Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Art for a Cause

The work of New York artist, Keith Haring. Can you decipher his imagery to detect the causes he promoted?
Not necessarily.
As a writer, virtually every word I produce has as its ultimate goal to inform the reader and perhaps changed his or her perceptions of, in my case, art. That's likely true of every writer, even those producing fiction, as we expose others to new ways of thinking and try to influence what they think as well. Although writing is a demanding skill, it in no way matches the skill set needed to accomplish similar results using drawn or painted images. I've frequently noted that such endeavors have long since been surpassed by media much more efficient in that realm--motion pictures, TV, and other forms of digital imaging. In the past, painting was so laborious and time-consuming that any attempt to influence how people thought; what they thought; and how they believed took second place behind simply decorating walls and entertaining art buyers. Only religious works made much of any impact on the causes artists and their clients sought to change.

Haring art sells for around $500,000 to $1 million per painting. An AIDS victim, Haring died in 1990.
Does ambiguous imagery
help or hurt the cause?
If the old, trite expression, "a picture is worth a thousand words" is still valid, then it's also safe to say that producing really effective imagery of equal impact is likewise a thousand times more difficult. When artist have a visual message they wish to render in promoting a cause, their efforts fall into three categories, (1) the Anti-cause, hoping to stop some present day social activity they find abhorrent. (2) Pro-cause, seeking to en-courage some positive human endeavor not cur-rently common, or (3) maintaining some current social activity they find valuable for our well-being. Perhaps one of the most prolific artists in this regard was the American painter, Keith Haring. Despite the simplicity of his images (top) his iconic figures nonetheless caused people to "think," if for no other reason than to figure out what he was trying to say--a simple style with difficult mes-sages. His work continues to influence painters with a message from fifth graders (right) to pro-fessional illustrators today, more than a quarter-century after his death.

Even with a healthy dose of dry humor, the artist's cause is likely to offend those at whom the message is aimed.
Ricardo Levins Morales doesn't think of himself as an artist so much as he does a healer. He considers his work to be "medicinal," full of nutrients and antibodies. For more than four decades, Morales has produced art that speaks to the environment, workers' rights and racial equity (below). David Nicholson, executive director of Headwaters Foundation for Justice, said, "It's hard to overstate the importance of Morales' work. There's a reason Martin Luther King said "I have a dream" and not "I have a plan," he said. "The importance of art in social justice movements is that it captures people's imagination. His images invoke a sense of what's possible and help to represent the struggles that people are in." Morales' work is haunting, moving, inspiring images, much of which features people of color. In one poster, a black schoolteacher writes, "We Can Do It." on a chalkboard (below). Many posters include inspirational quotes. Morales adds, "For some communities, the thing that they've forgotten is that they're beautiful and they're capable. Just that very simple, basic thing. So I hold up a mirror that filters out all the toxic messages, and they see that in my art, and I think that's what draws people in. People more than anything hunger to be seen and recognized."

Morales was born into an activist farming family in Puerto Rico. He later moved to Minneapolis and shortly thereafter co-founded the Northland Poster Collective.
Under most circumstances and by most definitions, the artist who goes by the name, Hari, would probably be considered an amateur. Like most artists, Hari’s objective is to create a works that appeal to art lovers and buyers. An ongoing show (below) of paintings by Hari aspires to create abundant funds which will be donated for supporting the infrastructure and basic amenities for a visually impaired school. Thus Hari, rather than painting to promote a cause does so simply to help finance the cause in which he so desperately believes. The themes of his mostly figurative paintings combine myriad images picked up from nature, surroundings, mythological tales, human figures, and many more. He prefers to experiment and render in varied styles and not stick to a single genre. Hari explains, “More than establishing any personal connotation, my objective is to create a work that appeals to the art lovers and buyers and contributes to increase the fund accumulation. So I try my best to create multiple styles, subjects and compositions.”

Hari at a recent charity display of his work.
Uniting the colonies.
Down through the centuries as artists with strong messages promoting causes, motifs have changed but motives seldom do. Sometimes the causes are relatively unimportant (even silly), taken in their historic context, much like the thought-provoking visual editorial involving the Tango (below). At other times, the artist with a cause has created such powerful images as the "Join or Die" broadside from the American Revolution era, which seems akin to what we think of as political cartoons today. Whether we agree or disagree with the cartoon's artist, these works, mostly in protest, present important messages by people who care what we think as they try to change or reinforce social and political attitudes.

It takes two to Tango--pro and con.
As seen in the "Join or Die" woodcut, very often artists have espoused revolutionary causes, usually when their military outcomes are unknown. Perhaps one of the greatest revolutions in the history of mankind had little to do with armies and warfare. Today, we refer to it as the Protestant Revolution, and the name is well chosen. Although Martin Luther publicly burned Pope Leo X’s Papal Bull in 1520, Karl Aspelin's early 20th century painting (below) not only recorded protest history but aroused cries of protest from Catholics some four-hundred years after the fact. We have to wonder if that was the artist's "cause." or simply the unanticipated consequences.

Martin Luther Public Burning Pope Leo X’s Papal Bull, 1520, Karl Aspelin.
As the artist paints in protest a cause, whether positive, negative, or neutral, there always runs the risk of being sublimated by the sheer beauty of the artwork. That would seems to be the case with Padmaja M's Laxmi Narayana (below, left) or the "beastly" work of Phillip Danner (below, right). Together they recall the old question: "Which is more important, the message or the medium?"

The work of Padmaja M and Phillip Danner.

Photos have largely replaced illustrations
in today's messaging. Most of us know a
lot about his cause.


No comments:

Post a Comment