In the 1960s and ’70s, the United States was anything but united. Deep social divisions, mass protests, and calls for revolutionary change roiled the country—and artists were at the forefront of this upheaval. Indeed, many artists were also activists, agitating for civil rights, workers’ rights, and an end to the Vietnam War. They fought for equality and the abolition of repressive political, economic, and industrial regimes. Their art, too, confronted systems of power. Emory Douglas championed “Power to the People” and the Black Panther Party in his bracing designs for mass media; Alfonso Ossorio dismantled and reimagined the artifacts of colonial power; and Martha Rosler, Melvin Edwards, and Sam Gilliam made artworks whose very forms suggest power dynamics of struggle, containment, liberation, and release.
This crucible of art and unrest reflected a nation in turmoil, the effects of which are still felt today—whether in the extreme polarization of American society, or in the promise of new countercultures to come.