Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw: So much of visual arts production arises out of moments of military and political conflict. You have huge bodies of painting and public sculpture and popular press images, broadsides that were posted on walls. So much of the importance during those political moments was translated into visual imagery. Because the images themselves can often be more persuasive, especially if they are supposedly created around some true moment if they are supposed to be eyewitness scenes, they can convey much more than words alone.
The importance of the visual, the power of the visual, the power of it to change the ways that people think is a way to express dissent.
Segment Title: The Concerned Photographer
Melissa Harris: You have Koudelka, the thirty-year-old photographer at the time, who had never done any kind of photojournalism or documented any kind of news event. I think his girlfriend called him and said, “You know they say the Soviets are going to invade.” This is one week of work. That’s it. It’s just one week and that he got this is absolutely exceptional.
He was there as a Czechoslovakian. He was photographing, but where he is most impassioned is about what was going on with Czechoslovakia and this incredible moment of resistance and courage.
When you have somebody like Koudelka doing this, or you have Philip Jones Griffiths in Vietnam, or you have Gilles Peress in Rwanda, or Paolo Pellegrin in Lebanon or Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua, on the one hand you are talking about the evidentiary value of photography, so that whole sort of concept of bearing witness. The photographer is there, it’s happening in real time and space, and then it becomes evidence in some way. But still, the best of those photographs have a metaphorical value as well. That’s why they stay with you. We see evidence all the time, but those images that stay with you are the ones that sort of become transcendent. I don’t mean they become spiritual, I just mean that they somehow encompass all of this other kind of the weight of the history of all of this emotion and everything that has happened and the idea that somebody dies for something they believe in, or kills for something they believe in, and the savagery that we are capable of.
To be so intimate in the face of conflict and to be that close and have that immediate visceral gut response is extraordinary. Joseph’s signature image from this body of work to many people would be the image of the watch, which operates on a very metaphorical level and, in fact, doesn’t show conflict outside of the context. But you can go into this in many, many different kinds of directions. You can talk about war, you can talk about aggression, you can talk about conflict, you can talk about resistance, you can talk about courage, you can talk about gesture and facial expression. And you can talk about photography.
Segment Title: Perspectives on War
Christine Giviskos: Beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, one of the big sort of changes that sort of signals the modern era is that artists are more willing to put very recent events into major paintings.
John Elderfield: Rilke, who was very deeply interested in painting. said once that what great artists do is put themselves in danger. And they put themselves in danger by carrying things through to their conclusion. Manet said once that you just have to dive in, it’s like you are diving into a river and you see what happens. And you know, I think that is what he did. And there was, I think, this quality in his work from the beginning of the1860s to be provocative.
All that said, with the Maximilian, obviously it’s a very different kind of subject to what he’s usually dealing with. Maximilian has been shot, and more news comes through about actually the truly horrible manner in which he did die, and the fact that the squad was inept and didn’t manage to kill him.
Manet’s response and, which is what’s so amazing, I guess it’s his modernism as well, it isn’t to increase the temperature of the paintings, but it’s to turn it down and down and down until it’s really cold.
He was criticized generally for being overly cool in terms of his relationship to his subject matter, but I think that the result of it is actually more powerful than overly expressed emotion.
When you look at what battle pictures were of that time, they’re heroic and they’re not particularly shocking in the way in which this seems to be shocking. It’s interesting to see him working through this whole thing, smoke everywhere and people are beginning to fall, and so it seems in a kind of sense looking back to the Third of May, the Goya prototype. Manet doesn’t give you things which are horrible in the way in which Goya would do.
Susan Galassi: By 1789 Goya was appointed painter to the king. He retained that position until the end of his life. But he nevertheless tread a very fine line. Goya, of course. had mastered traditional portraiture, but he wasn’t content with that.
Christine Giviskos: Goya created his print series The Disasters of War in direct response to the serious warfare taking place in Spain following the invasion of Napoleon’s troops in 1808. The essential theme is man’s inhumanity to man in times of war. There’s nothing heroic about war in these prints.
Susan Galassi: When Picasso painted Guernica, he had to refer to Goya because Goya had made the greatest statements condemning war that had ever been made. In Guernica there are no victors, and that was a way of depicting war that began with Goya where there were no victors.
John Elderfield: Modernism has largely been about personal imperatives. It’s the rare artist who’s willing to take this on and understand that political subjects can be dealt with in this sort of way. Guernica, although obviously more modern chronologically and typologically, in terms of the actual approach it’s more traditional than the Manet because it uses old-fashioned allegory—you know, the dying horse, the light bulb, and so on—to actually transmit its message.
Segment Title: Caricature
Christine Giviskos: Social commentary is attractive to artists because of the variety and the opportunity to really tell a story, send a message, and to do it in an inventive way.
Steven Heller: The use of caricature historically was to break the strictures of academic and official art. But early caricature was really just taking the world and saying, “Okay we’re not going to romanticize it anymore, we are going to draw what we see, warts and all.” So that evolved into a form of commentary and a form of satire and it hit England, it hit France, anyplace that had a working press where you could either run off etchings or lithographs or a publication.
Steven Brodner: Caricature is a subcategory of illustration in which you are using the elements of the face to do those same things that you are using in general illustration to do. You are using eyes, a nose, a mouth, teeth, ears, wrinkles, waddles, hair, lack of hair, all these things as elements in storytelling. People with power need to be watched. They need to be watched very carefully because it corrupts them. Power corrupts. You have to keep your eyes on them.
Steven Heller: When Daumier and Rowlandson and Gillray and Cruikshank were producing their caricatures, they were making very strident critiques of society. They were being the tricksters of their day. And instead of doing it through fable, they did it through visual.
Christine Giviskos: Honore Daumier established his career with the lithographs that he made criticizing, satirizing, caricaturing the government of Louis Philippe.
Luis Philippe ascended to the throne in 1830. He really wanted to be a monarch in the old style. And Daumier was hired by a publisher named Charles Filipont who was extremely anti-royalist.
And his charge to the artists working for his newspapers was to keep the pressure on Louis Philippe and the legislature. Their constant criticism built up to eventually topple Louis Philippe’s government.
Segment Title: Art of the State
Steven Heller: In Soviet art, they were creating a new language that came about on the crest of the revolution. It wasn’t that the new language was instigated by the revolution, it was on the occasion of the revolution. It was tolerated by the revolution until it was no longer tolerated.
Jane Ashton Sharp: The pre-revolutionary avant garde experienced a tremendous sense of resistance to the Czarist state in the last years of the Russian empire. So that when the revolution occurs, many of these artists are thrilled, elated, and view it as their mission to really join forces. A kind of unity of leftist, political fervor, together with artists who had resisted all institutions of power prior to the revolution. It’s really the period I would say between 1917 and 1921. So there’s this shift from political opposition to supporting the state. It was primarily through the distribution of graphic images, posters, that are mass distributed, but also on what were called agitprop trains. And so this is a huge phenomenon, the sending of cars that were painted themselves like posters for a population that is largely illiterate, so the visual is tremendously significant.
Sylvia Wolf: If you think about the fact the images could be broadly disseminated, and images were being made in higher numbers and higher volume under different circumstances. I go back to the advent of the half-tone printing process, when for the first time visual images could be reproduced and newspapers could be disseminated with pictures.
Jane Ashton Sharp: In the late twenties you see this encroaching of state interference, so there’s discussion of “heroising” the worker, representing scenes of labor, representing the formation of Soviet power in its revolutionary development. What’s understood, however, is that art has to be realistic, based on the traditions of the Wanderers group, founded in 1870. Socialist Realism is the style. By the time it cycled through various art academies in China as well as in Cuba, people do know, they at least have models for what art should look like.
Melissa Chiu: Posters from the Cultural Revolution served a very important educational role. That when, in fact, we think about the Cultural Revolution, which spanned from 1966 to ’76, we think immediately of posters. In a time when China was really going through great political turmoil and change, it sought to modernize itself by destroying anything that resembled tradition. And posters became a part of that. They disseminated in a very quick way, political messages, but also the types of images that were deemed revolutionary in their time. What most people don’t realize is that the posters were actually based on large-scale oil paintings, many of them dealing with historical subjects or validating Mao’s role in the revolution, or even talking about the life of workers or peasants who were the heroic figures. Some of the oil paintings, such as Liu Chunhua’s Mao goes to Anyuan, were reproduced nearly a billion times. And so you had, I think, more than any other country and any other period in time, really wide dissemination of visual culture. There was not a person living in China during this period that did not know this painting.
Segment Title: Iconoclasm
Freyda Spira: The Reformation was a movement that came in waves. In the early sixteenth century Martin Luther really picked up the mantle of the Reformation in terms of cleansing the church of all its luxuries, of all its debauchery, of all the things that it was getting away with that it probably shouldn’t have been doing. The Reformation really used imagery to not only celebrate their own movement, but also to tear down the power of the church. It did that through circulating broad sheets and prints with imagery that showed the corruption in the church and did it in sort of ironic and fun ways so that it could be understood by the masses. It also created images with text so that there could be several levels of understanding in society of what was going on with papal authority. And iconoclasm was really another way for the Reformation to assert its own power. Iconoclasm is the destruction of images which usually have a political or religious leader, and the image is usually endowed with some kind of mediating power. The fear is that people will begin to worship the image. And so images needed to be cleansed from the churches and from religious worship. Most of the iconoclasm during the Reformation was happening in southwest Germany and in Switzerland. In some cases literally crowds or masses came into churches with axes and pitch forks and destroyed the images with their hands. Most of them were white-washed and the images that were really incredibly important to certain societies or villages were kept and they were just covered over so that the power of those images were negated from the ritual of the church.
Iconoclasm is something that happens all over the world in all cultures, for various reasons. We see it everywhere.
Tarek Kahlaoui: The emphasis on the idea of uniqueness of God is a central theme in the Islamic discourse from the beginning. The Prophet Mohammad was never seen as a godly figure. The Muslims decided to emphasize mainly an artistic discourse, a visual discourse, that marginalizes images because they were afraid that images may be used in a religious context to be venerated.
In the beginning of the formation of the Islamic empire was the Umayyad Dynasty, which was the first dynasty in Islamic history. We have an instance in Upper Egypt when an Umayyad prince, while visiting a Christian Coptic church, he saw the mural painting, or mosaic of the Virgin and the child and he was unpleased about that. But not because it was an image, he was unpleased because he saw that this is an example of Christians venerating Jesus, and this was a highly doctrinal issue for Muslims, and one of the major conflicts between Islam and Christianity.
Freyda Spira: With iconoclasm the images are at the center of the conflict and they become the main vehicle for expressing power or resistance.
One of the best known examples in our day and age of iconoclasm is the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Tarek Kahlaoui: This is not simply a religious reading towards these Buddhas. This was part of a whole discourse from Taliban that includes also a rejection of Western European domination of Afghanistan. This was not a debate about what’s cultural and what’s religious. This was the whole package including the definition of the Buddhas. The power of the act of iconoclasm has its own way of projecting power.
And the Taliban was very aware of that process and that’s why they invited foreign journalists to cover the whole thing. Because they knew that this was something to be viewed. So here they used images to empower their iconoclastic act. So the act of desecration, viewable for later generations, is something that is an essential part of iconoclasm.
Segment Title: Race, Gender, and Sexual Politics
Lalla Essaydi: Coming from Morocco, when I started working in the beginning my investigation was really with Orientalist paintings. I wanted to use the female body to change that perspective in a sense and also to just show how Orientalist painting is still really a fantasy of the West.
I think that the writing was always present in my work. In my culture we don’t have that separation between image and the text that you find in the West. I just wanted the words themselves to become part of the skin of the women when they wear it.
The idea of calligraphy when I was growing up, it wasn’t really accessible to me at school. It’s a male art and the henna is a craft decorating the hands and the feet, so I wanted to merge this male art with female craft. The text is really my diary, and it’s the story of these women. The women became the pages, the chapters.
My work, sometimes it’s open to interpretation and you can see also how it deals with the veil and the time where they start using the veil, and when I talk about this, I’m really using the veil as a symbol, and also just to emphasize the stereotype that people always associate the veil and oppression and how women are submissive. And so I play with that in the sense that I seem to cater to that. People are drawn into the work, but in Morocco really women don’t veil any longer, specifically my generation. And that’s where you see a lot of fragmentation in my work as well.
Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw: The interest in very dark moments in our pasts is a desire to understand what these image worlds meant and how can we continue to deal with those legacies. You know, what are the ways that artists can engage them?
William Blake’s illustrations for John Gabriel Stedmund’s diary of his campaign against the Maroons in Surinam from the late seventeen hundreds, these were very popular images during their day. And these were images which were criticized in abolitionist circles, which were used to demonstrate the inhumanity of enslavement, but they’re also images which provided a certain type of prurient access to black bodies. And this is something that I think has received a lot of kind of visual criticism in the work of somebody like Kara Walker. She was somebody who was looking at the historical images from the eighteenth and nineteenth century from Europe, from the United States, referencing that earlier period through the medium that she is using.
It has a sense of the past, it has a flavor and kind of a smell of old rooms and old spaces and dramas played out and witnessed in the shadows or behind a curtain. And I think that’s one of the things about her work that is so disturbing to people, because it is about projection of your own issues in many ways colliding, of course, with her issues.
With Walker’s work, when she first came on the scene in the middle nineties, she was working with a medium—the cut paper silhouette—which had not been utilized by contemporary artists in any significant way. So her choice of material was very novel.
It really is about the power of that blackness, this kind of black hole into which everything can fall and can be absorbed and contained. This is a direct sexual reference to, you know, black women’s bodies, and the penetrability of them in racist, sexist discourse of the nineteenth and the twentieth century. By working with racist imagery and also by standing on its head the kind of myths of slavery, Kara’s work resists that desire to homogenize the past. She wants to go against these received histories and say, “There are many possible ways to look at this.”
How do we resist, the pull of these very visceral, and affecting images? How do we resist, the desire to be a voyeur, a witness to somebody else’s pain, to somebody else’s suffering, how do we do that from our safe spots? What does it mean for us to not be able to pull ourselves away?