So, You Say You Want a Revolution
Human history is one of violence and revolutionary reaction. It’s true, our history is filled with injustice, wrongdoing, and downright evil. But, our history is just as rich in those who stood up and spoke out, demanding better. Take this current time that we are living in, right now, today. With the rise in authoritarianism around the world, anti-voting laws, record inequality, the denial of science and encouragement of voluntary ignorance, racism, and even book banning, we are seeing things in our collective history that have already happened. It’s nothing new. And, when these ugly parts of humanity arose, those who fought against it also rose and spoke out.
Nazism and the Holocaust exterminated well over seven million people including Jews, people with special needs ( both mentally and physically), members of the LGBTQ community, ethnic minorities, and anyone else deemed inferior or imperfect according to the nazi ideology. They also murdered or imprisoned those who spoke against them, including journalists, musicians, and artists. The nazi aesthetic of what constituted art was limited, to say the least, preferring more ‘traditional’ classical art styles, especially those that extolled racial purity and other conservative ideals such as masculine virtue and military might. The nazi aesthetic also included grotesque caricatures of Jewish people based on racial stereotypes. The nazis labeled the modern art movements of the time as ‘Degenerate Art.”
Antifascist John Heartfield is well known as the father of the photomontage. Heartfield used his photomontages including the works Don’t worry, He’s a vegetarian, and Blood and Iron to raise awareness and decry the growing fascism that he observed in his nation. His friend and fellow artist, George Grosz, as well as multiple other artists, used their art to warn of the dangers that fascism presented as well as expose its brutality. This was incredibly brave, as in speaking out this way, these artists put their lives in grave danger. They were subject to harassment and violence, forcing Heartfield and Grosz to escape to non-fascist nations like the United States. Other artists, like the Surrealist Felix Nussbaum, were murdered in the Nazi death camps. Regardless of whether they were able to escape the nazis or not, these artists expressed their fears and horror during one of the darkest periods in the world. Their art which has survived long after the defeat of the nazis, serves as a historical record, not only of what was happening during that time but also of the experiences, perceptions, and emotions that resulted from their persecution. It also tells us that those who were persecuted fought back however they could. When we look at this art, we are looking at history.
By now, it is fairly common knowledge that the nazis drew a great deal of inspiration from the Antebellum South and the Jim Crow years that followed the failure of reconstruction. That is why so many of the Gestapo tactics used against Jews often mirrored the treatment that Black Americans received during enslavement and the period known as Jim Crow which began in the late 19th century and lasted (legally) until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Jim Crow laws limited black movement, employment, and general civil rights (including voting,) and were brutally enforced through terrorism, formally by local law enforcement, which in some places was populated by former confederate soldiers, but also informally, by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion (a group similar to the KKK who were the likely murderers of Malcolm X’s father.) Similar to the nazi depictions of Jews, Black Americans were depicted as gross and dehumanizing caricatures. To be black in that period meant to live in fear. Lynching was the murder of a person (or people) by a mob who claimed the accused had broken a law (evidence was arbitrary.) The ‘crimes’ that lynching victims were accused of could range from driving in the wrong place after dark, to not ‘showing proper respect’ to a white person. It did not matter if the accused person knew the ‘laws’ of an area or not (they could differ from county to country,) nor did it matter the age—Emmet Till was only fourteen years old when he was brutally murdered. At the dawn of the twentieth century, lynchings were attended by large groups who often counted among their numbers local politicians, business owners, and even children. Professional photos were taken of these events and the victim and were sold as postcards. Body parts were often sold as well. If a lynchingtook place on a Sunday, attendees could be seen dressed in their church clothes because they had just attended Sunday worship.
Artists during Jim Crow fought back in a variety of ways, including using their artwork to depict black life at the time. These artists did this in two ways. In response to the dehumanization of people who looked like them, they re-humanized their subjects. They depicted black people as dignified and beautiful, dancing and joyful, defiant and powerful. At the same time, they also addressed the atrocities being inflicted upon them in honest and painful depictions such as Dox Thrasher’s contemplative After the Lynching and Harry Sternberg’s traumatic Southern Holiday. In addition to bringing to light the injustices of the Jim Crow period, these artists also created a historical record, much like the antifascist artists addressing nazism. This historical record included visual art as well as music, including the song Strange Fruit, overtly discussing lynchings in the South. While those years are past, the art and music are still available for anyone to see and hear.
Looking at the art of artists who endured such atrocities can give us more than informed historical knowledge. It can also give us a measure of comfort, in knowing that they rose, spoke up, and demanded better. It can give those who value inclusivity, diversity, and the good progress that has been made, the incentive to keep fighting for those values and to create more revolutionary art. And that is just what they are doing.