Student Ambassadors Program Overview

The Politics of American Art in the Mid-20th Century

20th-century American art exemplifies the repercussions of politics and propaganda which can be read into many art works. From Dorothea Lange’s social criticism in the form of intimate portraits, to Jackson Pollock’s paint splatters becoming symbols of American freedom, to Martha Rosler’s collages literally ‘bringing the war home’, these artists’ works all came to carry the heavy weight of political messages, regardless of whether or not that was their original intention.  

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936 

Portraits of the Great Depression 

Throughout the Depression of the 1930s, Dorothea Lange captured American history through somber portraits of those suffering from staggering economic loss, showing the harsh realities many were facing. Lange’s Migrant Mother, described by the Museum of Modern Art as ‘the most recognizable image from the Great Depression’, epitomizes the uncertainty, strain, and responsibilities shared among individuals during this time. Lange’s photographs focused typically on a sole, individual subject, leading the viewer to form an intimate rapport and care for the person portrayed and, then, often sympathizing with the devastation of their social conditions. While today there is a detachment from the immediate repercussions of the Great Depression, Lange’s portraits are still incredibly emotive and exemplify the power of image. 

Between 1935 and 1944, the Farm Security Administration hired writers and photographers, including Lange, to document the situation farmers faced as a result of the Depression. Led by Roy Stryker, this cultural work was intended to help in reinvigorating President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. Perhaps not anticipated was Lange’s implicit criticism of the faults of capitalism and in turn the former US President Herbert Hoover’s laissez-faire attitude, which directly impacted the prolonged hardships faced by her subjects, who were on the lowest rungs of the capitalist hierarchy. 

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 1950 

Art as a Cultural Weapon  

While lacking the explicit politics of Lange’s photography, Abstract Expressionism nonetheless became political. Rather than criticize US social conditions, instead it was used by many to highlight artistic and cultural freedom in America in the face of totalitarian repression in the Soviet Union. 

Jackson Pollock famously splattered paint on to the canvas, projecting visual traces of physical and psychological movements from within himself. His style and method rejected the restrictions of Realism and instead presented a spontaneous and freeing method of creating. Cultural leaders held up Pollock’s example of creative freedom to symbolize the ‘free world’ and to criticize the Social Realism associated with communism.  

The Abstract Expressionists were not aiming to create patriotic masterpieces, and yet the powers that be tried to turn them into that. Touring exhibitions such as The New American Painting, during the 1950s, were shown across Europe to reiterate to audiences the superiority of U.S. capitalist, anti-communist society. Similarly, the support of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (an anti-communist advocacy group), which was funded and run by the CIA, promoted Abstract Expressionism further with financial and organizational support for travelling exhibitions. 

Abstraction, unrestrained size, liberal paint application, and powerful emotions evoked by color were all used to emphasize the freedom found in American arts and culture, contrasting with the restraints of Soviet Realism, which became associated with strict perspective, limited scale, and accurate color schemes in order to achieve propagandistic realism. 

Martha Rosler, Roadside Ambush from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home
c. 1967-72 More Images

The Television War

Like Lange, Martha Rosler presented compelling images of American realities, but her subjects were less localizzed and looked to the expansion of a global political consciousness. Her collages visualizzed the relationship between 1960s American households and the ongoing Vietnam War.

Rosler materialized the strangeness of the Vietnam War, often referred to as the ‘living-room war’. Her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home drew from the new television revolution of the 1960s, which coincided with nightly news coverage of the Vietnam War, the first war brought into the living rooms of millions of Americans every day.

Roadside Ambush is an extremely jarring image. The living-room scene, taken from a magazine, nods to the consumerist culture of the 1960s and the importance of keeping up with fashion and interior-design trends found in style magazines. In contrast to the idealized American home, Rosler collages a curled-up figure, taken from a photograph of a battlefield, on to the center of the scene, creating a sense of contrast and disjunction.

Rosler’s collages become political as she brings together two contrasting images of a typical American home and the Vietnam War, a commentary on how many Americans consumed both rather passively and responded to each with a kind of numbness. Advertisements showing trends in interior design were shown just as frequently as brutal images of warfare in Vietnam, eventually evoking a desensitization as the initial shock of seeing violence in Vietnam ebbed as the war continued. Through the medium of collage, Rosler reinitiates the initial shock and attention a viewer experiences in seeing violence by placing it in a normalized environment such as a living room, prompting the viewer to think more actively about what they are seeing.

Is All Art Political?

Lange’s and Rosler’s documentary art appears political due to the nature of their realistic and recognizable subjects, but Pollock’s seemingly random, apolitical paint splatters can still carry the hefty ideology of an entire country whether it wants to or not. Politics becomes available in art in many different ways, whether it is intended by the artist or inferred by the viewer. The role of the viewer becomes particularly significant when assessing the politics in art. While Lange’s and Rosler’s works begin with social and implicitly political subjects, it is the viewer who makes the connections, whether consciously or subconsciously, and recognizes how the images relate to a political situation. While not intentionally or even obviously political, the viewer can still read Pollock’s painting with a political bent when thinking more about his method of creation rather than the resultant image.

Written by Caitlin Sahin, part of the third cohort of student ambassadors for The Art Story.

I am currently in my first year at the Courtauld Institute of Art, studying History of Art! I am most interested in Modernism to Contemporary Art and particularly like abstract art. At the moment, I am attempting to learn more about performance and sculptural art.