America in 2017 is a house divided, and this season’s art and photography titles reflect a level of political outrage—and activism—not seen for decades.
Using the image as a form of public address, these books offer running commentary on income inequality, unrest over the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police, outrage at sexual assault on college campuses and the targeted harassment of women on Twitter, and on the election of a highly polarizing president. A few entries offer historical lessons from the graveyard of revolutionary dreams: propaganda art from the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and other socialist utopias of the 20th century.
“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in interest in all our books—on black politics, feminism, immigration, international politics, the working class, everything,” says Julie Fain, an editor at Haymarket Books, whose website describes it as a “radical” publisher. “We’ve sold over 40,000 copies of Angela Davis’s Freedom Is a Constant Struggle and 25,000 copies of Keeanga Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation in the past year, far exceeding our expectations. I think the hunger for books dealing with movements around race and gender extends to all categories, even ones that aren’t traditionally ‘political,’ including photography books.”
Daniel Power, CEO of PowerHouse Books, attributes spiking interest in social-justice titles to the anti-Trump backlash, specifically among LGBTQ and feminist readers. “We’re seeing some big-scale projects—a mind-blowing one from the artist iO Tillett Wright, [which] we’re doing next year, comes to mind, of 10,000 portraits of LGBT folk from all 50 states—in addition to a few projects pitched recently on the Women’s March, and the amazing signage from it,” Power says. “As this new administration continues with the dismantling of the Great Society programs, we’ll see more of these projects coming forth.”
Lia Ronnen, publisher and editorial director at Artisan Books, thinks visual titles are well suited to capturing history in a hurry. “Feminism, empowerment, and women’s rights” will be strong themes in 2017, she expects, and “the power of photography to convey that message is huge.” She adds, “In the Company of Women, a collection of photographs and interviews with creative women business owners that we published six months ago, was a standout on holiday tables and continues to sell strongly.”
Here we discuss new and upcoming titles whose images of injustice and inequality, and of the protests, propaganda, and politically minded art that this injustice and inequality have inspired, exhort readers to engage with the issues of our times—and to heed the lessons of revolutions past.
At the Barricades
Infuriated by the election of a man who dismissed Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” and boasted, on tape, about groping women against their will, millions took to the streets in protest on January 21. Why We March (Artisan, out now) collects 500 thought-provoking placards wielded at marches around the nation and overseas. Nastiness is a theme: one sign has a drawing of a peel-and-stick name tag that reads, “Hello, I’m nastier than ever.” So are allusions to Donald Trump’s notorious brag that “when you’re a star,” you can “grab ’em” anywhere: “This pussy grabs back,” reads another. There are borscht belt one-liners (“Trump eats pizza with a fork”) and zingers aimed at the GOP’s anti-choice agenda (“Elephant in the womb”). Best in show: “We shall overcomb.” All royalties go to Planned Parenthood.
Dictatorships are tragic farces, and authoritarian types are notoriously humorless. In Belarus, in 2011, crowds mocked the despotic President Alexander Lukashenko with waves of ironic applause; disloyal clappers were promptly rounded up, a one-armed man among them. Such absurdities are a gift to political subversives, as Street Spirit (Michael O’Mara, May) by Steve Crawshaw, director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International, makes clear.
A book of photos accompanied by brief essays, Street Spirit freeze frames 50 history-making moments when activists challenged brute power with Groucho Marxist wit. Crawshaw quotes the Saudi comedian-turned-activist Fahad Albutairi: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh—otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Comrades in Arms
Earnest to a fault, subtle as a flying mallet, the angry graphics in See Red Women’s Workshop (Four Corners, out now), by members of the eponymous guerrilla-art collective, are undeniably effective. Founded in London in 1974 and disbanded in 1990, the group cranked out a blizzard of silk-screened posters whose cartoony drawings and cut-the-crap slogans took aim at sexist advertising, stereotypical gender roles, antiabortion legislation, and lesbian bashing. They must’ve been doing something right: the far-right National Front trashed their workshop. A bobby half-heartedly investigating the vandalism blandly inquired whether they “printed any kind of controversial leaflets that people might object to.”
Too easily caricatured as a folk artist—the Grandma Moses of Manhattan, if Grandma Moses had joined the Young Communist League, fought fascists in Spain, and palled around with Pete Seeger—self-taught painter Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997) was “conversant in 19th-century political theory” and “had an in-depth knowledge of all the French Impressionists,” writes his son Marc, an art professor, in Ralph Fasanella (Pomegranate, Sept.), a monograph coauthored by art historian Leslie Umberger.
In brash, brightly colored paintings informed by van Gogh and Diego Rivera, Fasanella lifted his voice against McCarthyism, wage slavery, and racism. In some canvases, he dreamed of a better world. Unsurprisingly, his version of the workers’ paradise looks a lot like a boisterous Italian-American family crowded around a well-laid table.
Released in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test (Art Institute of Chicago, July), edited by Matthew S. Witkovsky and Devin Fore, evokes the revolutionary fervor of another historical moment, when art and agitprop were one. On the cover of a book titled Stories About Lenin’s Death, a photo of Lenin’s death mask is given the constructivist treatment. The jazzy, syncopated suprematist art of Malevich and El Lissitzky reverberates with the dynamism of the machine age, and the streamlined Pravda building, as envisioned in the 1920s by architect Aleksei Shchusev, looks like the prow of an art deco spaceship, en route to some socialist utopia.
Communist Posters (Reaktion, May) collects the poster art of Cuba, China, Mongolia, North Korea, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe. Edited by art historian Mary Ginsberg, this encyclopedic study puts to rest the notion that communist propaganda art consists of nothing but kitschy images of apple-cheeked proletarians.
“Inspired by French painting styles, folk art, Constructivism, Socialist Realism, and even American comic strips,” Vietnamese revolutionary posters “never cease to surprise,” writes Sherry Buchanan in one of the accompanying essays. Cuban propaganda posters are as endlessly inventive as Cuban music, and the Polish poster school of the late 1950s draws on surrealism and Victorian engravings. Commenting on a Maoist poster, Red Loudspeakers Are Sounding Through Every Home, Ginsberg quotes its text—“Loudspeakers are attached to the village’s PA system, so this family can enjoy the political songs, slogans, and lectures broadcasted all day”—then drily notes, “What they can’t do is turn them off.”
Race, Rage, and Redemption
Issued in a limited run of 1,963 copies, Taschen’s new edition of The Fire Next Time (May) counterpoints James Baldwin’s explosive essays on “the race problem,” as it was euphemistically called in 1963, with photojournalist Steve Schapiro’s closely observed images from the civil rights struggle, shot on assignment for Life and published here for the first time. Last year’s critically acclaimed documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, has rekindled interest in the novelist and essayist, and Taschen’s new edition of his influential text will introduce the Black Lives Matter generation to his eloquent yet gut-punchingly-direct writings on race. Schapiro’s photos—segregationists waving Confederate flags, the bullet holes in Fannie Lou Hamer’s front door—are a full-throated response to the call of Baldwin’s sermon.
In A Beautiful Ghetto (Haymarket, June), Devin Allen, an African-American photographer who grew up in Baltimore, bears witness to the uprising ignited by Freddie Gray’s death in police custody—uprising, not riots, as Allen insists in one of the brief, diaristic musings that accompany his images, because to focus on the riots is to ignore the larger picture. “Baltimore saw something that so many cities are going through right now: unrest, riots, protesting,” Allen writes. “All these different aspects are ways to get our voices heard. But in the eyes of many, it’s negativity.”
The photos in A Beautiful Ghetto are intended, he asserts, “to show you the beauty of our struggle, what we face every day, but we always thrive and find ways out.” In stark black and white, Allen confronts readers with the blight and impoverishment to be found an hour from the nation’s capital—gutted buildings, the blackened carcass of a burned-out car. Even so, the bulletproof spirit of Allen’s beautiful ghetto shines through in such portraits as that of a dauntless little girl sticking out her tongue at us and that of a female protester in short shorts and a crop top brandishing a sign that reads, “The rise of the woman = the rise of the nation.”
Kerry James Marshall (Phaidon, June) is the skeleton key to the multifaceted artist’s work and thought. Marshall was the subject of a recent blockbuster retrospective at New York’s Met Breuer museum that won critical hosannas and drew shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. As Charles Gaines’s interview and Greg Tate’s and Laurence Rassel’s essays make clear, Marshall is as sharply self-analytical as he is profoundly thoughtful about race, art, and American history. He’s also prodigiously talented, equally at ease in figurative painting, Romare Bearden–like cut-paper collages, photography, and even the comic-book medium. But it’s his acrylic portraits that mesmerize: stunning images of black people framed by riotous colors or, even more dramatically, all but swallowed up in darkness. Tate sees visual echoes of Velázquez and Hans Holbein in Marshall’s tableaux of black barbershops and beauty parlors, images that exalt black life by employing the conventions of classical art even as they question the Western canon.
Shot by Kathy Shorr (PowerHouse, Apr.) is probably the only photography book you’ll ever read that has an afterword by a trauma surgeon. Shorr, a photographer whose work crosses penetrating portraiture with a rage for justice, forces the reader to look long and hard at 101 survivors of gun violence. Ranging from ages eight to 80 and photographed at the scenes of their shootings, they testify, with their wheelchairs, their prosthetic limbs, their scars running like grotesque zippers from sternum to navel, against the everyday lunacy of a land with “the highest rate of gun violence of any other high-income country in the world,” as the surgeon notes. Mostly, though, it’s their eyes that indict.
How the Other Half Lives
The color-saturated portraits of the superrich and their domestics in Generation Wealth (Phaidon, May) embody the aspirational fantasies of the 99%. In photographer Lauren Greenfield’s travelogue of our new Gilded Age, we meet Tamara Ecclestone, 28, who, Greenfield writes, “tapped her trust fund to buy a $70-million mansion,” which she tricked out with a $1.5 million rock-crystal bathtub, among other indulgences. German businessmen celebrate the purchase of an Alaskan oil field at an Abu Dhabi club called Plastik, which describes itself as “exclusively for the filthy rich and aesthetically perfect.” But we also meet a Filipino nanny who lives in a playhouse built for the ultrarich twins she cares for—they lost interest in it—and a homeless woman sporting a flawless knockoff of a Louis Vuitton handbag.
True to its title, Autopsy of America (Carpet Bombing Culture, June) is a postmortem of the heartland. Trespassing in the ruins of the American dream, photojournalist Seph Lawless uses eerie, unsettling images of foreclosed homes, decaying factories, and ghost malls, their mannequins posing for no one, to counterpoint his sardonic ruminations on the devastation wrought by the decline of heavy manufacturing and the offshoring of American jobs.
This is the postrecession rust belt, where working-class dreams have soured and “the buildings are left as rotting memorials to times of stability and economic growth,” writes journalist Michael Goldfarb in his accompanying essay. The smoldering sense of abandonment kindles “an anarchic, cynical anger among even young people,” he notes. Lawless, he recalls, told him early on that Trump had a shot at winning. “He was right.”
Mark Dery is a cultural critic and the author, most recently, of the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (Univ. of Minnesota, 2012). He is writing a biography of Edward Gorey for Little, Brown.
Below, more on the subject of art and photography books.
A boomlet of spring art and photography books about libraries coincides, serendipitously, with National Library Week.