With internet and cell phone connectivity enabling instant worldwide dissemination of information, many individuals presume that communication between international social justice activists during the twentieth century was tedious, insular, and ineffective. Yet analysis of the vast output of published graphics from that period reveals a different story, one of dynamic interchange and cross-national support.
Let us look at the state of the world in the 1960s. The baby boom after the Second World War meant that by 1969, 19 percent of the U.S. population was between 14 and 25 years old—an increase of 44 percent over this age group in 1960. Youth culture was exploding and exploited. The increasingly successful U.S. civil rights movement mirrored a post-war geopolitical turnover in which third-world nations shed their colonial legacies and sought new ones. Two of the most powerful countries on earth—the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China—were socialist or communist, and a distinct sense of social change filled the air. The period was intoxicating and full of optimism.
But graphic art in the service of social change was just reawakening from a forced slumber. The 1930s public art posters of the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Program had been followed by powerful patriotic exhortations during the Second World War—followed by nothing. The “long 1950s” of the Cold War was a bleak era for social justice artwork due to anti-communism and McCarthyism. Rarely have the carrot and the stick been so transparently used to shape cultural policy.
On the one hand, the CIA teamed up with concerned art elites in an organized campaign to promote abstract expressionism over social realism, distorting the United States’ already-dysfunctional modes of art patronage.
On the other hand, artists found that there were serious consequences for those who challenged the status quo. One such artist was Frank Rowe, a decorated Second World War veteran who had just begun teaching art at San Francisco State College in 1950 only to be told by the campus administration that he needed to sign a Levering Act oath. This reactionary California legislation required state employees to deny membership in, or belief in, organizations promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government. The oath was a political litmus test; Frank refused to sign it and was fired. He was blacklisted from holding an academic position until 1969, two years after the California Supreme Court ruled the oath was unconstitutional.