Good Art Makes for Good Social Change
In 1981, Richard Serra erected a sculpture, Tilted Arc, directly in the middle of New York’s Federal Plaza. This piece angered the people who worked there so they petitioned to have it removed. They claimed it obstructed use of the plaza and attracted graffiti and rats. The piece was removed in 1989 after a public hearing in 1985. Art has a deep relationship with political history. It has the power to change opinions, instill values, and even translate personal experiences into universal ones. The motives, impact, and significance of any work of art can spark an interest, but if art is controversial, does that make it especially indicative of something?
Exploring modernist, postmodernist, and contemporary art can be a good place to examine how societal ideas have changed or even remained the same over time. Controversial art however plays a significant role in social change as it elicits a distinct kind of reaction from the general public. To begin exploring, the observer must first question the motive behind an art piece. Art acts as a commentary for its time, many artists are inspired by political or social movements taking place in their environment. For example, Diego Rivera created his mural titled Man at the Crossroads in Rockefeller center as an illustration of the dominating political ideologies of the 1930s. The controversy began when people believed Rivera was making the argument that communism is superior to capitalism. It was especially controversial because the red scare and Prohibition were taking place. The fresco depicted two contrasting ideas. In the middle of the mural, there is a man who seems to be controlling the universe, which is what the reconstruction of the painting was called: Man, Controller of the Universe. From the viewer’s perspective, capitalism is on the left side of the painting compared to communism on the right. When examining Rivera’s idea of capitalism, he turns World War I into a display of how a capitalist society uses technologies such as poisonous gas and destructive machinery as a force of evil. The wealthy are even painted showing seemingly oblivious and unsympathetic to the turmoil around them. Rivera even includes a portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr in spite because he destroyed earlier artwork of his. However, when viewing the communist side of the mural, one can see important people involved in the worker’s movement during the Russian Revolution: Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. A particular point of interest are the two traditional sculptures on each side of the painting. On the capitalist side, Zeus is depicted without hands, unable to influence the people and is wearing a cross which could suggest that Christianity is as much of a superstition as older, more outdated forms of spirituality. On the right, is a decapitated sculpture with a swastika, the people are even shown sitting on his fallen head. These two sculptures together suggest that the old order of western civilization is obsolete and no longer give us structure. Even though people jumped to conclusions about Rivera’s standpoint on the issue, its popularity gave it much more attention, and in turn generated conversation about the issue depicted. When looking at social movements, activists often assume there will be little gained from a specific movement, and rather a larger picture to address. Sometimes the goal is to provoke thought so that a social change may be possible when the viewer must think in a way in which they are unfamiliar. In this sense, people were upset the idea was even brought into conversation, it made them uncomfortable. However, it was important that the issue gained traction and the viewer has at least considered the idea, in an effort to move forward and progress. Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads (later Man, Controller of the Universe) was strongly disliked, however it demonstrated a truth of the reality in which people were living and gave them a launching point to move forward. This leads to the question of art’s abilities. Can art’s only motive be to provoke thought? Is the artist choosing to be controversial as a social tactic or is it coincidental?
Since many artists leave the analyzing for the viewer, the most that can be done is tracking the impact of art. We can track art’s impact through its influence and inspiration. Historically speaking art, can be used to illustrate a movement or time period. Many pieces of controversial art have later become beloved works even though they were hated in their day. Why does the opinion change? For example Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp was hated when it first appeared in New York for the Armory Show (which was expected to create a display of Romantic art from the early nineteenth-century through then-present Cubism), but now it is renowned and notorious for its innovation and influence. Out of over 1,400 other works of art on display, Duchamp’s gained the most attention. Even former president Teddy Roosevelt viewed it and wrote a malicious review in disgust titled A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition.
“Take the picture which for some reason is called ‘A naked man going down stairs.’ There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture. Now if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, ‘A well-dressed man going up a ladder,’ the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the ‘Naked man going down stairs.’ From the standpoint of terminology, each name would have whatever merit inheres in a rather cheap straining after effect; and from the standpoint of decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture.”
After reflecting on the Armory Show, Duchamp commented, “There’s a public to receive Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 today that did not exist then. Cubism was sort of forced upon the public to reject it…Instead, today, any new movement is almost accepted before it started. See, there’s no more element of shock…” (quote npr) This painting, and other works of art like it plant seeds in the minds of viewers, and once shocked by it would not be so shocked again. The influence of art creates a domino effect. This influence is completely up to the artist and their ability to accurately portray current, or future ideas they want to provoke thought about. When we are given another perspective, a door is opened for a new opinion. Controversial art becomes a symbol for diversity because it brings to light something in which the masses may disagree. How else would social change occur if not through straying from the current eb and flow of society?
Naturally, it can be discerned that previously controversial art paves the way for modern controversial art as it continues to shatter the limits of previous art movements. It is difficult to predict exactly what the future has in store, but from the looks of this pattern, where controversial art breeds social change allowing for people to push boundaries even further, we’re definitely moving somewhere very quickly.
Recently in New York, human right’s activist and artist Ai Weiwei produced a public art exhibition titled Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957, and just a year later, due to his father’s activism, his family was sent to a labour camp in Xinjiang. Years later his family moved back to Beijing. In 2009, Weiwei’s blog was shut down by the Chinese government. He had initiated a civilian investigation to unearth the names of children killed by the Sichuan Earthquake due to inadequate construction of schools. One of Weiwei’s most important causes he fights for is the freedom of thought. In January of 2011, the Chinese government was fed up with his influence and destroyed his art studio. Just two months later, he was arrested and held under interrogation for over two and a half months until being released to house arrest. Eventually, the government returned his passport and he has been living in exile ever since. Looking at Weiwei is interesting because he moved to New York around 1980 when Andy Warhol and other postmodern artists were popular. There is no doubt that he was influenced by them, but the interesting point of the matter is that where the Chinese live in an authoritarian state, Weiwei piggybacked on American artists therefore no one in China has “paved the way” for his controversial art to even slightly be accepted there. Instead, he has gained a huge following in the U.S. and of course many Chinese people who believe in the causes he fights for support him. However in China, “where the political authorities prize conformity, discipline and the accumulation of riches, an artist working in the provocative Western tradition is still regarded as a threat. Chinese intellectuals may support him, but the Chinese generally have no more understanding of Ai than a typical American has of Duchamp” (smithsonianmag) Is Weiwei the man beginning China’s new movement? And if so, what does this mean in a social context?