Politics and humanity in 1970s New York: Faith Ringgold’s Ben

Buttons, flags, and booze — Ben conjures up a specific time and place.

Faith Ringgold, Ben, c. 1978, soft sculpture/mixed media, 99.1 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm (Toledo Museum of Art, ©Faith Ringgold)

Duane Hanson, Executive

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Key Points

  • In the late 1970s, social, political, and economic crises dramatically impacted many Americans. Economic stagnation coupled with oil shortages affected the economy, the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War eroded public trust, while activists in the Civil Rights and feminist movements struggled for equality.
  • IFaith Ringgold’s Ben captures the turbulent atmosphere of the late 1970s. Through his dress and accessories, Ringgold includes a constellation of references and associations that connect this figure to the central controversies of the day. At the same time, she gives the figure a sense of humanity and empathy that connects with the viewer.
  • Using techniques and materials that were often dismissed as “women’s work,” Faith Ringgold uses the scale of Ben to establish it as a work of art. Larger than a doll, smaller than a human, it elevates its medium to the realm of high art and makes a feminist statement.

Go deeper

This sculpture at the Toledo Museum of Art

Learn about the oil shortages and economic crisis of the 1970s

Explore Johnson’s Great Society and the war on poverty through primary source documents

Explore the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War through primary source documents

Stories of veterans from The Library of Congress

Watch documentary videos and learn more about the Vietnam War

Explore the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon

Who was Shirley Chisholm?

Who was Sargent Shriver?

See more of Faith Ringgold’s work and watch interviews with the artist

More to think about

How do Faith Ringgold’s Ben (1978) and Duane Hanson’s Executive (1971) each reflect the political and social climate of the 1970s. How might the figures offer different perspectives on the period? Consider questions that you might ask each man if you were to meet them on the street. Which do you think you’d be more interested in talking to?


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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.