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American Artists Against War

Posted on Jan 8, 2016

By Paul Von Blum

University of California Press

“American Artists Against War: 1935-2010”
A book by David McCarthy

Between 1810 and 1820, the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya created a series of 82 prints about the Peninsular War between Napoleon’s French Empire and Spain from 1808 to 1814. Known as the “Disasters of War,” these prints have been widely regarded as among the most powerful and compelling anti-war artworks in the entire history of art. His scenes of savagery, suffering and human despair in this series are strikingly reminiscent of the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. More than a century after Goya created his brilliant series, another Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, repeated that anti-war theme with equal force in his monumental painting “Guernica.” Picasso’s masterpiece, one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century, was a condemnation of the bombing of the small Basque town of Guernica by the German Air Force on April 26, 1937, at the direction of Fascist insurrection leader Gen. Francisco Franco. 

Goya and Picasso are among the thousands of artists of conscience throughout the centuries who have refused to remain indifferent to the plagues of human existence, including war, genocide, political persecution, poverty, racism, sexism and every other form of oppression. American artists have often been at the forefront of this tradition, especially in their anti-war efforts during the past century. An abundant literature on American artists of social conscience exists, offering scholars and laypersons engaging opportunities to see how artists advance the honorable tradition of dissent and engaged public citizenship.

Rhodes College professor David McCarthy has added an outstanding volume to this heritage. His “American Artists Against War: 1935-2010” is a major contribution to the growing history of American political art. It provides an impressively comprehensive coverage of American artists active in anti-war efforts, both politically and artistically, from 1935 to 2010. His treatment of the American descendants of Goya and Picasso reflects exemplary historical research and meticulous attention to the visual details of their artworks. Above all, McCarthy’s book provides further intellectual and moral confirmation that political art is an entirely admirable enterprise, especially when it is combined with rigorous standards of artistic quality. 

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This view has not always been popular in art history and criticism. For many decades, formalist and other mainstream scholars and critics have shown disdain about artists who express critical political views in their artworks. Especially during the Cold War era, political art specifically, and even figurative art generally, were disparaged, while abstract expressionism ruled the day. Even in the politically contentious ’60s and ’70s, when political art enjoyed a powerful resurgence as this book persuasively reveals, many traditional art historians continued to look with disfavor, and sometimes even hostility, toward those artists and the scholars and writers who treated their works sympathetically.

Throughout the long time frame of his volume, McCarthy demonstrates the powerful persistence of the anti-war vision in American art. He also sets the tone with an effective historical context for this tradition. Adding to the seminal contributions of Goya and Picasso, he also notes the efforts of Jacques Callot’s 1633 dramatic series titled “Miseries and Misfortunes of War,” as well as trenchant efforts by Pieter Bruegel, Honoré Daumier, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, and Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, among others. Virtually all the American artists represented in this book have been well acquainted with these iconic figures and most have been eager to acknowledge their moral and thematic influence. 

This broad historical perspective is especially useful for readers who seek a deeper understanding that goes beyond the topicality of specific horrors, including murderous Nazi violence and torture, the problematic atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, the barbarous use of napalm and the grotesque My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and the infamous torture at Abu Ghraib prison by American military personnel during the second Iraq War. As horrific as these were, they are all too common in human history, differing only in scale and the occasional use of more lethal technology. 

Artists of conscience, and some of the finest visual artists in the country, have always responded angrily and passionately to these kinds of events, seeking to persuade their audiences that governments and human beings need to be held to higher standards of conduct and decency. Some of McCarthy’s early examples are painter and printmaker William Gropper and sculptor David Smith, whose works powerfully condemned fascist violence and aggression during World War II. McCarthy pays close attention to the visual details in Smith’s “Medals for Dishonor” bronzes, and this examination, combined with McCarthy’s insightful use of Freud’s theories as they apply to visual analysis, constitutes a major contribution to the field. Professor McCarthy also offers perceptive commentary and examples from other major socially conscious artists of that era such as Philip Evergood and Jacob Lawrence.

In the aftermath of World War II, many American artists turned their attention to the potential annihilation of the human species when the United States and the Soviet Union squared off as nuclear powers during the early Cold War era. Such political art luminaries as Hugo Gellert, Rockwell Kent and Anton Refregier are well represented in McCarthy’s text. These are especially notable inclusions, because these men have been conspicuously missing in most standard art historical accounts. Their leftist beliefs and associations made them casualties of Cold War hysteria. Their continued absence from cultural history has contributed to the disgraceful historical amnesia that afflicts American education and scholarship.

The most significant inclusion in this section of the book is the author’s highly favorable account of Ben Shahn’s series entitled “The Lucky Dragon.” Shahn, one of the premier political artists in American art history, produced several paintings and drawings about Japanese fishermen who suffered radiation poisoning after American hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean in March 1954. McCarthy also addresses Shahn’s other anti-nuclear artworks, as well as those of additional key political artists of the era, including Leonard Baskin, Leon Golub, Rico Lebrun, Edward Kienholz, Bruce Conner and H.C. Westermann.

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