Eight years of research and writing has led to my first book -A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements – being released today. The book is part of the People’s History series that was initiated by Howard Zinn through The New Press – a non-profit press in New York City that has a long-standing reputation of publishing books on contemporary social issues.
My study on a people’s history looks at US art history and specifically activist art. Not social practices. Not the “political art” found in galleries and museums. Rather, it focuses on movement culture and the activist art that emerges out of social justice and economic justice movements. My aim was to research the past from the conquest of the Americas to the present, and to look at the role of activist art in various movements, be it the early labor struggles, the women’s suffrage movement, the IWW, the artist’s unions during the 1930s, the art created inside the Japanese American internment camps, the photography of the Civil Rights movement, the street art employed in anti-nuclear movements, and numerous other examples.
My approach was not to write an all-inclusive survey. Rather it was present a series of twenty-nine critical essays – essays that allowed me the space needed to examine each history in depth and to critique what worked and what fell short. My goal for the book was to make this history accessible to a general audience (while still being useful to scholars.) Another goal was to write a text that would help challenge the overall culture of amnesia and the lack of awareness about the role of radical art in the decades and centuries that preceded our time. In short, I hope that the book serves as a critical tool kit – one that informs and inspires more artists to become activist-artists and for more activist organizations to prioritize art and artists in their ranks. The movements of today will not succeed without creative resistance and talented artists in their ranks, and studying the radical past is essential for moving forward in the present.