Cavalry and Infantry, a violent, raw piece depicting the horrors of war, to Philippe Halsman’s 1952 photomontage Marilyn Mao, in which Monroe’s red-lipped American dream of a face merges with a state portrait of the Communist-and-proud-of-it chairman.
William Blake, artist, poet and abolitionist, aptly represents the 1700s, namely 1793, with his Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave. In 1759, Voltaire had addressed slavery in Candide, and this image also incorporates Lilliputian-size slave drivers, a conceit taken from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 Gulliver’s Travels: a female slave, nude save for fabric draped over her hips, is being whipped, and her tortured face captures the agony of slavery. The engraving was one of several done for the 1793 John Gabriel Stedman book Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.
George Cruikshank does a shoutout for the 1800s with his 1820 satirical etching Ah! Sure Such a Pair Was Never Seen So Justly Form’d to Meet by Nature, in which King George IV and his wife Queen Caroline are encased in two enormous pear-shaped green bags. In that era legal papers were customarily carried in green bags, and the king and queen had lots of legal paperwork. King George, whose hanging belt buckle suggests a limp royal appendage, had sent documents to Parliament questioning the queen’s virtue. His bag is bigger, and his face is set in a frightened scowl. A king, of course, has plenty of opportunities to open up the dating gene pool, and George had lots of dalliances to feel guilty about. The Bill Clinton of his era eventually bribed Cruikshank to stop all the merry fun at his expense.
The 20th century segment of the show begins with Arthur Segal’s Untitled, 1912-1919, a woodcut illustrating the rough and tumble of hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, an expressionistic study in bold black and white that could have been done by the late Keith Haring. Segal, like Haring, was right in the thrash of the times. He cofounded the Neue Sezession in Berlin, a 1910 group that included Emil Nolde, who ventured to New Guinea and painted exotic still lifes. Segal also exhibited with the Zurich Dadaists at the Cabaret Voltaire, where Jean Arp and other artists did spoken-word poetry, made avant-garde music, danced and generally struck curious poses.
The century moves on to the graphic with Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s landmark Striking Worker, Assassinated, a 1934 image of a dead Mexican factory striker, blood pouring from his head. In a stark, almost beautiful way, Bravo captures what Henri Cartier-Bresson described as the “decisive moment.” (Weegee also put this technique to good use, though there was a fair amount of glee in his depictions of death and squalor.)
On a lighter note, Reginald Murray Pollack’s 1967 Peace March makes revolt seem like a walk in the park. The jam-packed montage has a cast of characters waving “LBJ Peace Today” signs with clowns and Abe Lincoln floating in the background. (It’s inspired by James Ensor’s Symbolist-era 1889 work, Christ’s Entry into Brussels, which chronicles the emergence of the socialist party in Belgium.)
Elliott Erwitt’s 1974 photograph Coke Machine & Missiles, Alabama, U.S.A. is a logical continuation of Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The photograph mixes in a dose of homage-to-consumerism pop art with Dadaist absurdity. Erwitt, who was part of Magnum photos back in the glory days of Robert Capa, took a simple black-and-white shot of an everyday icon, a symbol of American pop dominance surrounded by an arsenal of bristling missiles.
William Gropper, by contrast, uses the hard-core approach. The House Un-American Activities Committee, for one, was not feeling his work in such leftie publications as The Liberator. His subsequent blacklisting inspired a set of lithographs, The Capriccios, taken from Goya’s 1799 series Los Caprichos. In Gropper’s Politics, hypocritical venal politicians with faces that recall bats and pigs are rendered making impassioned but pointless speeches. Gropper throws in a little German Expressionism and a smattering of the great George Grosz. (The Art and Politics show also includes a 1930 Grosz standard, Who Said Peace?, a dipped-in-acid caricature of his protesting countrymen.)
In the end, the Lowe exhibition proves that artists don’t care for politicians and, for the most part, find the world a crummy place, a sensibility that crosses all strains of humanity. This show is a wonderful opportunity — for a change — to see angry art that’s about changing the world, as opposed to all the narcissistic nonsense of contemporary art, the navel-gazing that changes nothing.