Date of Award

Spring 2010

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

History

First Advisor

Kathy Peiss

Second Advisor

Thomas J. Sugrue

Third Advisor

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw

Abstract

ART FRONTS: VISUAL CULTURE AND RACE POLITICS IN THE MID-TWENTIETH-CENTURY UNITED STATES Erin Park Cohn Supervisor: Kathy Peiss Art Fronts argues that visual culture played a central and understudied role in the African American freedom struggle in the middle part of the twentieth century. In particular, it traces the political lives and cultural productions of a generation of visual artists, both black and white, who seized on the Depression-era ethos of art as a weapon to forge a particular form of visual activism that agitated for social, political, and economic equality for African Americans. Participating in the proliferation of visual culture that characterized early twentieth-century America, the activist artists of this generation took advantage of opportunities to reproduce images widely and thus convey political messages in powerful and immediate ways. Art Fronts traces the careers of these artists from the early days of the Depression, when artists affiliated with the Communist Party first created images in service of African American civil rights, through the Cold War, which limited but did not destroy the links they forged between art and activism. By highlighting changes and continuities in African American cultural politics over the course of four decades, it offers fresh perspectives on the contours of the long civil rights movement. Art Fronts thus participates in recent efforts to challenge the classic narrative of the history of the civil rights movement, yet draws that scholarship in a new direction, pointing to the importance of culture, and particularly visual culture, in all phases of the movement. Indeed, visual artists were highly active in the long civil rights movement, while the images they created and circulated in service of the cause served as a necessary visual forum for a range of competing ideas about the politics of race and civil rights.

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