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Andy Warhol and the Birmingham Race Riot
Andy Warhol is considered one of the most important and influential artists of the Twentieth Century. His art focused not only on creating new modes and styles of artistic expression but they also functioned as insightful social critiques and commentary. To a large extent all of his artworks are an oblique and sometimes harshly direct unveiling of modern consciousness, society and the media. He was famous for using the techniques and styles of the media to expose the harsh realities of the society around him. However it is in the directly political works and images of society's violence and discrimination that he is at his most expressive and influential as an artist.
Andrew Warhola, was born August 6, 1928 in Pittsburg. He came from a deprived background and was eventually able to attend a commercial design course at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology. (Andy Warhol) He then moved to New York in 1949 and became a successful commercial artist in the early 1950's. However he desired to be successful rather as a fine artist.
To this end he was later to develop his own particular style of art which used " ... commercial silk-screening techniques to create identical, mass produced images on canvas, then variations in color to give each print of an edition a different look." (Andy Warhol) He produced his well -known Pop images in the 1960's. His first images were based on comic book characters such as Popeye and Dick Tracy, which were painted in an abstract expressionist style. His famous reproductions of common products and media were seen in his series of Campbell Soup cans and Coke bottles.
Practically from the beginning, standardization was the subject of Andy Warhol's art. In 1962 he transferred banknotes, soup cans, match covers, paint-by-numbers paintings, and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to canvas, and rapidly became the quintessential Pop Artist. In his hand-painted works Warhol usually limited himself to reproducing banal things from the commercial realm.
(Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
This style and subject matter which" ... captured the clean-edged look of commercially manufactured objects," was to make him famous and allow him to become a successful fine artist. (Andy Warhol)
The significance of Warhol's soup can images lay in the fact that he had taken a bland common object and raised it to the status of fine art. This reversal of convention was also intended as a comment on the society of the time and the mindless commercial involvement and absorption of people in mass production. It was also a comment on a society which was swamped by media images and advertising and which had to a large extent become empty and meaningless. Warhol's art in fact "mocked" art itself and the pretensions that surrounded fine art. Another aspect of his art was that it implied that people in society had become, through exposure to repetition media images, inured and anaesthetized to violence and the darker side of modern society.
He also became well-known during the1960's for his silk-screens, of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities. Coupled with this, Warhol himself also lived his art in that his personal character and eccentricities become almost as well-known as the art itself. He turned attitudes about art upside down he wanted to reproduce art "like a machine," and wanted anonymity in the creation of his artworks.
His earlier art works were intended to make the viewers question their assumptions and views about society. This can be seen in the bland images of Marilyn Monroe after her suicide. In a sense the viewer's response is dulled by the duplicated image which reflects on the emptiness of feeling and emotion in society. The repetition of the image of Mrs. Kennedy for example after the assignation is repeated and silk-screened onto canvas. This tends to emphasize the way in which the media and society projects an acceptance of death without any real emotion." The repetition and crude synthetic colour are the instruments of a moral and aesthetic blankness which has been deliberately contrived." (Andy Warhol) This commentary on society which is morally and aesthetically "asleep" is evident in a six hour films by Warhol entitled Sleep which features a man asleep and nothing else. A similar film is EMPIRE (1965). This film only consisted of endless views of the Empire State Building, which again created a mood of meaninglessness and a deep questioning of society. The central theme or trajectory of Warhol's work can be described as "The perversion of human values in a mechanized world." (Andy Warhol 1928-1987)
Warhol was to become more involved in film rather than painting in the mid sixties and produced over 300 movies. In line with his attitude towards art and society he would employ outcasts and "petty criminals" as his "stars" and actors. He also made a number of successful Hollywood films between 1967 and 1972 and launched Interview magazine.
Warhol's art production was not always obtuse and ironic. His images of the Birmingham Race Riot created in 1964 are a clear representation and indictment of the prejudice and suffering that existed in American society at the time. This work forms part of the range of "disaster works" that Warhol began in 1963. This reason for the works was to show that not everything was as perfect as the media presented it in the United States.
In Birmingham Race Riot Warhol continues his method of using images from the mass media to "capture particular moments in American history and culture." (Birmingham Race Riot, 1964 ) These images were more obviously controversial and clearer in their intention than his previous works, but very powerful and effective neverthesless. The images for the Birmingham Race Riot are based on a photograph by the journalist Charles Moore taken during the racial riots and uprising in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963. The photographs taken by Moore were shown in the popular Life magazine. Warhol used and manipulated this image to produce his artwork. It was reproduced in various combinations of sizes and colors. (Birmingham Race Riot, 1964 ) The images presented shocking evidence of police brutality in the use of attack dogs against peaceful demonstrators.
In order to understand the significance of the Birmingham Race Riot one has to understand the background to the riots and the particular atmosphere of dissatisfaction and social unrest that existed in the United States during the 1960's. This period in American history was characterized by intense self-questioning especially among the youth and an increasing dissatisfaction with the government and the established authority in the country. In many areas, including racial injustice, it was felt by many that there were severe injustices and breaches of basic human rights in the country that had to be addressed. This was to result in not only a period of protest and social upheaval but even the beginning of internal terrorist activity against government and state.
A prime example of this is the Weather Underground, or the Weathermen. The Weather Underground Organization was a radical group in the United States who used violent tactics in their desire to overthrow the government and change society. The organization was responsible for various terrorist attacks against the United States. They were to recruit most of their members from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which was active in the early sixties in protests against the government of the day.
Against this background of social dissent, Birmingham, Alabama, became a focus for the civil rights movement in 1963. It had already been at the center of civil rights issue for a number of years. Martin Luther King's brother was also a pastor in the city. Furthermore, tensions were increased by the fact that Birmingham was part of the conservative South and also a Ku Klux Klan stronghold and therefore vary racially divided. Activities of the Klan also exacerbated the simmering tensions. They had " ... castrated an African-American; pressured the city to ban a book from book stores as it contained pictures of black and white rabbits and wanted black music banned on radio stations." (Birmingham -- 1963) This tension was to flare up and create the riots and events that Warhol used in his work. "Because many Black men and women had seen enough of the "Colored Only" signs around the towns, they decided to do something about the unfair segregation laws and the city's reluctance to change them." (Lindsay T.)
On the second of May, 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and their supporters began to march in protest at the situation. However the marchers, consisting mainly of young children, were arrested by the police and on the third of March the protesters were attacked by the police " ... with fire hoses, billy clubs, and police dogs ... (Lindsay T.) The images that resulted from this action, and which were used in Warhol's work, caused a national outcry at the behavior and cruelty of the police action. The police were one again ordered…[continue]
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