Photo Credit: An environmental protest painting. The painting takes the famous picture of Grant Wood’s American Gothic (symbolic of the rural farmer) and gives it a background of the giant gas companies abuse of the environment to show the dangers of fracking and other environmental issues facing American farmlands.
If you follow my blog, you know that I try to stay out of politics. However, there are many writers and other artistic people who make brave artistic statements in their work. Since art reflects the time and place in which it is created, this isn’t much of a surprise.
Music has been a place for political statements, especially rap and hip-hop. The music magazine Billboard recently posted a reaction to rapper Snoop Dogg’s music video featuring politically charged statements about the current situation in American government. The article, “Ice-T & Treach Call Snoop Dogg’s Trump-Mocking Video ‘Artistic’, Not Threatening” talks about the video, which features a Trump-like character with a clown face surrounded by other clowns, presumably Trump’s administration. At the end of the video, “Snoop Dogg [aims] a toy gun at [the] clown parody of President Donald Trump.” (Platon, par. 4). While the idea of a gun aimed at a hyperbole clown president might seem subversive, as rapper Treach points out, “‘[I]t was a confetti gun… Anybody got shot, confetti came out. It was artistic.’” (as quoted in Platon, par. 3). The video is a form of political satire, a way to bring down those in power and to protest their actions and words. This is related to the idea of the carnivalesque, which I talk about in this blog post.
Political satire is probably the most popular form of artistic statement. In addition to music and television (think: Saturday Night Live), cartoonists have been protesting political ills for years. One unexpected political satirist who made his statements against fascism and Nazism in the 1940’s was Theodor Giezel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Jennie Rothenberg Gritz’s “When Dr. Seus Took on Adolf Hitler” reveals that “[b]etween 1941 and 1943, Geisel’s swoopy trees and whimsical creatures appeared in more than 400 political cartoons” (par. 4). By today’s standards, Giezel’s cartoons might seem tame. For example, Gritz describes the following:
“Dr. Seuss drew a sketch of a man hanging on a hook over a steaming typewriter. It was 1940, and the typist in the picture was Virginio Gayda, the leading press agent in fascist Italy. Benito Mussolini appeared above him, a naked cherub directing his propagandist’s every move” (Gritz, par. 1).
Like most political satire, the goal is not necessarily to take action but to take notice. Giezel’s incentive behind his political cartoons was that “‘[h]e saw the growing threat [of Fascism] in Europe and thought the Americans were not paying attention’” (as quoted in Gritz, par. 5). He wanted to give Americans a wake-up call in the early years of World War II before America got involved in the war, though even he admits his depictions weren’t perfect. For example, regarding his satires of Japan, “[i]nstead of mocking their leader, as he did with Germany and Italy, Geisel ridiculed the Japanese people, drawing them as grinning menaces, stray cats, and slithering worms” (Gritz, par. 8). But still, before he moved on to write and illustrate some of the best-loved children’s books of all time, he tackled the political demons of his day.
Some artists take a stand against the economic issues of their time. Probably the most famous example of this is L. Frank Baum’s novel, The Wizard of Oz. The book was first published in 1900, right at the turn of the century when America was experiencing a huge economic shift where the monetary emphasis went from small-town businesses and farming to large corporations and agrabusiness. The book has long been interpreted as an economic statement against the excesses of the Gilded Age when the financially, the country was out of control due to American corporate giants like Rockerfeller and Carnegie controlling who was and was not making money in the country, leaving farmers and poor people out in the cold. As this article shows, the book was not just a charming fantasy children’s story but contained symbolism reflecting the chaotic economic times facing Americans during the turn of the 20th century.
Artists have also taken a social stand in their work. One area has been a playground for social protesters is gender politics. Artists, especially authors, have been writing about the inequalities and ills of mismatched or outdated ideas about women since the nineteenth century. One example is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. The story focuses on the psychological claustrophobia of an unnamed narrator being “treated” for hysteria by the men in her life (her husband and doctor) who do not understand her desire to be a writer. The novella shows the oppression of the separate spheres during the Victorian era on women who had ambitions beyond being wives and mothers. And it wasn’t just women who wrote about “the woman problem”. Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House portrays Nora as the pretty but mindless little bird of her husband’s desires who discovers she has outgrown the cage she has been living in under the guise of devoted love for years and makes a bold move at the end of the play.
I grew up in a very patriarchal home. My parents had old-fashioned ideas about what men and women should do. I discovered feminism when I was in college and most of my studies evolved around not just fiction and writing but specifically fiction by, for, and about women and their historical context regarding gender relationships. It is something I feel strongly about. So it’s natural that my concerns about gender relationships and gender roles permeate much of my fiction. For example, in The Claustrophobic Heart, part of Gena’s struggle involves breaking away from the traditional feminine role of caretaker.
Writers and other artists often reflect what is going on around them in their work. Although they may decide not to be overtly political or social, sometimes their strong emotions and opinions come out in characters or story or images, some without even realizing it.
Gritz, Jennie Rothenberg. “When Dr. Seuss Took on Adolf Hitler”. The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. 15 January 2013. Web. 4 April 2017.
Platon, Adelle. “Ice-T & Treach Call Snoop Dogg’s Trump-Mocking Video ‘Artistic’, Not Threatening”. Billboard. Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group. 14 March 2017. Web. 4 April 2017.