African American artist, Cliff Joseph, was the co-founder of the 1960’s Black Emergency Cultural Coalition in New York, an artist’s group involved in creating socially conscious artworks. Joseph’s oil on canvas painting, titled My Country Right or Wrong was created in 1968 at the height of America’s war on Vietnam. The artwork derided the blind patriotism that made the war possible, but it was also a stunning indictment of the apathy found on the home front.
In Joseph’s painting, flag-blindfolded citizens wander through a desolate landscape of crushed skeletons. Unexploded bombs protrude from the sanguineous ground like deadly mushrooms. Gore stains the feet and ankles of the individuals traversing the endless fields of massacred people. They stumble through the forsaken battlefield like the zombies from George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (which came out that same year). In the background of Joseph’s painting, Christian and Jewish grave markers can be seen—alluding to American sacrifices on the battlefield. Joseph said this about his work:
“My art is a confrontation. Among the many realities of art expression, this remains the most constant purpose of my aesthetic. It is, of course, a social art, based on my ‘gut’ perceptions of our worldly conditions; but it draws upon each viewer to confront himself in consideration of his role in affecting those conditions.”
My Country Right or Wrong was specifically focused upon America’s intervention in Vietnam, but there’s an eerie resonance with America’s current political atmosphere. A vicious war is being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the casualties continue to mount, Americans at home seem oblivious to it all. We find ourselves in the very landscape Cliff Joseph painted in 1968. In a 1972 interview conducted for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Joseph said:
“My work does reflect our times, perhaps all times, and power structures. I think that’s been throughout our history. Power structures have vamped on people, and I am a product of a great deal of vamping. So this is what I talk about in my paintings. My work is anti-war – not just the Vietnam War. I feel my statements on war speak out against all wars destructive to human life, and certainly against social injustices. So that my work does have a lot to say about what’s happening in America today and what’s happening in the world.”
Joseph and his compatriots in the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition actively labored at creating a community based, socially relevant art, and at their height they numbered around 200 working artists. But where today can a similar effort be found in artistic circles? It seems the majority of contemporary artists have joined the legions of those wearing blindfolds. See nothing—hear nothing—say nothing.
[Update: On Nov. 8, 2020, Cliff Joseph died of heart failure at the age of 98.]