By Madonna Hernandez
Art in all its forms is political. Whether it is promoting an idea or countering an ideology, art is meant to evoke feeling, it is meant to inspire us, to move us, and to stir our souls. In the same way politics often does. It enrages us and enthuses us all at the same time. Agitprop! an exhibit currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum, is overtly political; it’s a show that is brash and in your face with its politicism, which is exactly the point. Overtly political art is characterized by the desire for things to not remain the same. In the spirit of this idea, the exhibit will also evolve for the duration of its existence. The artists currently on display will choose the artists who will be on display next and those artists will choose the next group, in three phases. By the end of its run (in August) the exhibit promises to be wide ranging. It’s an interesting idea, one that doesn’t allow the art and its message, to feel stagnant. Agitprop! isn’t trying to sell a specific agenda except the artists’ right to simply have an agenda.
Agitprop as a word has contradictory connotation. The word itself, originating from Communist ruled Russia, is an amalgamation of agitation and propaganda. It comes from the time during Bolshevik rule characterized by censorship and oppression. Agitprop was used as a way to spread propaganda of the party’s agenda through the use of art. Agitprop as a movement has evolved considerably since then. In fact, its purpose is now counter to the one it initially served. It has evolved as an artistic expression of liberal political ideals and ideas, inspiring works that open a dialog, create a statement or try to incite change of the status quo. What’s interesting in examining the evolution of agitprop is the very important role women have played. Not coincidentally, Agitprop! is curated by the staff of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
In Russia, women played a critical role in producing art for the communist agenda, specifically posters during Bolshevik rule. Some of this art is currently on display in the exhibit. Communism was also the impetus for agitprop art made in Mexico by Mexican women of the party. While communism was spreading throughout the world, the fight for women’s’ right to vote in the US was taking shape, as evidenced through photos in the exhibit. Agitprop! moves from the past (since the twentieth century) to the present, addressing everything from the civil rights movement to AIDS awareness in New York City. In a particularly moving section of the exhibit, photos of lynchings of African Americans accompanied by literature and poetry and a recording of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, provide a sobering look into the power of art in exposing the worst of humanity.
The exhibit effectively works across borders and boundaries in order to provide a larger perspective of agitprop and its influence on the global community. From photographs of the simultaneous destruction and preservation of Beijing as a result of construction to images from the revolution in Egypt, Agitprop! puts on display the oftentimes life and death stakes at the heart of many of the issues that are the impetus for the art. In the center of one room is an auto rickshaw from India representing the struggle for religious tolerance, words and art were written on the rickshaws themselves promoting this idea.
In perhaps the most elaborate and effective piece of the entire exhibit, thirty-nine intricately designed dinner plates are arranged banquet style on a large table in their own room. Each place setting is accompanied by a chalice and runner with personalized historical significance. Each plate’s design, has a butterfly or vulva form catered to the woman it is inspired by. The tiles from the floor underneath contain the names of nine hundred ninety-nine women with important contributes to the history of western civilization. To call the piece ambitious is a bit of an understatement. Like the exhibit itself, The Dinner Party piece is large in scope but narrow and focused in the message it wants to convey. As far removed from these social justice movements and political ideas as we may feel, the singular power of art is in its ability to captivate us and focus our attention back on them. Often times, the issues at the heart of this art are ones we would rather turn away from. Agitprop! forces us to take a look.