Carrie Moyer included in the group exhibition Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum, NY.
The Brooklyn Museum's press release follows:
At key moments in history, artists have reached beyond galleries and museums, using their work as a call to action to create political and social change. For the past hundred years, the term agitprop—a combination of the words agitation and propaganda that originated during the Russian Revolution—has directly reflected the intent of such activist art practices. Over the last century, artists across the ideological and global landscape have focused on mediums that can be widely reproduced and disseminated—photography and film, prints and banners, street actions and songs, and now digital videos and social media platforms—to motivate diverse publics.
Reflecting the spirit and range of these activities, this exhibition uniquely connects contemporary and historic moments in creative activism within a dynamic framework. Emerging from a collaborative, experimental process, the exhibition is designed to expand over the course of its run and opens with a first wave of projects selected by the Sackler Center staff. This first round, featuring the work of twenty contemporary artists known for their politically motivated practices, is presented alongside five historical case studies in agitprop that provide a deeper context for the present-day examples. These historical moments from the early twentieth century showcase women as subjects and makers of Soviet propaganda, the cultural campaigns for women’s suffrage and against lynching in America, Tina Modotti’s socialist photographs from Mexico, and the government-sponsored Living Newspaper productions of the Federal Theatre Project.
The contemporary artists from this first presentation each nominated one additional participant to contribute work for a second wave beginning February 17. A third, culminating wave of artists, invited by those in the second wave, is being added on April 6. In this way, the final installation will reflect multiple political and artistic positions, determined by the artists rather than by the institution, while exploring how networks of artists, collectives, and activists sustain and amplify these activities.
Collectively, these contemporary projects address various struggles for social justice since the second half of the twentieth century, from antiwar demonstrations, AIDS activism, and environmental advocacy to multipronged demands for human rights and protests against mass incarceration and economic inequality. In the installation, links between historical and contemporary work emerge, highlighting the intergenerational strategies, ongoing developments, and long-term impact of creative practices on social conditions around the world over the past century.
Agitprop! is organized by the staff of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: Saisha Grayson, Assistant Curator; Catherine Morris, Sackler Family Curator; Stephanie Weissberg, Curatorial Assistant; and Jess Wilcox, Programs Manager.
This exhibition is made possible in part by the Embrey Family Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the FUNd, and the Helene Zucker Seeman Memorial Exhibition Fund.
Soviet Women and Agitprop
Many of the hallmarks of modern propaganda were born out of the Russian Revolution of 1917, in which the imperial Romanov dynasty was overthrown. The Bolsheviks (who later became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) seized authority shortly after the revolution, calling for the transfer of power to the working class, or proletariat. To disseminate their agenda to a largely rural and illiterate nation, the Bolsheviks established a unified visual vocabulary, which they circulated widely through a range of mediums including posters, film, monuments, and theater.
Women played a critical role in defining and broadcasting the Communist cause. While gender equality in labor, education, and suffrage were framed as fundamental to the Bolshevik platform, the lived reality was much more complex. During the early years of Soviet society, increased access to education and resources allowed an unprecedented number of avant-garde female artists to produce art under the banner of Constructivism, a movement that emphasized formal abstraction and design. Yet, despite their elevated station as artists, women were seldom depicted as primary subjects in Soviet political art of the time.
As the Communist Party became increasingly conservative in the 1930s, women were encouraged to direct their efforts away from more prestigious mediums such as oil painting and sculpture, and focus on state-sponsored poster design. These shifts prompted female artists to synthesize their abstract Constructivist training with more widely legible realist figuration, producing a new iconography of the heroic woman worker and comrade that defied traditional notions of femininity.
Tina Modotti in Mexico
Tina Modotti (Italian, 1896–1942) moved to Mexico in 1923 as the apprentice, studio assistant, and romantic companion of the well-known American photographer Edward Weston. Yet, while he treated the country as an artistic subject and left after two extended visits, Modotti became deeply involved with the political and artistic communities of her adopted country.
Her commitment to the Mexican people and the socialist ideals of the Communist Party greatly influenced her photography—both in her subject matter and in the distribution of the work. Whereas her earlier modernist still lifes were primarily targeted to art audiences and collectors, the photographs she took from 1926 to 1930 of poverty, workers reading and marching, and revolutionary symbols and leaders had an important life as widely reproducible images.
Her pictures circulated the globe through international socialist publications and El Machete, the official Communist paper in Mexico City, for which Modotti was a contributing editor, translator, and photographer. The broad appeal and legibility of Modotti’s recurring photographic themes were conducive to building international solidarity among dispersed activists fighting economic and colonial exploitation.
Women's Suffrage in the United States
From the start of the twentieth century until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women from across the United States organized a strategic crusade to attain the right to vote. Suffragists embarked on a cross-country campaign, circulating their message through wheat-pasted posters, colorful banners decorating their vehicles, and publications.
The ideological battle over suffrage was fought, on both sides, primarily through depictions of women in news photographs, cartoons, posters, postcards, and other memorabilia. Opposition groups that aimed to confine women’s influence to the domestic realm disseminated images of suffragists as childish, impatient, and overbearing. Suffragists portrayed themselves as dignified, elegant, and intelligent women, often engaging in cooperative and caretaking activities, or as embodiments of classical virtues, draped in Grecian garments.
NAACP's Anti-Lynching Campaign
It is now believed that as many as four thousand African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. When the NAACP was founded in 1909, one of its immediate goals was to end the terrorism of these unprosecuted mob-driven murders. To create sympathy across racial lines, NAACP leaders made a cultural campaign for hearts and minds an important part of their strategy.
In 1910 W. E. B. Du Bois founded the organization’s journal, The Crisis, which detailed the lynching epidemic and published photographs, political cartoons, and poems that emphasized the humanity of the victims and the failure of American and Christian ideals to inhibit such atrocities. Leading nationwide protests against the stereotyping of blacks in mainstream culture, the NAACP also encouraged black playwrights and filmmakers to offer counternarratives, and organized an art exhibition on the topic.
Alongside the NAACP’s focus on high art, popular works such as “Strange Fruit,” a song made famous by the singer Billie Holiday, helped to shift the national consciousness and make lynching rare by the 1950s.
The Federal Theatre Project
The Federal Theatre Project, a branch of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, employed thousands during the Great Depression and provided entertainment across the country. Its Living Newspaper productions depicted current events and matters concerning public policy, evolving from the Soviet tactic used during the Bolshevik Revolution as a means to reach illiterate populations. In both cases, the goal was to use theater to prompt social and political action.
Eschewing traditional theatrical narrative structures, the Living Newspapers staged vignettes from the perspectives of different characters. The productions combined diverse media such as slide projections of statistics and photographic images, voiceovers from loudspeakers, choruses, and tableau choreography in order to unsettle and incite emotion in the audience. From 1935 to 1939, these productions took on the contentious issues of the day, such as agrarian reform (Triple-A Plowed Under), the control of public utilities (Power), housing conditions (One-Third of a Nation), and disease prevention (Spirochete). The Living Newspaper productions can be considered a precedent for the agitational performances and research-intensive pedagogical practices of contemporary artists.