Longstanding left debates over the relation between art and politics are again significant, given mass upsurges such as Occupy. Nicolas Lampert’s latest publication, A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements, is heavily weighted towards understanding this relation in these terms: an engaged art produced within really-existing mass struggles.
The 29 chapters span US history — from the era before the American Revolution, to the post-2001 antiwar movement. Each discusses a specific instance of struggle and associated artistic projects. In a brief preface, Lampert lays out core assumptions of the book.
First, the emphasis is not on more established artworld figures, such as Nancy Spero, politically active during the Vietnam War era. Instead, the emphasis is on activist art, mostly by lesser-known figures and mostly outside of museums, galleries, and the institutional artworld.
Illustrative is the East Los Angeles arts collective Asco, which arose out of the vital Chicano movements of the early 1970s and is highlighted in chapter 23. Asco was long neglected in mainstream artworld discourse. That changed following a major retrospective, part of the enormous Pacific Standard Time initiative on LA art, at the beginning of this decade.
Second, Lampert looks at works only sometimes made by self-identified artists; and, in other cases, by people who identify first as activists — and as artists only peripherally (if at all).
In 2005, the anti-immigrant Save Our State (SOS) targeted Judith Baca’s public monument Danzas Indigenas (1993). The far-right group objected to quotations, from Chicana feminist writer Gloria Anzaldúa, engraved on the installation in Baldwin Park, near LA. Chapter 27 recounts the response: more than 1000 local community members participated in a new Baca work, Mural in Three Movements, at the site. The vast majority of those involved in Mural, and (victoriously) confronting the SOS racists, did not primarily identify as artists.
Third, the book features “art” which, using traditional definitions, can frequently be difficult to locate: art that “shares commonality with the tactics of social-justice movements”; and “art that intervenes in public space and the mass media” (x). This is an effect of the first two assumptions, which suggest a withdrawal from the legitimation, and very categorization as “art”, bestowed by the institutional artworld and its discourses.
In 2007, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) members reenacted their experiences of combat patrols. These public performances, Operation First Casualty, are considered in chapter 28. The veterans wore their full uniforms, minus weapons; marched in standard patrol formations; and “arrested” detainees played by fellow antiwar activists dressed in civilian clothing. The resulting realism was enough to occasionally raise alarms. Video of the street theater in a crowded Times Square shows passers-by being inadvertently confronted, with some screaming in terror or reflexively putting their hands over their heads. “Audiences” did always correctly interpret this Operation as “art”.
Fourth, the case studies reveal consistent “tactics” that can be “recycled” and “redeployed” by current and future political movements (x).
Of art’s “engagement”, there are multiple degrees: null, weak, and strong. There are also multiple types: an engagement primarily driven by forces external to the artworld; and another, by that world itself. (Though this is not explicitly formulated by Lampert in such terms.)
In the first, “weak” scenario, there is an historical context characterized by strong mass mobilizations. An artist here can produce a subjectively political art, in terms of conscious intentions or motivations; or an art that, in the larger social field, has general, objective political effects, however indirect or attenuated. However, the artist never commits, in the strong sense, to an actual political sequence.
"Sequence” does not mean simply an individual fidelity to an abstract idea — that is virtuous but insufficient. Instead, it refers to political organizations, with structure, meetings, political debate, democratic accountability, demonstrations, and the required, routine work. (This can be occasionally exciting but much of the time not, as most left activists know). Commitment — missing here — would materially concentrate political effects, and elevate above a mere ideal, an artistic practice.
In the second, “null” scenario, an artist does commit, with high intensity, to a political sequence. However, no visual “art”, per popular or institutional categories, , appears in this artist’s practice.
In the third, “strong” scenario, an artist, again, commits to an actual sequence. Further, art is produced that is popularly or institutionally recognized as such. Lastly, that art is subordinate to an organization’s projects and political perspective.
There are no chapters on null engagement, as Lampert does not seek art’s negation, but, instead, to understand its specificity vis-à-vis politics. There are a handful of case studies on artworld-driven engagements. The vast majority concern weak or strong engagements driven by forces outside of that world. These latter cases are most striking and differentiate Lampert’s book from much current debate about art and politics.
Chapter 4 looks at Henry “Box” Brown, a black slave who escaped a Virginia plantation by mailing himself, in a three-foot long crate, to the house of a sympathetic abolitionist in Philadelphia in 1849. Afterwards, Brown worked with the abolitionist movement to tell his story. A biography was ghostwritten, as Brown could neither read nor write; a lithograph was made, showing Brown exiting the infamous box and greeting supporters in Philadelphia; and Brown spoke around the country.
Key black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, for tactical reasons, opposed fugitive slaves revealing their methods of flight; that information would impede incremental efforts to help others trapped in the South. Douglass noted that had not Brown “’and his friends attracted slaveholding attention … we might have had a thousand Box Browns per annum’” (35). Conversely, other abolitionists believed publicizing Brown’s sensational escape would help turn mass opinion against slavery and facilitate ending the entire system in one stroke.
To evade slave catchers prowling the north, Brown fled to Britain the following year. In popular appearances, Brown reenacted his escape, with theatrical élan; sang accessible, abolitionist songs; and displayed a huge panorama laying out the brutality of the slavery system. A panorama was a long, canvas painting mounted on two vertical rollers; the images were continuously scrolled before the audience, to the accompaniment of live music and narration. This essentially offered “moving pictures”, before the development of cinema.
Financially pressed, Brown turned these appearances into moneymaking opportunities, and this unseemly grandstanding soured his relations with the movement. Nonetheless, Lampert argues, Brown was crucial in swaying public opinion against slavery. This happened outside the relatively closed, limited circles of abolitionist militants, via a mass culture strategy. Lampert concludes:
His path allows us to consider the importance of those who veer away from the standard approaches and boundaries that often define social activism. Brown’s antislavery message reached tens of thousands of people through an accessible medium that was rooted in popular culture. (38)
This was an advance, despite Brown’s ultimate separation from the political formations that grounded the abolitionist struggle. Such was this instance of ultimately weak engagement.
From one vantage, chapter 19 — on the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas — is paradigmatic of the strong engagement prominent elsewhere in the book. Per Lampert, Douglas was a “party artist” who created works in conformance with the politico-ideological line of the BPP, even as that line shifted over time (Lampert 2014).
Such a major shift followed the 1970 release of BPP Minister of Defense Huey Newton from prison. There was a move from armed struggle perspectives, focusing upon confrontations with the police and state forces, towards a more long-term revolutionary perspective emphasizing community survival efforts like the well-known free breakfast programs. Lampert argues that “Douglas’s images in the Black Panther” — the weekly party newspaper — “reflected the shift in BPP policy”: from anti-police agitation; towards images of African-American community members receiving free food or campaigning for BPP electoral candidates (208)
“Party” as a category can be applied more expansively. Certain left tendencies have historically interpreted the party not as a specific organizational sequence limited to the Marxist-Leninist and democratic-centralist traditions; but as the totality of the broad movement of the proletariat, whatever workers’ actual affiliations, or lack thereof, with self-declared parties. In this case, a “party artist” would be an one that, first, creates work within an organized political sequence and, second, in the service of its political line. This category can thus be applied, not merely to party formations, but also to the expanse of social movements without the structures, decision-making processes, and overall politics of such formations.
Many of Lampert’s studies are of those movements. Others, such as chapter 13, concern the cultural policies of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) during the infamous Third Period; the later, anti-fascist, Popular Front era is detailed in chapter 16.
Such is strong engagement. Also relevant is whether an engagement is driven primarily by forces outside the artworld; or by that world itself. The latter type is examined in chapter 20, on the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) and Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG). Chapter 9 examines the former type, which is much more the emphasis of the book as a whole.
That chapter considers The Pageant of the Paterson Strike, a 1913 performance at Madison Square Garden and one which reenacted the silk industry strike then underway in New Jersey. Over 1000 of the 25,000 striking workers departed from Paterson by train and marched up Fifth Avenue to the Garden, with an IWW (International Workers of the World) band playing “The Internationale”. The inside of the venue was decked out as an IWW meeting hall, complete with volunteers selling programs and copies of The Masses.
These worker-actors performed events from the very struggle currently raging across the Hudson River. The space was configured so that audience members mingled with actors, sang in unison with them, and listened to speeches — almost identical to the original orations — by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other renowned IWW organizers. The lines in traditional drama were blurred: between audience and players; between “actors” and their roles; between fact and “fiction”; between the space of theater and the real; and between representation and its referent.
The collapse of art and life — in this case, art and politics — has been an integral idea for many revolutions of the twentieth century. This anti-representational framework continues today within left thought, such as socially engaged art This has limitations, however. While Flynn praised the Pageant as “’splendid propaganda for the workers in New York’”, she also criticized it as a “’turning to the stage of the hall, away from the field of life’” (97).
First, the demand to push art as close as possible to the real-time world — as in a restaging of ongoing struggles — creates challenges. The director, revolutionary John Reed, wrote into the script episodes which had occurred merely weeks prior. This drive towards immediacy and directness damaged the ability to properly organize the show in a three-week timeframe, which was insufficient for selling enough tickets and printed programs and for rounding up volunteers. Per Flynn, the IWW lost money. For good reasons, grand art of this kind tends to draw on the distant past.
Second, Flynn maintained that having 1000 workers busy rehearsing, rather than reinforcing picket lines, allowed the first scabs to enter the mills; and that this facilitated the strike’s collapse seven weeks after the Garden. A more carefully calibrated representation would have been preferred. Key issues would be, for example, whether the reenactment should preferably have actors or artists, rather than real workers, playing the onstage roles — assuming the latter had more skills or experience, on the picket line, than the former. Another issue would be numbers. A thousand added a sense of verity and realness, indeed spectacle, to the presentation. Fewer might have been more strategically sound, though more clearly reducing the Pageant to classical synecdoche, the part standing for the whole.
The IWW’s novel foray into performance was intensely grounded, to a near-maximum degree, in an organized political sequence and not centrally determined by the artworld. Similar examples of this approach are found in chapter 24, on the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP; chapter 25, on the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Harbor in NYC and the movement against nuclear weapons; and chapter 22, on artist Suzanne Lacy’s mass media interventions and work, in the women’s movements, against sexual violence.
Meanings of the well-known “Silence = Death” graphic, associated with ACT UP, have shifted over time. The poster shows the slogan, in white, towards the bottom and a pink, equilateral triangle pointing upwards above that; both are horizontally centered against a black backdrop. In tiny font below the slogan is an explanation:
Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable … Use your power … Vote … Boycott … Defend yourselves … Turn anger, fear, grief into action (Crimp with Rolston 1990, 30)
A collective of then-anonymous artists designed this initial version of the work through 1986, and thousands were wheatpasted around NYC in early 1987 — without any foreknowledge of ACT UP’s imminent founding (Finkelstein 2010, 30).
From a physical distance, the graphic’s formal, austere minimalism and predominance of the ominous black backdrop would have – in the political context at that specific moment, and for most audiences – made the poster appear ambiguous and reinforced an impression of “silence” on the main question: “’Silence about what?’” (252).
The pink triangle had been used (pointing downwards) by the Nazis to identify gay people in concentration camps, and this was widely understood within LGBT communities; outside those communities, not so much. The same could be said of the term “death”, in proximity to the pink triangle. As the gay film critic Vito Russo polemicized:
Living with AIDS is living through a war which is happening only for those people who are in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes you look around to discover that you've lost more of your friends. But nobody else notices –It isn't happening to them. (Russo 1988, 10)
So, particular audiences were being targeted by the image. Interested pedestrians would have moved closer to read the small explanatory text.
Politicization around the AIDS epidemic had begun in the City (and around the country) in late 1985. Rapidly escalating deaths was only one factor. The Gay and Lesbian Anti-Defamation League (GLADL) had formed, incensed at the bigoted and homophobic AIDS reporting of the newsmedia. The Lavender Hill Mob was created in the aftermath of the Bowers versus Hardwick decision in mid-1986, when the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional Georgia’s statute illegalizing sodomy.
Still, after less than a year, there was not yet a hegemonic political or organizational center for AIDS activism. A set of firm concepts and language had not yet cohered. That is manifest in the political potpourri at the bottom of the original Silence = Death design. Regarding “voting”, for instance, ACT UP was to never endorse candidates; “boycotts” would be a minimal factor in the group’s work. In this early phase, then, the poster was oriented towards the future and a militant politics that was still only coming into being.
The designers joined ACT UP shortly after its creation in March, 1987, and Silence = Death essentially became the fledging group’s logo. This image appeared In multiple permutations over the years – on buttons, demonstration placards, t-shirts, posters, and other media.
In the original political situation, this sign, insofar as it addressed a general, mass audience, posed a mystery. Within the LGBT communities, the slogan was more comprehensible. In the declarative, it represented existing conditions; in the imperative and with the force of “death”, it also materialized a call to political action and the making of a different future. When politicization around the AIDS crisis accelerated and ACT UP was underway, this singular, canonical image came to represent a cohesive organization and to address an audience more of militants and activists — both in the group and in the increasingly aware LGBT communities.
Case studies in the book are abbreviated, given space limitations. This inhibits a fuller or comparative analysis of the different historical situations in question and their specificity. The book is better appreciated as an introduction to each of the struggles, and an invitation to further research and study by the reader, particularly given persistent biases on the US left against recognizing the role art has played in progressive politics
Also notably absent from the book is an overview of any of the theoretical frameworks predominant in art history and criticism , such as psychoanalysis. Given the different character of the mass struggles that appear in each chapter, applicable frameworks would also shift. Those theoretical models are, to repeat, not merely about art, but also about politics: psychoanalysis, in the above example, is surely pertinent to radical feminisms. Again, these points are not explicit in the book, and any relevant summations are dependent upon the reader.
Such interpretive and comparative work is challenging, given the sheer profusion of examples laid out by Lampert. However, grasping the dynamics of each of those movements is indispensable to grasping the art therein. Questions raised above about ACT UP can apply to such work elsewhere: a mass, atomized, anonymous audience, versus an audience of militants and activists; organized political sequences versus more amorphous, scattered political forms; periods of political mobilization versus those of downturn; addressing distinct subcultures versus dominant, mass cultures; the present versus a sense of futurity; and how all of this impacts, and is impacted in turn, by the artistic form itself.
A People’s Art History of the United States is an invaluable contribution to understanding the engaged, militant art that is so much a part of the history of the US left.
- Crimp, Douglas with Rolston, Adam. 1990. AIDS Demo Graphics. 1st ed. Seattle: Bay Press.
- Finkelstein, Avram. 2010. Interview conducted by the ACT UP Oral History Project. [online] Available at: http://www.actuporalhistory.org/interviews/images/finkelstein.pdf [Accessed 28 Sep. 2014].
- Lampert, Nicolas. 2014. “A People's Art History of the United States.” [online] Red Wedge, 1 June. Available at: http://redwedgemagazine.com/articles/art-history-history [Accessed 28 Sep. 2014].
- Russo, Vito. 1988. “Viewpoints: It Isn’t Happening to Them.” Windy City Times, 28 July, 10-11.
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Paul Mullan is an activist and writer in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared in Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead, Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.