Adam Turl: In 2003 you invited Howard Zinn to Milwaukee to speak to your students and the idea for this book came out of that discussion. What animated both you and Howard Zinn to propose this book to New Press?
Nicholas Lampert: When I met Howard Zinn in 2003 he was already the series editor for the “People’s History” series through The New Press. After talking about radical art with Professor Zinn for a day he invited me to submit a proposal for A People’s Art History of the U.S. He promised to pass it on to Marc Favreau at The New Press if he liked the direction of the proposal. Both he and Marc eventually gave the go ahead which set me on the course of a book contract and eight years of research and writing.
AT: One of the important themes woven through the book is the connection of art to the radical press, in The Masses in the 1910s, The New Masses in the 1930s, and the artwork of Emory Douglas and The Black Panther (the newspaper of the Black Panther Party). Before talking about the 1930s or Emory Douglass later in the interview, I wanted to ask about The Masses, edited by Max Eastman—but run by a sort of collective of writers and artists. The Masses seems unique because it was both a partisan journal of socialism but also an independent, almost anarchic, center for cultural expression. Can you elaborate on that as well as some of the artists and writers involved—and the events that ultimately led to the magazine being shut down in 1918?
NL: The Masses was indeed unique. It was a socialist magazine—founded in 1911 in New York City—that was dedicated to art, literature, and politics. The artists and writers than run the publication largely came from the bohemian counter-culture scene in Greenwich Village. They advocated for radical ideas that ran counter to mainstream society—ideas like free love and birth control. This irritated the more conservative wing of the Socialist Party who felt this angle would alienate segments of the working class and that the publication should adhere more closely to a party line. I cited a critic of The Masses who deemed them “sentimentalists in revolt”—individuals who were more concerned with the lifestyle of radical politics than actually building a Socialist Party and a movement to challenge capitalism. This critique had some merit, but also reflected the dogma of the Socialist Party that many involved with The Masses resisted. And from my perspective, the beauty of the publication was the two worlds that it traversed—socialist politics and the more utopian ideas that came out of the counter-culture. It was a publication that housed extraordinary art and poetry, but also serious political commentary and journalism. The mindset of The Masses was to reject dogmatism whether it was the conservative norms of the day, the oppressive actions of the state, or the rigid thinking found amongst their allies in the Socialist Party.
The Masses was shut down due to the First Red Scare. The Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) made speaking out against World War I illegal. The U.S. government—at the urging of the U.S. Postal Service—brought charges against The Masses and stated that four editorials and four cartoons had violated the Espionage Act. Max Eastman, Art Young, John Reed and others were dragged into court in what can only be described as chilling attack on free speech. Ten of the twelve jurors found them guilty, but two jurors refused to cooperate, resulting in a mistrial. A second trial also ended in a mistrial—but considering that the postal service refused to carry The Masses, the publication lost its subscription base and revenue stream.
AT: One of the problems in contemporary art, in the U.S. in particular, is the ubiquity of the gallery system. In fact, the gallery system itself is being squeezed by mega-galleries, big art festivals and auction houses. The 1930s stand out in U.S. history as the only time with substantial government funding for the arts through the Works Project Administration (WPA) Federal Arts Project (FAP). But the WPA-FAP wasn’t just a case of liberal largesse. Artists organized and demanded relief—and much more. Can you discuss some of the key features of that moment, such as the Artists’ Union, Art Front and the John Reed clubs?
NL: Visual artists in the 1930s saw the art market collapse during the Great Depression and looked for other options outside the gallery system. In general these artists were already suspect of galleries. They felt that most galleries were hostile to contemporary art and that only a few centers in the country were viable for artists to even sell their work—primarily New York. Even more, they critiqued the notion of art being viewed as simply a commodity. They wanted art to become public and they looked to the example of the Mexican Muralists. Artists advocated that the federal government should pay artists “plumber wages” to create public works of art—this included decorating federal buildings. This idea—first pushed for by the Unemployed Artists Group in 1933—caught wind in the Roosevelt Administration and led to the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and then the WPA-FAP in 1935—representing the heyday of government arts support.
The point that I stressed in my book was that this program was not a gift from a benevolent government; it was fought for and protected by organized artists. Artists identified with organized labor. They formed the Artists’ Union—to mediate between the WPA-FAP Administrators and the 5,000-plus artists in the program. They also advocated that a permanent funding structure be established—a Bureau of Fine Arts—that would view arts funding as an essential part of the cultural wellbeing of the nation, and not simply relief funds during the Depression. These artists were extremely well organized. They demanded rental fees from museums (the idea that artists should be paid to show their work), the establishment of municipal art centers in urban and rural areas, and other ideas that would make art become accessible to a vast public audience.
These ideas were debated in the pages of the Artists’ Union publication, Art Front. The debates highlight two themes: the optimism and energy that many artists felt in the mid-1930s and the right-wing counter attack that ended many of these programs by de-funding them. Although the WPA-FAP lasted until 1943, the funding cuts in 1937 and 1939 decimated many of these programs, and in 1940 the vast majority of WPA-FAP activity was rolled into the Office of War Information (OWI) where artists were assigned tasks like painting camouflage on military vehicles and screen printing targets for military training.
In regards to your question about the John Reeds Clubs—which were meeting hubs for CP (Communist Party) USA cultural organizing—many of these folded in 1936 during the Popular Front that called for a “united front against fascism and war” and urged CP USA members to build alliances with progressive movements, labor unions, and some aspects of the New Deal.
AT: As you mention early in your book, the idea of “art” is a social construction. You bring this up this up in relationship to Native American artwork before and during European colonization. Before colonization, art was part and parcel of everyday life, not something fundamentally set apart. Can you discuss the process by which the Native American concept of art came into conflict and negotiation with the European?
NL: The early contact period—seen in its entirety—was a period of conflict. It was a collision of two completely different societies and cultures. I wrote specifically about the Northeast Woodlands (present day New York, New England, and Quebec) so my chapter focused on the Dutch, French, and English colonists and their relations with the most powerful Native confederation in the region—the Iroquois.
Early European colonists in this region were, at first, primarily interested in beaver pelts—obtaining large numbers of pelts from various Native American tribes to ship to Europe for a profit. As time went on their interests turned to obtaining land. Colonial powers needed to negotiate with Native tribes to obtain these items.
Native tribes were also in competition with one another and they viewed trade with European colonists as largely beneficial. Trade with European partners meant an influx of iron, copper, wampum, shells, and weapons (axes and guns) that made it easier to decimate their Native and non-Native enemies. There was also a spiritual reason for trade. The Iroquois believed that the afterworld had an abundance of traditional Native goods and that European goods were lacking. Trade would help strengthen their voyage to the next world.
My chapter primarily looked at wampum belts—which were a cross-cultural product. Wampum were cylinder-shaped beads that were made from the central column of whelk and quahog shells. European tools allowed for the mass production of these shells that were then stringed into belts. Thousands of white and black beads would be strung into geometric patterns to denote specific meanings, depending upon its imagery and colors.
These belts were essential during treaty negotiations. A wampum belt had to be passed for each major provision of a trade agreement. It could take days, if not weeks, for the entire process to be completed. Europeans preferred signed documents, but they had to abide by Native customs if they wanted to trade with Native groups. To the Iroquois, the passing of wampum belts was a process that allowed for face-to-face communications. In this way alliances could be nurtured as conditions changed. The belts also served as their visual record of trade agreements. These agreements could be further explained through oral history.
To the colonists, wampum belts were seen as an inconvenience—a long step that they needed to take in the negotiation process to eventually get to a signed paper document. The belts can thus be seen as representing this vast disconnect between Native populations and the early colonists and the complex trade relations that defined the era and its outcomes.
AT: Your chapter on art and the American Revolution is also interesting. If I aim to think of contemporary echoes of the art that you discuss I am drawn towards meme and performance rather than painting, sculpture or installation. You make an explicit connection between the “mobs” of New England (the gatherings at the Liberty Tree and Liberty Pole) and the actions of Occupy Wall Street. Then, of course, there are the reproductions by Paul Revere and others of the Boston Massacre and other events that created a collective narrative of the revolution.
NL: I made this connection because it was so apparent. Political and social struggle often situates itself in specific geographical locations by choice or by chance. We saw it in recent years in Tahir Square in Cairo, the Wisconsin State Capital Building in Madison, and Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street
What surprised me about my research during the lead-up to the American Revolution were the sites for struggle in Boston that the working class identified with. Some were due to flashpoints—the Boston Massacre site—but others were self-selected by the movement. By far the most interesting site to me was the Liberty Tree that had become a symbolic site of resistance from 1765 onward, until 1775 when the British cut it down. This tree was an epicenter for working-class organizing. It was a meeting place for assemblies, orations, street theater, mock trials, and was consistently decorated with effigies and lantern slides. It was a place where the working class of Boston could organize and visualize their opposition to the British: a place that asserted that the Revolution was spurred by “the mob”—artisans and farmers—and not simply by the colonial elite—the spokespeople of the Revolution.
I juxtaposed the Liberty Tree example in my chapter with the famous Paul Revere engraving “The Boston Massacre” which helped visualize the narrative of the uprising from a more elite position. Revere visualized the Boston Masscre by showing the “mob” as respectable. A few dozen participants victimized by British soldiers, instead of a mob of one thousand largely comprised of sailors and artisans. He also visualized the first martyr of the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks, as white, when he was part Native, and part African.
This image did create a visual narrative of the Revolution – but it was a misleading narrative. It whitewashed the working class elements and the race dimensions of the uprising.
AT: The artwork of the abolitionist movement seems to follow three different strands: the rendering of the slave trade (mostly by artists in Britain), the initial American efforts (including the postal campaign) and then harder propaganda efforts as the conflict grew sharper. I was wondering if you could say something about these different strands of abolitionist art.
NL: I would say that two main points stand out rather than various strands. One point was that U.S. abolitionists were greatly influenced by the U.K. movement. This included the use of graphics. One of the iconic images of the movement- the architectural rendering of the Brookes slave ship – came out of the U.K SEAST (Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade) campaign and was subsequently used by U.S. abolitionists with only slight modifications.
The other point was that U.S. abolitionists faced much different conditions than their counterparts. Slavery was on U.S. soil. U.K abolitionists were attempting to end Britain’s role in the slave trade and slavery in the British colonies. U.S. abolitionists were confronting the issue in there own backyard. In essence they were challenging the economic, political, and cultural apparatus of the South. Northern industries—particularly the textile industry—bankrolled Southern plantations, so challenging the slave system was challenging the status quo, making this work exceedingly dangerous. Abolitionists were beaten and killed in the North and the artwork produced was done mostly anonymously because it was so dangerous to reveal one’s identity.
I discuss how abolitionist artists tried various tactics to try to win public opinion against slavery. They created images that celebrated heroic Africans and images that vilified slavery. These presented a moral argument against slavery but this tactic ultimately fell short. Words and images were not enough. Slavery was ended by force: by slave uprisings and by the Civil War.
AT: The chapter on "Abolitionism as Autonomy, Activism and Entertainment"—particularly the story of Henry Box Brown—is fascinating. Could you talk about the story of Henry Box Brown, his escape from slavery, his use of the panorama, and the eventual controversies that surrounded his work?
NL: Henry Box Brown stands out in history because he had one of the most ingenious methods of escape: he mailed himself to freedom. A supporter placed him in a wooden box—that no one would suspect that a person could fit into—and then he was mailed by train from Richmond, Virginia to the home of an abolitionist in Philadelphia. Soon thereafter he hit the abolitionist tour circuit in the North, but he did so largely on his own terms. Instead of lecturing at abolitionist events, he had a moving panorama painted that narrated his story and the struggle against slavery. For those unaware: a moving panorama was a precursor to motion pictures. It was literally moving pictures. Not film spliced together, but paintings that each acted as a frame for a larger narrative. They were painted on a large roll of canvas that was attached to two giant spools and placed behind a structure that could sit on a stage. Box Brown would then narrate the story with words and songs.
He toured this production called “The Mirror of Slavery” around the Northeast and the Midwest until the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 made it too dangerous for him to be in the North. He then took a ship to England and brought with him the panorama—touring non-stop in the U.K. with a partner named James C.A. Smith.
Box Brown became controversial in England for many reasons. He blurred activism with entertainment upsetting many of the abolitionists who felt that he took things too far, especially when he re-enacted his escape, dress as an African prince and brandish a sword for his audiences. He also financially burned his partner, was accused of being a substance abuser, and drew sympathy from his audience by saying that profits from the show would help him buy his family that was still held in slavery (yet there is no evidence that he ever tried to reconnect with them). He also made a second panorama that championed England’s imperialist domination over India making him a dubious choice as a social justice crusader. In short, he is very complicated, but extremely interesting. I am actually surprised that a major film has not been made about his life.
AT: After the events of 1968 a mass radicalization swept U.S. campuses and urban areas. Artists were, of course, part and parcel of this process—forming organizations such as the Guerilla Art Action Group (GAAG) and the Art Workers Coalition (AWC)—protesting both the structure of art institutions and the art world's connections to the war in Vietnam. Can you elaborate on some of that history? Also, there has been some debate over the efficacy of the "art strikes" organized by the AWC. I was hoping you could touch on that question as well.
NL: First I would question 1968 as the launching point for a mass radicalism on U.S. campuses and urban areas. The entire decade is what stands out to me. But specifically in regards to the chapter that I wrote “Protesting the Museum Industrial Complex” I focused upon GAAG and AWC and their targeting of New York City museums. I quoted Robert Morris on the “museum of our campuses,” which embodied the spirit of the times: artists viewed the museum as a site of protest. Specifically, both GAAG and AWC were trying to democratize the Board of Trustees of major museums, specifically the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and were drawing connections between militarism, corporate power, and cultural power. GAAG famously staged a “Blood Bath” performance in the lobby of the MoMA demanding the immediate resignations of all the Rockefellers from the Board of Trustees due to their business ties to the machinery of warfare—investments in companies that manufactured napalm and so forth.
The AWC targeted the museum and called for a one-day Art Strike in NYC in response to the escalation of the war in Cambodia and the National Guard opening fire on student demonstrators at Kent State and Jackson State.
I, and others, argue that the Art Strike had mixed results and was indicative of the times: a fractured left that was not connected to organized labor as it had been in the 1930s and 1940s. This matters because the AWC had only a certain degree of collective strength. They were extremely well organized (over 300 artists were part of the group) but they were not organized in the way that a union is, and they could not shut down an industry the way that organized labor can.
I also question the validity of a one-day strike as it can create an easy way out for museums to show temporary solidarity with a cause. That said, there were still tremendous benefits to the action. It continued to radicalize artists and it inspired the workers inside the museums. The formation of the PASTA(Professional and Administrative Staff Association) union at MoMA drew their inspiration from the AWC, so my critique of any of their shortcomings is mixed with my admiration for their efforts.
AT: Emory Douglas is arguably one of the most important political artists of the late 1960s and 1970s. He was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party (BPP) and produced countless works of art, many of which served as propaganda posters and covers for the Black Panther newspaper. His art, like the politics of the Panthers, was inspired by the art and struggle of national liberation movements around the globe. Recently Douglas's work has begun to attract some attention in the mainstream “art world.” Can you expand on the radical nature of his work, influences and legacy?
NL: Emory Douglas was a revolutionary artist in the 1960s and 1970s and he continues to be. I had the great fortune to be on a panel with him this past March in Oakland where he described all the work that he has been doing over the past decade—largely solidarity work with the autonomous EZLN communities in Chiapas. He has been painting murals and drawing historical connections between the armed uprisings of the Panthers and the armed uprisings of the indigenous communities in Chiapas.
I argued in my chapter that he should be viewed as a “party artist” – that his work served the goals of the Black Panther Party. His work followed the platform that he helped created. When the Panthers shifted their policies to the community survival programs, his images also changed.
His work is so significant because he spread the ideas of the BPP, through culture, during a period when the U.S. government was doing everything possible to eradicate the Panthers. They could jail, kill, and force Panthers into exile, but they couldn’t stop the Panthers’ culture from spreading around the U.S. and the world.
Today we look at Douglas’ images through the comfort of time. They loose a sense of urgency but they act as windows into the past to learn more about the Panthers and the issues that they were addressing. To answer the second part of your question, I am not surprised that the “art world” has taken interest in his work. He is an outstanding designer and the subject matter still resonates. In the museum setting his images from the 60s and 70s act as a teaching tool and still communicate a radical message.
AT: In the 1960s the official art world was (as it still is) disproportionately white and male. In the 1970s the Feminist Art Program (FAP) at Fresno State University (FSU) began to challenge all that. The FAP influenced dozens of artists—including figures like Mike Kelley who came to prominence later. Can you talk about the early days of the FAP and the role of artists like Judy Chicago?
NL: In 1970 Judy Chicago took a one-year teaching position at Fresno State University (now California State University-Fresno) and started the Feminist Art Program (FAP). Her and twenty-plus students – all women – held classes off campus (in former military barracks) and basically set up their own curriculum. Their focus was on developing a visual language to talk about their experiences as women and how gender had conditioned their lives.
It was an extremely innovative program and led to a similar program being launched at Cal Arts and then the establishment of the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles—an independent art school dedicated to feminist art.
I should note that Chicago was a visionary in this work, but she was not the only one involved. Faith Wilding, Suzanne Lacy, Miriam Schapiro, Shelia de Brettville, Arlene Raven, Cheri Gaulke, among others, all played key leadership roles. More over the Woman’s Building existed from 1973 to 1991 making it an epicenter for feminist art and activism for nearly two decades. To me it symbolizes the power of collective action and the role that alternative spaces play in fostering radical culture.
AT: It has become axiomatic that art can be anything. In some ways this notion is liberating. In also appears to mean that anything can be commodifed as art—as long as the art institution gives its stamp of approval. What directions do you imagine political and radical art going in the context of contemporary culture in the early 21st century? How do you think artists can break out the confines of the (sometimes narrow) audience for (so-called) "serious art" and connect their work to the concerns, experiences and expectations of wider layers of people?
NL: I think first and foremost artists need to psychologically distance themselves from the “art world”—be it the New York art world or the gallery districts found in their own cities. They are not that interesting to begin with and its audience is limited. And economically it provides a viable income for probably 3% or less of all working artists so I question why we give it so much importance. In the WPA-FAP chapter I quoted the painter Louis Guglielmi who stated during the height of the Great Depression, “The private gallery is an obsolete and withered institution. It not only encouraged private ownership of public property, but it destroyed a potential popular audience and forced the artist into a sterile tower of isolation divorced from society.” When one looks at the glossy art magazines I think that quotes still holds true today.
Personally I champion activist art, community art and environmental art. I advocate for artists to focus their efforts and their talent to working in their immediate community and to working within activist movements.
Art and design is so vital that we need more effort placed on building movements. You do that by collaborating with those outside your discipline. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than working with activist groups and collaborating with them as an artist.
I wrote the People’s Art History book because I wanted more artists to see movement culture and working in activist groups as a viable home for their practice. And I wrote the book because I wanted more activist groups to understand why visual art and creative resistance is so to their tactics.
Nicolas Lampert is a Milwaukee-based interdisciplinary artist and author whose work focuses on themes of social justice and ecology. His first book A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements was published by The New Press in 2013. Adam Turl is a writer and artist based in St. Louis. He is also an editor at Red Wedge.