Home Magazine Art as Activism: discover 20 political artists

“Use art to turn the world inside out”, as JR - the artivist always hidden behind his sunglasses -  says. For his “little kid” in Mexico, there are no walls and borders, as well as for the political artist Banksy (read more on Kooness). The Félix González-Torres’ 179 pounds of candies have definitely changed the world. As the gay community, diagnosed with HIV/Aids, dissolved in the 1980s, society deliberately ignored the existence of this epidemic, because it concerned the outcasts of society. By putting free candies in a museum, González-Torres gave a future memory to all the shadows of HIV/AIDS health crisis.

Related articles: 21 Most Revolutionary Paintings - Controversial Art in Art History - Public art by Alfredo Jaar

Today, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on cinema is witnessed by the latest documentary Coronation of the world famous Ai Weiweiin, who openly critic the Chinese state’s control and censorship. Agnes Denes' site-specific performance pieces, with ecological concerns, take art into new, unforeseen areas. In "a time where we need to trust each other”, Yoko Ono’s destructive Cut Piece seems appropriate. Jacob Lawrencepainted a radical, epic history of the Afro-American’s everyday struggle. Many media artist David Wojnarowiczfought relentlessly for equality and prejudice all his life. "I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are and who we aren’t”, feminist post-modern artist Barbara Krugersays about her protest art and the world of appearances. A singular position in the art world is hold by Adrian Piper - the most important conceptual artist of our time - who shows the ways in which racism, sexism, gender are intertwined. Outsider artist Paul Chan’s new visual language on despotism, democracy, poetry, justice, and the fetish continue to provoke.

Are, out there, Social political artists still bombing female stereotypes? Sure; The Guerrilla Girls with their bold protest and punking art. And who is the icon of social political artists? The Fluxus genius and “shaman” Joseph Beuys. Listen to his politically- charged recording "Sun Instead of Reagan!" (1982), in response to the planned stationing of nuclear missiles in Germany. American Martha Rosleris an “artist making activist work, or political work” around a plethora of social and political idea, from civil rights, to anti-war efforts, to women's rights. Through the idea of labyrinthine structures, Brazilian installation artist Cildo Meirelesbypassed national, pervasive censorship, becoming involved in political art. Philip Guston, the “abstract painter who return to figuration to confront racism”, still provoke fear, furor, passion and, in 2020, is alas directly censored.David Hammons shows us what it meant to be a black artist in the sixtiesin America. Adventurous Photographer Margaret Bourke-Whitehas always been at the right place at the right time to immortalize legendary days of the World past Century’s history. Original counter narratives, politically based, by African-American artist Faith Ringgold, call basic racial issues in America into question.

What about political artists in 2020? For Derrick Adamsand Hank Willis Thomas, “black imagination is the future”We can’t imagine life without art, and, of course, political artists.

1. JR (b. 1983)

The French “photograffeur” (a blend of of "photographer" and "graffeur"—French for “graffiti artist") JR - 2011 TED Prize Winner - combines pervasive art and socio-politicalaction,large black-and-white photographic portraits in public spaces. Asan "urban artivist”, he works closely with the community of the Parisian banlieues, on the walls of the Middle East, or in the favelas of Brazil.


JR visits his 2017installationin Tecate, Mexico. Credit John Francis Peters for The New York Times.


2. Félix González-Torres(1957-1996)

Cuban-born American visual artist Félix González-Torres was known for his minimal installations, addressed to cultural, gay activism, in which he used lightbulbs expiring, piles of candies as metaphor for the process of dying and regeneration. His 1991 most recognizable piece Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) is a sculpture of love and loss in times of AIDS.


Félix González-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, 175lb of candies, © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.


3. Ai WeiWei (b. 1957)

Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei encapsulateshis political conviction and personal poetry in videos, sculptures and public works. After smashing China’s traditions with 100 million porcelainSunflowers Seedsat Tate Modern, in 2020, Wei Wei directed - remotely from Europe - the documentary Coronation, a look at life under lockdown in Wuhan through the lens of Chinese government’s control.


Ai WeiWei, Sunflowers Seeds, 2010, ceramic sunflower seeds, display dimensions variable, © Tate Collection, © Ai Weiwei.

4. Agnes Denes (b. 1931)

The iconic Land Art work Wheatfield—A Confrontation(1982) - a two-acre field of golden, healthy wheat in downtown Manhattan, maintained for four months - by Hungary-American “visual philosopher” Agnes Denes is a sculpture of the mind with exquisite formal execution. Testing the limits of art with provocative questions, Denes communicates with the earth and the future.


Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982, Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, photo: John McGrall, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.


5. Yoko Ono (b. 1933)

Confronting issues of destruction, alienation and human relations, the pioneer ofconceptual art Yoko Ono created, in 1964, the seminal performance work Cut Piece, inviting the audience to join her on stage and cut pieces of her clothing off. Ono, motionless, unveiled the intimate, sadist gendered relationships between male and female, victim and assailant, sadist and masochist. 


Yoko Ono, «Cut Piece», 1965, Courtesy: The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, Detroit, Photograph: George Maciunas, © Yoko Ono.

6. Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)

One of the best-known 20th Century African-American painters, Jacob Lawrence received national recognition for his original, vivid narratives of historical diaspora, such as The Migration Series(1940-41), a social document of black Americans when they moved from the rural South to the urban North. Between 1954 and 1956, Lawrence explored the significance of the struggle in American history. 


Jacob Lawrence, Struggle…From the History of the American People, “No. 5: We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!– Petition of Many Slaves, 1773,”1955 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle | Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | Courtesy The Phillips Collection.


7. David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) 

Polish-American painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter David Wojnarowicz incorporated personal narratives, influenced by both his struggle with AIDS as well as his political activism, in his visceral, iconoclastic art. One of Wojnarowicz’s bestsellers, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, is a piping autobiographyabout his homeless years and his struggle to become a renowned artist.



David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84. Acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6 cm). Collection of Brooke Garber Neidich and Daniel Neidich, Photograph by Ron Amstutz.


8. Barbara Kruger (b. 1945)

I shop therefore I am(1987), You Are Not Yourself (1981) are famous assertive slogans that overlaid black-and-white found photographs by feminist Picture Generation artist Barbara Kruger. Addressing cultural constructions of power, gender, identity, and sexuality, Kruger’s Your body is a battleground (1985) supported the legal abortion during the 1989 Women’s March on Washington.


Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1985, photographic silkscreen on vinyl 112 x 112 in. (284.48 x 284.48 cm), © Barbara Kruger.


9. Adrian Piper (b. 1948)

African-American artist and philosopher Adrian Piper "profoundly influenced the language and form of Conceptual art”. Awarded in 2015 The Golden Lion for best artist at Venice Biennale, Piper wants her artwork to help people confront their racist views and ostracism. Many of her works directly incorporate eastern yogic traditions of Hindu philosophy, like the Color Wheel Series(2000)


Adrian Piper’s “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features,” 1981, pencil drawing, The Eileen Harris Norton Collection, via Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.


10. Paul Chan (b. 1973)

The multimedia projects Waiting for Godot in New Orleansand 7 Lightsby American artist, writer and publisher - 2014 Hugo Boss Prize winner - Paul Chan confront topics including geopolitics, globalization, and new media.Influenced by Samuel Beckett, Theodor W. Adorno and Marquis de Sade, Chan run on two separatetrackshis art and his political work, with several activist movements. 


Paul Chan Installation view from the exhibition Paul Chan: The 7 Lights, Serpentine Gallery, London (15 May - 1 July 2007) Photograph © 2007 Sylvain Deleu.


11. The Guerrila Girls (b. 1985)

“Reinventing the "F" word: feminism!” is the motto of The Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group offemale artists, formed in New York City in 1985, with the mission offighting sexism, racism, gender inequality, and tokenism within the art world community. Their anonymity in public appearance

isprotected bygorilla masks and their provocative campaign postersexpress concernsand ideals regarding numerous social topics.


Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, 1989, Poster. Benton Museum purchase 2016.


12. Joseph Beuys (1921-1986)

German Joseph Beuys - one of the most influential“shaman”artists of the 20th century- actively participated in shaping society and politics through open public debates, performances, alchemical pedagogy and his idea of social sculptures as a “total artwork”. The pioneer of a radical ecology, in 1987, at the Documenta 7, planted 7000 oak plants with the goal of enduringly altering Kassel's cityscape.


Joseph Beuys,7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks), 1982–1987, Documenta 7, Kassel, Germany. 


13. Martha Rosler (b. 1943)

American artist Martha Rosler's work and writing have been widely influential.Her photomontage and photo-text, as well as video, sculpture, and installationare centered onwomeneveryday life and the public sphere, the mediaand war,architecture and the socialenvironment. Her “revolution in art” is the darkly humorousvideo Semiotics of the Kitchen(1974/75), meant tosubvert andchallengemyths andsocial expectations.


Martha Rosler,Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, video still, © the artist.


14. Cildo Meireles (b. 1948)

In the early 1970s, Brazilian conceptual artist and sculptor Cildo Meirelesdeveloped a political art, subversive but subtle, tame and ironic,that aimed to reach a wide audience while avoiding censorship. Based on the notion of an excess of obstacles and prohibitionsis the labyrinthine structureThrough(1983-89), a dense installation of broken plate glass which encourage the viewer’sphenomenological experience.


Cildo Meireles, Através (Through), 1983-1989. Installation view at Fondazione HangarBicocca, 2014. Photo Agostino Osio. Courtesy Fondazione HangarBicocca, Milan; Cildo Meireles


15. Philip Guston (1913-1980)

The antifascist frescoThe Struggle Against Terror(1935) by Canadian American painterand muralist Philip Guston is the epitome of his first activism. One of the "most important, powerful, and influential American artistof the last 100 years.” - in his Neo-expressionist work (like the cartoonish Klansmen) - often critics antisemitism, fascism,American identity,and the banality of evil. 


Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969, Oil on canvas, 71 × 73 3/10 in, 180.3 × 186.1 cm, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, © the artist.


16. David Hammons (b. 1943)

David Hammons has become a renowned artist for his Body Prints, one of the first artworks he madein the 1960s. By greasing hisown bodyand pressingit on the paper, Hammons reflects his commitment to blackness, Civil Rights and Black Power movement. The painting Black First, America Second(1970), where hewrapped himselfinto the American flag, is a living metaphor.


David Hammons, Black First, America Second, 1970. Body print and screenprint on paper, © the artist.


17. Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

Margaret Bourke-White: the first American female photojournalistfor Life Magazine in 1936, the first female war correspondent, the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of Soviet Industry. Her iconicphotograph ofblack floodvictims standing in front of the sign:"World's Highest Standard of Living", showing a white family, and of M. K. Gandhi at his spinning wheel, are rare and astonishing political evidence.


Margaret Bourke-White, At the Time of the Louisville Flood, 1937, Gelatin silver print, 9 3/4 × 13 1/8" (24.7 × 33.4 cm), © 2020 Estate of Margaret Bourke-White/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.


18. Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)

Being a feminist and anti-racistactivist, artist, and educatorsince the 1970s, Faith Ringgoldproduced quilts, picturebooks, sculptures and performance art as a relevant critique of racist America. The American People Seriesarousedfrom the turbulent atmosphere around her- like theviolentriots that were erupting around the country- and illustrate social-raceinteractions from a female perspective.


Faith Ringgold,American People Series #20: Die, 1967, Oil on canvas, two panels, 72 × 144" (182.9 × 365.8 cm), Acquired through the generosity of The Modern Women's Fund,Ronnie F. Heyman, Glenn and Eva Dubin, Lonti Ebers, Michael S.Ovitz, Daniel and Brett Sundheim, and Gary and Karen Winnick, © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art.


19. Derrick Adams (b. 1970)

American visual,performance artist and curatorDerrick Adams’ works -around his black identityand themes ofBlack culture in America - focus on freedom, leisure and a positive vision for the future. Adams uses his exhibitions, such as “The Negro Motorist Green Book”, to highlightand celebratethe productive power of Black people to imagine and innovate through difficult circumstances.


Derrick Adams, Floater No. 19, 2016, Work on Paper, Acrylic paint & collage on paper, 127.0 x 127.0 (cm) 50.0 x 50.0 (inch), © Rhona Hoffman Gallery.


20. Hank Willis  Thomas (b. 1976)

American photo conceptual artistHank Willis Thomas's work focuses on framing,contextand the interpretation of reality.ACelebration ofhumanity, Africana Culture, and the African-American male bodyrepresented in visual culture. Thomas' devotion to reframing perspectives on difficult issues central to American historyemerges from Love Over Rules, AllPower to All People, and “All Things Being Equal”.


Hank Willis Thomas, All Power to All People, 2018, Produced by Marsha Reid, fabricated by Jeff Schomberg. Presented by The Africa Center and Kindred Arts Inc. in partnership with the New York City Department of Transportation’s Art Program.


Cover image: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1985, photographic silkscreen on vinyl 112 x 112 in. (284.48 x 284.48 cm), © Barbara Kruger.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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