In July 2018, a painting called The City I, was placed on display at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The City I, by Vincent Valdez, is a four-part canvas that portrays a group in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods on a hill overlooking a metropolis at night. The black-and-white palette recalls the look of historical photographs and old movies, but details such as an iPhone, a can of Budweiser beer, and a new Chevrolet truck situate the work firmly in present day.
Beginning in the fall of 2015, two years before Charlottesville happened, Valdez worked for nearly a year to complete his City series. The scenes they depict are invented, but as the Texas artist points out, this underscores their continued relevance: “This could be any city in America. These individuals could be any Americans. There is a false sense that these threats were, or are, contained at the peripheries of society and in small rural communities…. It is possible that they are city politicians, police chiefs, parents, neighbors, community leaders, academics, church members, business owners, etc. This is the most frightening aspect of it all.”
Throughout history, here and in other parts of the world, art has served as a reflection of society and the times in which we are living. Artists use their unique and compelling vantage point to make powerful statements on the social justice issues of the day. This important artwork provides an opening to talk with students about how art can reflect and critique the injustice in the world and can also illustrate how we wish the world to be by promoting social justice. Art, in its various forms, can indeed be an act of social justice in and of itself.
This lesson plan provides an opportunity for students to reflect on pieces of art that critique injustice, understand past and current day white supremacist groups and explore other ways art can be used to inspire and communicate social justice.