other publications


The Art of Protest: From Vietnam to AIDS

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, ACT UP poster Fode Camara, YALA YANA BEY SA TOL. 'Yala yana' is a Wolof expression for 'God is great' or 'by the grace of God.'

As we noted earlier, Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture (1961) promoted the values of abstract expressionism and argued against images that directly portrayed social or political messages. Such non-representational art contrasted sharply with the highly pictorial style of socialist realism, and came to be thought of as "more objective" despite its abstraction. Many artists who were politicized by the Vietnam War and other efforts at colonialism rejected Greenberg's ideology as incapable of expressing their outrage at the military interventions and propaganda campaigns used to justify them.

Conceptual and performance art challenged the formal remoteness of the abstract expressionists by forcing audiences to engage with political messages in the works. For example, Chris Burden's intentional wounds--having an associate shoot him with a rifle, crawling over broken glass, or having his hand nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen--challenged the audience to consider their responsibilities: "Should you watch someone doing this to themselves? How was it like or unlike watching the newsfootage of killings, burnings, and woundings which had poured out of American televisions since the beginning of the Vietnam War?" (126) Today, we are faced with similar ethical issues when we watch genocide in Rwanda or war in Iraq--are we responsible somehow?

Artist Martha Rosler used the slogan "Bringing the War Home" to suggest complicity between US foreign policy and domestic apathy: "When I finally understood what it meant to say that the war in Vietnam was not an 'accident,' I virtually stopped painting and started doing agitational works" (126). She also refused to show her works in the usual gallery settings--as a protest against market economies and policies--choosing the street or underground press as venues for her images and ideas.

Faith Ringgold, The Flag is Bleeding #2, 1997; ACA Galleries, New York.

To demonstrate more overt opposition to the market forces dominating the production of art, the Guerrilla Art Action Group protested against the "blood money" funding received by the Museum of Modern Art in 1969: "We're killing people [in Vietnam] ostensibly to maintain the rationale of artistic freedom," claimed artist Carl Andre. Eva Cockroft's 1974 article "Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War" revealed that MOMA had been secretly funded by the CIA to mount international exhibitions promoting the "freedom and purity" of American abstract art. Even art with no ostensible political content could be enlisted in the service of propaganda.

During "The People's Flag Show" in 1970, Faith Ringgold and the Guerilla Art Action Group were convicted for violating federal flag desecration legislation. They justified their actions by claiming, "If the flag can be used to sanctify killing, it should be available to people to stop killing" (132). While Ringgold's work often suggests the links between war and racism, Nancy Spero and Brazillian Josely Carvahlo use images to suggest the connections between war, the oppression of women, and the abuse of human rights. War becomes both a motivating factor for activist art, and provides a metaphor for the more general exercise of power--usually associated with men--over women, people of colour, and the socially disadvantaged. The Guerilla Girls performance group carries on this theme, beginning with campaigns against the exclusion of women in art collections, then moving towards Hollywood's neglect of women directors and actors (the Anatomically-Correct Oscar campaign).

Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met?

Dada, Fluxus, and Situationist International

Activist conceptual and performance art often owes a debt of influence to Dada, a form of anti-art which used satire and non-rational discourse to critique the First World War and its capitalist agenda. From its origins, Dada often had the feel of festival and agitation-propaganda, and challenged the elevation of art to elite status and high price tags in galleries. Their example inspired the group of artists associated with Fluxus, whose performances, installations, and conceptual art often expressed overt political intentions. For example, Wolf Vostell's Phänomene (1965) "involved the spontaneous contributions of poets, artists, and onlookers amidst the crumbling piles of broken cars (i.e., the detritus of capitalist production and destruction)" (136). Other Fluxus artists of note include Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik.

Wolf Vostell, Fluxus-Piano-Lituania, Hommage  Maciunas, 1994,  VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Contemporary protests against the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and other agents of globalized capital often seem inspired by the anti-war protests of the 1960s, especially those associated with Paris in 1968. In an illustration of Che Guevara's "catalyst theory" of "how a revolution could be sparked by a minority insurgence" (137), street theatre, dada-inspired art, and varieties of civil disobedience by students and war protestors prompted factory workers to call a general strike that eventually involved nine million people. Cheap posters and graffiti covered the walls like urban wallpaper.

The protests of Paris in May 1968 were partly influenced by the philosophies of the Situationist International and the writings of Guy Debord, especially The Society of the Spectacle. Debord "criticized the erosion of authentic social relations by the 'spectacle' of mass-culture consumerism and its enforced habits of docile entertainment and empty pleasure" (139). Wolf Vostell The playful absurdity of the dadaists and surrealists were appropriated by the protesters to challenge the rationalistic and utilitarian approaches of capitalist doctrine, and carried out in the spirit of street festival and spontaneous uprising (see Hakim Bey).

The films of Jean-Luc Godard--particularly Week-End (1968)--demonstrated his concern with the "pacifying and manipulative effects of seductive illusions, exemplified by Hollywood movies" (140). With similar intentions to Brecht in the theatre, Godard wanted viewers to remain aware that they were watching a constructed fiction, though certainly with relevance to social issues when considered by the critically-aware viewer. His failure to gain a mass audience prompts Clarke to speculate: "Can film-making work outside (and against) the conventions of Hollywood-style entertainment, and still attract the viewing interests of cinema's large audiences" (141). More to the point, however, might be the question of how to move a revolutionary awareness from the fringes to the mainstream of society. Can slogans and graffiti become documentaries and news coverage, then feature films? What are the media of protest and revolution? Certainly not those media controlled by cultural expansionists looking for a complacent mass audience. In this regard, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World might be a more compelling vision of the future than Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Towards a Third Art

Political resistance in Third-World countries was inspired by Franz Fanon's critique of colonialism and racism in The Wretched of the Earth (1961). In it, Fanon described colonialism "as an experience which distorts the psychology of individual subjects, and argued that this can only be cured by cultural resistance" (142). His ideas, and others like them, have inspired a cinema of resistance originating from Asian, African, and Latin American film-makers. For example, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, the Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry was established to promote the policies of the communist revolution. In Argentina, directors Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas published their manifesto Towards a Third Cinema to counter the influences of the first cinema from Hollywood, and the second cinema, domestic films with European backing. In Third Cinema, the camera is a rifle, a weapon in the hands of the dispossessed, Cherie Samba, Les economistes a bicyclette, 2001.which not only focuses on the lives of the colonized, but tells those stories in new ways. For an African approach to these same concerns, see the filmic works of Ousmane Sembène, or the paintings of Chéerie Samba. What characterizes this "third art" is a deconstruction of colonialist attitudes and institutions, and a concerted effort to tell stories and show images in ways unique to the Third World culture. The aesthetic norms of Hollywood and Europe are considered to be cultural shackles analogous to the bonds of slavery. As Fanon and others argued, the first step to liberation is to free the shackles of one's own mind.

Feminist Equations

Primordial Goddess Plate from the dinner party  Judy Chicago 1979.

Judy Chicago exerted a formative influence beginning in the 1970s by advocating new ways of making feminist art: "working collaboratively; exploring the history and cultural representation of women; exploding dominant stereotypes in pictures, performances, and installations, and combining highly-charged sessions of personal discussion with public agitational events" (147). As with the Third Cinema, feminists like Chicago altered both their subject matter--turning way from phallocentric imagery--and their ways of telling stories. Her monumental The Dinner Party (1974-78) invites many of the significant women of history to a fictional meal to celebrate their accomplishments with contemporary viewers. Ceramic plates adorned with images inspired by a woman's body were placed on embroidered cloth runners covered with motifs taken from the history of (women's) art. In part, the use of ceramics and textiles is an attempt to resurrect their importance as media of artistic expression.

How do I begin to take responsibility for my body?  Jo Spence/Rosy Martin/Maggie Murray

Feminists also adapted the disruptive performance strategies of dada, the situationists, and Fluxus to challenge public awareness. They had considerable success in opening up both the discourse on social inequalities, and art galleries to women. The growing awareness throughout the 1980s that sexual difference is in part socially constructed, brought feminist artists into alignment with movements concerned with race and class. Many "feminist" works thus trade on signifying systems appropriated from equal rights and socialist movements--where the "personal is political." In the works of Jo Spence and Mona Hatoum, the documentation of personal events and psychic states--often marked by a sense of alienation and resistance--are recorded with unflinching honesty in a form of "phototherapy" or installation art. The psychoanalytic work of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva are important sources for understanding how the personal life of the artist can transcend the individual and speak meaningfully to a larger audience. As Clark comments, the work of Spence and Hatoum reveals "no fixed distinction between self-expression and political statement" (154).

As the aesthetics of postmodernism came gradually to displace previous artistic strategies, it became increasingly difficult to invest the personal/political equation with authenticity: image saturation, increasing interpenetration of commercial and high art (pop art), and a growing relativism meant that images had to be framed with ambiguity and irony. Still political, equally personal, these postmodern images are more sly, humorous, and oblique in their approach to activism. Mary Beth Edelson, Get it? (1992), p.p.o.w. installationThe work of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman are all characterized by sly humour and allusiveness. Clark claims the work of Jenny Holzer, for example, "encourages a suspicion of verbal messages, and especially of didactic or opinionated statements" (155). Her important series of works called Truisms confronts the viewer with statements that at first seem authoritative and persuasive; however, since these truisms are presented in lists, they lose their persuasive power and come to be seen for what they are--expressions of disembodied authority seeking to gain power over the viewer. As with most propaganda, the sayings convey a sense of "certainty without sincerity" (156). The critic Hal Foster writes: "Coercive languages are usually hidden, at work everywhere and nowhere: When they are exposed they look ridiculous. And the Truisms do read like a dictionary of such languages, with the effect that they are depleted, robbed of their 'fascist' power" (156). Holzer and the Irish artist Rita Donagh among many others address the problems of representation in a media-saturated environment.

Silence = Death

Jenny Holzer, Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid

In various ways, all of the artists discussed in this chapter resist the attempts of repressive forces--cultural, political, or personal--to silence or ignore those deemed less worthy of notice. There is a danger, however: when artists begin to appropriate the troubles of these marginalized peoples as the subject of their art, they run the risk in Craig Owens' phrase of "the indignity of speaking for others." (In Canada, this appropriation of voice and imagery can particularly be seen with First Nations art.) Directly expressing the outrage of the dispossessed by outsiders is often greeted with the charge of appropriation for artistic purposes, so strategies are required to convey the message in less exploitative ways.

Wodiczko's Homeless Vehicle (1988) provides both a useful insight into the plight of the homeless--their need for secure, if mobile, shelters--as well as a plea to recognize their predicament. AIDS activists throughout the 1980s and 90s used both direct agitation in the streets and postering (ACT UP, Gran Fury, Art+Positive), but also successfully mobilized millions with the AIDs Memorial Quilt Project, organized by the San Francisco-based The NAMES Project, and first shown in Washington, DC in 1987: "Speaking many voices, existing in no single place, movable, expandable, made both privately and collectively, and able to remember an individual within an inclusive community, the quilt may have succeeded in bringing together the political and human functions of art" (161). As a testiment to its ability to capture the popular imagination in a time of crisis, the AIDs Memorial Quilt has so many panels only part of it can be gathered in one place. Like Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Monument, the AIDs Memorial Quilt is both a testimonial to those lost and a heart-felt plea for compassion and acceptance. In the end, the propaganda of dissent seeks to build bridges rather than destroy them.


Kruger, Barbara: Untitled (Your Fictions...), 1981-83