Art impacts our perspective of the world. During times of crisis, art is arguably at its best because it has the potential to mobilize us, both to critically reflect and to move us to action. Following are ten books that direct our attention to the extraordinary ways in which art and artists have changed the world, across the ages in moments of social, political, and economic struggle.
Will Bradley and Charles Esche, eds., Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader, (2007)
This reader brings together a vast range of writings by radical and innovative artists, from Gustave Courbet and William Morris to Bonnie Sherk, Emory Douglas, Gran Fury, Guerilla Art Action Group, Valie Export, and Black Mask. The essays examine the power of art and the value of the artist’s voice throughout a long history of social and political upheaval.
Julie Ault, ed., Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material, (2010)
The influential artist collaborative Group Material produced a range of projects, exhibitions and interventions from 1979 to 1996 that tackled important social and political issues of the era. Their work is no less urgent today, perhaps even more so. Edited by founding member Julie Ault, this book is a comprehensive chronicle of Group Material’s practice drawn from their archive and in dialogue with other members.
Brian Wallis, ed., If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism, (1991)
A collection of essays, photographs, architectural plans, and discussions, this book is an accompaniment to Martha Rosler’s project “If You Lived Here…” at the Dia Art Foundation’s Wooster Street space in the late 1980s. Rosler transformed the Dia into a site for community gatherings, town hall meetings, and exhibitions where artists, public officials, and activists addressed the crisis in American urban housing policies and homelessness.
Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, eds., Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945, (2007)
This book examines the essential role that collectivism plays across the globe. Essays on art in Europe, Japan, Africa, Cuba, Mexico, and the United States show the vitality and effectiveness of collective artistic practice, from Gutai, CoBrA, Art & Language, to Arte Calle, Proceso Pentágono, Art Workers Coalition, Le Groupe Amos, and Bureau d’Études.
Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, (2012)
This book provides a history of participatory practices along with critical analyses of the aesthetic, ethical and political implications of artists integrating spectators in the making of art. Bishop studies key moments and artists from Italian Futurism, Paris Dada and the Situationist International, to Graciela Carnevale, Milan Knížák, Tania Bruguera, and Thomas Hirschhorn.
Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, (2009)
This account of the political, social and economic value of artistic labor during the 1960s and ’70s reveals the breadth of critical response to the seismic social transformations of those years. Bryan-Wilson rethinks the creative and intellectual labor of Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Hans Haacke, and Lucy Lippard showing us how protest, reform, and revolution were central to their work as artworkers.
Helen Molesworth, ed., This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s, (2012)
A remarkable volume to a remarkable exhibition curated by Helen Molesworth, This Will Have Been examines the art, politics, and visual culture of the 1980s. With contributing writers such as Johanna Burton, Sarah Schulman, Bill Horrigan, Kobena Mercer, and Frazer Ward, this book is a compelling study of artistic production at the onset of our media-saturated age, demonstrating how artists tackled the profound social crises of the era of Reagan and Thatcher.
Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century, (2007)
A history and theoretical look at artistic activism and activist art within a revised conception of revolution, one that prioritizes alternative forms of organization and organizing instead of overthrowing government. The Paris Commune, German “Activism” of 1910s, Viennese Actionism and PublixTheatreCaravan are some of Raunig’s case studies.
Matthew Baigell and Julia Williams, eds., Artists Against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists’ Congress, (1986)
This collection of papers are the result of the American Artists’ Congress in New York in February 1936. Organized within the midst of the Great Depression and the spread of fascism, a group of artists gathered to give speeches and determine how they, as artists, could address the mounting crises. Texts by Margaret Bourke-White, David Siqueiros, Aaron Douglas, Katherine Schmidt, Stuart Davis, José Clemente Orozco, and others provide insight into the influence art and artists have on society.
Grant H. Kester, ed., Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage, (1998)
This book is a resource on the political impact of art with essays by figures such as Martha Rosler, Grant Kester, Brian Goldfarb, and Coco Fusco written between 1980 to 1995 for the influential Afterimage, a journal on media and visual arts. The book includes a reprint of Lorraine O’Grady’s seminal essay “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” (1994).