“A struggle against the unlivable”: Claire Corridon & Karan Gowda on art and progress

How do artworks talk to us… and to one another? And how can we learn to talk back? Northwestern undergraduates in The Block Museum Student Docent Program considered these questions in a unique 2021 lunchtime Art Talks! series, pairing two works from the museum collection that have something to say to one another (and to us.) In the series, the team considered artworks in our current exhibition For One and All: Prints from The Block’s Collection, and the Fall 2021 exhibition, Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts.

In this talk, Claire Corridon (’21, American Studies and Political Science) and Karan Gowda (’22, Biological Sciences) will be discussing Untitled (Demonstrators)1937 by Henry Simon (American, born Poland, 1901–1995) and A Message in Nestle Water Bottles from Shea Cobb, Amber Hasan, Macana Roxie and LaToya Ruby Frazier at Sussex Drive and West Pierson Road, Flint MI, 2017 by LaToya Ruby Frazier (American born 1982).

Watch the tour

From the discussion

Our tour is titled “Thinking About History: Art and Progress.” Today, we consider the ways that progress is both disrupted and pushed forward by different forces through the work of two artists, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Henry Simon.

This first one here on the left is a photograph by LaToya Ruby Frazier in black and white. It’s titled A Message in Nestle Water Bottles from Shea Cobb, Amber Hasan, Macana Roxie and LaToya Ruby Frazier at Sussex Drive and West Pierson Road in Flint Michigan. The second piece that we’re gonna be discussing was made almost a century earlier in 1937. It is Untitled Demonstrators” by Henry Simon, and it is a black and white lithograph on paper.

Frazier, photographed here on the left, has degrees in Applied Media Arts and Art Photography. Her goal in her work is to build visual archives to address a wide array of issues, personal and social histories of Midwestern America. She currently works at the School of the Art Institute. The Flint Michigan water crisis began in 2014 when Flint’s water supply changed from Detroit’s main supply to the Flint river, which was lead contaminated. And this was caused due to negligence by the government of a very large African-American population, as well as a population that included 45% residents living below poverty line. Residents were forced to use bottled water as their supply of water…. Frazier is in this photo along with three generations of Flint women who are activists in the area.

“Untitled Demonstrators” is a lithograph, which is an inexpensive and accessible form of printmaking. This is a black and white lithograph which shows a striking clash between working protestors and the police. I get a feeling of universality when I look at this image. Because aside from the American flag, there aren’t really any geographical landmarks, it is an image that could be happening at any moment at any place across the country. Simon was the son of a family who fled from Poland when he was very young. They moved to Chicago and his family began working in union jobs and he himself began working at the very young age of 15. He became interested in art by working as a sign-making apprentice. Simon was a part of the Works Progress Administration. He was also a member of the John Reed Club, which was a national organization of leftist intellectuals. John Reed Club, was really interested in calling attention to the exploitation that was happening under capitalism…. I think this impulse to kind of expose the economic suffering of the time is really evident in the kind of social realist style that Simon utilized. And it was a style which used hyper realistic imagery in order to call attention to the real struggles of the time that folks were facing.

In her work I think Frazier is really pointing out the ongoing failure of these systems to provide for its citizens. There’s an inherent connection between the struggle for workers rights in 1937 and the struggle for access to basic human rights such as clean water in Flint in 2015. In both situations people are really trying to struggle against unlivable conditions. Both Frazier and Simon, as artists, are playing this really important role of documenting and historicizing these struggles. I think if we weren’t able to view and understand works like these and put it into conversation with the present, we might believe that progress has already prevailed or that there’s no historical precedent to events that are happening today. I think especially dominant systems attempt to erase the struggles of marginalized groups and separate interconnected issues like workers’ rights and civil rights. It seems that both Frazier and Simon are critiquing similar forces and pinpointing similar ideas. I think we often forget that alongside progress, there’s a lot of retrenchment and backlash, which often harms the groups that are struggling against these forces. I hope that today our conversation has opened up more connections and that this can create a space to think about these connections between history and the role of artists in documenting it.

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