Art workers are organizing in response to miserable pay and working conditions. The history of artist unions in the United States can help them chart a path forward.
Billy Anania is an art critic, editor, and journalist in New York City.
Born in Zurich in 1916, Dada is famed for its antiwar, anti-bourgeois, and anti-art antics. But in Berlin after the Bolshevik Revolution, the movement took a sharp political turn, merging anti-fascist propaganda with leftist organizing.
Käthe Kollwitz was a radical printmaker with deep political commitments. From the last days of the German Empire until the end of the Third Reich, she gave visual expression to workers’ rebellion and loss, never losing hope in the socialist world to come.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Langston Hughes wrote poetic tributes to the working class and socialist leaders worldwide. Some critics allege he abandoned his principles later in life, but they ignore the role of McCarthyist oppression — and Hughes’s creative resistance to it.
The bulk of mainstream journalism in the US has long stood as a mouthpiece for ruling-class interests. Yet from Ida B. Wells to Ida Tarbell, a powerful tradition of “muckraking” has gone against the grain to hold the powerful accountable.
In the years before the Great Depression, the “Ashcan” school of painters rejected the cultural norms of the art market. It opted instead for an American realism that took its inspiration from the lives of dock workers, street vendors, and immigrant families in the country’s modernizing cities.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when Detroit was home to a vibrant radical Left, photographer Leni Sinclair, cofounder of the White Panther Party and the Detroit Artists Workshop, stood at the center of a local scene where political and cultural ferment merged. We spoke to her about those years of upsurge.
Few American photographers have captured the misery, dignity, and occasional bursts of solidarity within US working-class life as compellingly as Lewis Hine did in the early twentieth century.
The 20th-century American portrait painter Alice Neel was often misunderstood by art critics throughout her career. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Neel retrospective, “People Come First,” recontextualizes her career as a painter of the human condition whose socialist politics were central to her work.
Across the United States, museum workers, activists, and artists are forcing a conversation about the labor abuses, racism, and wealthy patrons’ “art-washing” schemes at museums.