[sixties-l] ART CRIMES: The Ebb, Flow & Dilemma of Protest Art

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri Apr 06 2001 - 00:32:21 EDT

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    ART CRIMES: The Ebb, Flow & Dilemma of Protest Art


    by Kari Lydersen

    On August 1st, 2000, about 180 state police troopers in riot gear
    surrounded a warehouse in Philadelphia . A police helicopter attempted to
    land on the roof. Police took a circular saw to the locked door. Once the
    armed brigade busted into the building, they arrested everyone inside. The
    arrestees were held on a bus for 10 hours without water or bathrooms; they
    were told to "piss on the floor" according to Dave Bailey, one of those
    arrested. Many of them, including Bailey, spent 12 days in detention.
    Bailey's bail was set at $10,000. For five days he was held in segregation,
    in a two-person cell where he was held for 23 hours a day.
    His crime?
    Making puppets for the protests during the 2000 Republican National
    After arresting the puppet-makers in Philly, the police proceeded to seize
    and destroy hundreds of puppets and effigies, the collective fruits of
    weeks of work by hundreds of people. Only a handful of puppets which had
    been removed by protesters earlier were saved, including 138 skeletons
    representing all the people executed in Texas during Bush's reign as governor.
    According to the puppeteers, police initially refused to even tell them
    what they were being arrested for. Police eventually charged the
    puppeteers, or puppetistas, as some have humorously dubbed them, with
    "obstructing a highway" (though they were inside a warehouse), and
    "possession of instruments of crime"in this case, puppets. In an even more
    surreal move, police claimed that the artists were planning to release
    venomous animals during the convention. A rare animal dealer with a
    truckload of poisonous animals was indeed passing through the city during
    the time of the convention, though the dealer was not a protester and had
    contacted the police in advance asking about the safety of traveling
    through the city.
    "There were all sorts of wild reports the cops put out," said Bailey. "We
    had taken every pain to make our efforts transparent. Everyone knew about
    it. Obviously it was very dangerous in terms of ideas."
    The charges against most of the puppeteers were finally dropped in
    December, largely because the undercover police who had posed as union
    stagehands to infiltrate the puppet-making operation couldn't make
    identifications. Some of the artists are still facing serious felony
    assault charges, however.
    The puppetistas currently have civil suits in the works. The American Civil
    Liberties Union has stated that the raid was one of the most egregious
    modern examples of preventive detention and First Amendment abuse.
    As street demonstrations, particularly those against globalization, have
    grown over the past year and a half, starting with the massive anti-WTO
    protests in Seattle in late 1999, political protest art, including puppets,
    street theater, stencils, posters, murals and graffiti has enjoyed a
    resurgence. All were in ample evidence at the anti-IMF protests in
    Washington D.C. in April 2000, the Republican and Democratic Conventions
    during the summer, at the anti-IMF/World Bank protests in Prague in
    September 2000, and at the 2001 Presidential Inauguration, where, despite
    the authorities' banning of puppets in the protest area, some creative
    protesters responded by smuggling puppets in as signs that could be
    reassembled in puppet form.
    Looking Back:
    A History of Ebbs and Flows
    In the US, political street art flourished amid the revolt of the '60s.
    Murals, a staple of the Mexican Revolution and other international
    movements, gained prominence as a community-based art form in the U.S. in
    the late '60s and burgeoned over the next few years as funding and public
    support for them became available. The National Endowment for the Arts
    (NEA) and other mainstream agencies started making significant funds
    available to muralists and public art projects in the mid '60s, making more
    projects possible but also putting constraints on the content of
    publicly-funded work. The Art Workers Coalition in New York and the Los
    Angeles Council of Women Artists were among the activist art groups formed
    in the '60s who used government funding for politically dissident projects.
    But pressure from city governments and mainstream community groups blunted
    the political edge of the mural movement by the mid '70s, spurring groups
    like Artmakers to form in the early '80s with rejuvenated radicalism.
    Though progressive politics muted in the '80s, political public art scaled
    new heights of sophistication, participation and humor throughout the
    country. Many attribute this to the wealth of artists who came of age in
    the '60s and to the teaching of political and public techniques in
    mainstream art schools throughout the '70s.
    The 1980s: A Heyday of Sorts
    When black graffiti artist Michael Stewart was arrested and strangled to
    death by New York police in 1985and when all the (white) officers involved
    were acquittedan army of his fellow political public artists rose to his
    defense. Political street art in New York City protesting his murder and
    the climate of police brutality mushroomed almost overnight.
    "The medical examiner removed his eyeballs so there wouldn't be evidence of
    the strangulation," said Seth Tobocman, who created numerous posters and
    stencils protesting Stewart's murder and the acquittal
    of the guilty cops the following year. When a diverse and highly
    politicized group of local artists called Artmakers Inc. launched the
    ambitious "La Lucha Continua" mural project at La Plaza Cultural in the
    quickly-gentrifying Lower East Side where Stewart had done much of his
    work, his slaying emerged as one
    of several interconnected themes engaged by the project, including
    apartheid, evictions, US intervention in Central America, the disappeared
    in Guatemala, homelessness and the power of grassroots community organizing.
    Political public art was almost synonymous with life for Stewart, Tobocman
    and their crowd on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1980s, which
    included activists and artists from virtually every economic, educational
    and ethnic background. One typical day found Tobocman with a group in
    Washington Square Park painting a mural of cuffed hands decorated with the
    stars and stripes of the American flagan oblique statement on electoral
    "These Rastafarian drug dealers ran the park, so we used their system of
    lookouts. We had them watching our backs while we did this mural. Then
    these kids from New Jersey came in and we gave them some black spray paint
    and they painted all over the arch. It was this amazing moment of all these
    different people working together."
    With Reagan in the White House and gentrification, police brutality, and
    landlord-induced arson rocking the city, the large and vibrant political
    artist community responded with anger and joy, putting their creativity to
    work in both legal and extralegal ways to thwart the system. Musicians,
    poets, eccentric orators and other creatively-inclined rabble-rousers
    formed a loose network with professionally-trained and self-taught visual
    artists, who blanketed the city with unauthorized political murals,
    stencils, fliers, tagged slogans, impromptu performances, speak-outs and
    jam sessions.
    Tompkins Square Park was an unofficial political art gallery and
    performance space, with speeches, blues, reggae, drum circles or punk music
    echoing from the band shell. Stencils festooned the sidewalks and
    political fliers enveloped the lampposts for blocks around. Graffiti was at
    its height for much of the ^A'80s, still more or less the domain of the
    ghettos where it was born, but blossoming into new and more sophisticated
    political and aesthetic styles. Stewart was just one of many graffiti
    artists working hand in hand with activist artists of other sortsa synergy
    seen much less frequently today.
    Much of the most powerful work of the '80s combined the efforts of both
    gallery and activist crowds. The homeless performance group the Los Angeles
    Poverty Department (LAPD) put on street theater about the plight of the
    homeless, poor and mentally ill. They were hauled away by police to
    sanitize the city for the 1984 Olympics. Greenpeace activists attached
    banners to garbage barges, the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore, jumped
    from smokestacks, staged mock fashion shows and created other visual and
    guerrilla theatre works to protest nuclear power, pollution, and animal
    cruelty, among other issues.
    Gran Fury and ACT UP launched biting and provocative AIDS-activism and
    anti-homophobia crusades in New York, sometimes utilizing corporate
    advertising methods as with the then-shocking "Kissing Doesn't Kill" bus
    and billboard campaign. They also circulated stickers, T-shirts and
    placards with eye-catching images of penises and slogans like "Sexism Rears
    its Unprotected Head AIDS Kills Women," and "The Government has blood on
    its hands one AIDS death every half hour." To protest media coverage of
    AIDS, in 1989 Gran Fury printed a four-page New York Crimes parody of the
    Times and wrapped it around thousands of Times papers inside vending
    machines at 4 a.m. The AIDS quilt also made its rounds of the country in
    the late '80s.
    Feminist groups were among the most active during the ^A'80s: the Guerrilla
    Girls donned gorilla masks to protest male-dominance of the art world and
    larger feminist issues. Artist, writer and video producer Suzanne Lacy's
    nationwide projects including "In Mourning and in Rage" (actually created
    in 1977) and "Immigrants and Survivors" placed costumed women in public
    places to whisper or scream about violence toward women and other feminist
    issues. In Chicago, New York, Houston, San Francisco and other cities the
    Women's Action Coalition used visual and action-oriented art to protest
    physical and legislative violence against women.
    Across the country countless shifting groups and collectives painted
    overtly political murals with and without official permission. These
    included an exploding number of Chicano murals in California; anarchist,
    labor and housing-rights murals along Haight Street and throughout the
    Mission District in San Francisco; and in New York the "La Lucha" project
    and Group Material's excellent and broad-ranging poster and mural campaign.
    The 1990s: A Low Point
    During the late 1990s, several graffiti artists were fatally shot by police
    and black and Latino graffiti artists were constantly harassed and
    physically attacked by police. But none of these incidents drew a response
    like the murder of Stewart did.
    Big Juss, a New York graffiti and hip-hop artist, used to throw his name up
    all over Manhattan and spend all night riding and tagging the trains.
    Today, he sticks to New Jersey suburbs because of the draconian laws that
    slap illegal graffiti and political artists in New York with thousands of
    dollars in fines and jail time. The only "graffiti" in Manhattan which
    bears his name, actually that of his hip hop group, Company Flow, is a
    graffiti-style ad done by his former record label without his knowledge.
    "I'm not sure how I feel about that," he said, wincing slightly. Much of
    Manhattan's public art of the old grassroots political forms, murals,
    posters, graffiti, is in fact advertising for fashion, music, alcohol,
    software, food. The murals and stencils of political figures and issues
    done in the 80's are largely absent.
    While protest art remains, the current political art scenes in the major US
    cities revolve largely around small, close-knit, often male-dominated
    networks and a limited number of high-profile individual causes, with Mumia
    Abu-Jamal's being the trendiest. In New York, the once-raging Tompkins
    Square Park scene and various other political collectives have largely
    dropped out of sight, due mostly to quickening gentrification and a spate
    of stifling "quality of life" laws.
    Robert Lederman is one of the city's most visible political public artists.
    Lederman is a career artist who was politicized by former New York mayor
    Rudolph Giuliani's attacks on street artists and who quickly became one of
    the mayor's harshest and untiring critics. The unflattering cardboard
    caricatures of "Ghouliani" , which he carries and passes out at demos have
    riled Rudy so much that he had Lederman arrested on disorderly conduct
    charges more than 40 times and even tried to outlaw removing cardboard from
    dumpsters. Lederman laps up the Mayor's hatred proudly and points to
    Giuliani's persecution of him as a sign of the lack of other political
    public art going on.
    Susan Green, a 20-year fixture in the San Francisco art scene, says she
    feels "pretty alienated" today in San Francisco because of the lack of a
    strong political art scene.
    "The ripping down [of] posters and painting over things definitely has a
    dampening effect on people," she said. "There still is a lot of postering
    going on, but there was a point where it was a much more vibrant form of
    communication and people were putting up posters not only to advertise
    events but to express ideas. I haven't really seen that happening in years,
    [not] since the neighborhoods started gentrifying."
    "There are still quite a few walls being painted, but they're not as
    political," added Miranda Richardson, another San Francisco artist who has
    been working in the Mission community for 25 years and who went to
    Nicaragua and the West Bank with Green. "Most of it is spray art, which
    isn't as issue-based. I wish it was. Part of the reason is that there isn't
    an overt movement. There has to be something for it to bounce off of."
    Like Richardson and Green, many of the artists of the ^A'80s continue doing
    politically-engaged public art. But a majority of the notable groups have
    folded, dwindled, lost their oppositional edge and/or become more
    concentrated in the gallery world than the public sphere. Participation in
    Guerrilla Girls events dropped drastically through the early '90s and
    became more and more insular. Gran Fury and ACT-UP drifted toward more
    introspective, less angry works as the nature of the AIDS crisis and public
    attitudes evolved. Group Material became more gallery-oriented, perhaps a
    victim of its own success, and most of its members drifted away. The
    Women's Action Coalition dissolved from internal struggles and exhaustion.
    Many individual artists tended toward galleries or books as they grew tired
    and frustrated with the activist scene, looked for more stability, or
    started families. The bottom line, as Richardson said, is that the state of
    the political movement was no longer sustaining the art.
    "It has to do with the demise of the left in America," said Greg Sholette,
    an art teacher and founder of Repo History, a radical New York public art
    group which continues to put out political public works. "Academia has
    taken over some of that, people who would have been political leaders have
    become professors. They've taken away the idea of using public space for
    oppositional messages."
    Art Appropriation,
    Graffiti & the Protection of Capital
    Until the activist resurgence of the past two years, and the obvious
    potential it has to seize the popular imagination, graffiti, with its
    greater threat to property values and its exaggerated ties to "gangs" and
    "crime" struck considerably more fear into the hearts of landlords and
    In 1995, Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell announced that "One of the worst
    problems facing this city is graffiti," while unveiling a new
    zero-tolerance anti-graffiti campaign. "While it can't kill or maim,
    graffiti is a more insidious problem. It can kill morale." An article by
    the Kensington Welfare Rights Union notes that Philly spends $3 million a
    year fighting graffiti and that graffiti artists can end up with $10,000
    fines and up to five years in jail. The laws also hold parents responsible
    for their kids' graffiti and fine property owners who don't clean up
    graffiti on their property.
    Bus stop bench advertisements in Oakland say "NO: Drugs, Driving Drunk,
    Graffiti," equating painting with potentially deadly drug use and drunk
    Costly anti-graffiti programs are ironic considering that at the same time
    cities are spending millions to fight graffiti, they're pouring money into
    after-school art programs that serve essentially the same purpose as
    graffiti, giving "at risk" kids a wholesome creative outlet.
    The Debatable Politics of Graffiti
    Fifteen or 20 years ago graffiti might have appeared to be the obvious
    inheritor of the political street art tradition, a new grassroots form
    produced by the most disenfranchised and oppressed of the country's youth.
    But Tobocman and many other political artists of his generation are
    skeptical about the artistic and political growth and potential of
    graffiti. Many say they respect it for what it is and see it as a potential
    springboard, but they label the current scene as more about ego and
    trendiness than power or politics.
    "As an instructor and youth organizer I see it as something that can be
    very useful and lead to other things," said Chicago art teacher and
    political muralist Robert Valadez. "But 90% of it is very uninspired and
    derivative, mainly about competition and getting your tag up. Ideally,
    it's the beginning of a belief system and a part of one phase of their
    lives that they'll branch out from."
    Casper, a long-time Chicago graffiti artist who, like the political artists
    has now gravitated to the gallery scene, doesn't think graffiti artists
    make any claims to be political, and doesn't think they should be expected to.
    "It's two completely different realms, it's a non-issue," he said. "Some
    artists might be political but their graffiti isn't about politics. It's
    not about changing the world, it's about being a superstar. This is their
    way to be a star. I think even for political art you would find that.
    Though the person might be political, their art is about being a star.
    Diego Rivera was obviously a political person, he was involved in
    assassination attempts, but I think his art was his show-off aspect."
    Robert Muniz, a teen-age graffiti artist in San Antonio, agrees. He can
    make a good case for graffiti being political in that it takes back public
    space from the system, but he readily he admits he does graffiti mainly for
    the fun and glory. "I do it for myself. I just love it. Someone sees my
    name over and over, I'll walk through the mall with my crew and everyone
    knows who we are."
    A survey of the many glossy graffiti magazines shows scant mention of
    political issues or works among the tales of the street, disses of other
    artists and misogynistic attitudes.
    But there are graffiti artists doing overtly political work, and some of
    the most visually striking and visible political art in the country, at
    that. "Eskae" and "Twist" are two Bay Area (California) artists who
    regularly attack capitalism, the military-industrial complex, corporate
    advertising and the US government. Twist, aka Barry McGee's work commonly
    features bloated, evil-oozing capitalist pigs with dollar signs floating
    around. One of his pieces shows a flaccid, cowardly boss in a business suit
    forcing a blindfolded worker to carry him on his back.
    "I create graffiti as a political act against the whole idea of property
    ownership," Eskae is quoted as saying in Michael Walsh's book Graffito.
    "Graffiti is a kick in the face to the gallery/museum system, where the
    artist is pimped like a whore for the capitalist system, made into another
    commodity for people to buy."
    Ephraim, a graffiti artist who painted in Santa Cruz under the name Ripe
    (as in "the time is ripe") argues that graffiti is intensely political
    regardless of the message.
    "The very act of an individual projecting their identification into the
    public realm is very political," he said. "It's about retaining
    individuality in a society that neither condones nor accepts it, that tries
    to replace it with a mass corporate identity."
    Though property owners and government
    officials are frightened enough of graffiti and what it implies to spend
    millions of dollars removing it, the corporate advertising industry of
    America feels just the opposite. They are eager to spend millions on
    graffiti, to own and use it. With its irresistibly attractive style and
    status within youth and hip hop culture, advertisers have jumped all over
    the graffiti bandwagon to hawk clothing, sports equipment, alcohol, soda,
    music and countless other commodities. Ironically, much of graffiti's
    advertising use is to sell over-priced goods from huge (mainly white-owned)
    companies to the low-income minority kids who started graffiti as a form of
    protest against this system in the first place. Ephraim sees this as a
    conscious philosophy, and he partially blames co-optation by mass media and
    advertisers for the apolitical and self-referential aspects of graffiti.
    "There's infighting, scenism and material bias," he says. "Part of that is
    because it is attacked by our culture on two fronts, by capitalism
    co-opting it and the powers that be trying to squash it. (Co-optation by
    advertising) is one of the insidious structures of control that dominant
    culture has. It's like white blood cells, taking what attacks them and
    trying to transform it into a line of defense, turning it around and making
    it part of the system."
    Redefining the Political
    While the Free Mumia movement may be the most "successful" and widespread
    of the overtly political art campaign, plenty of activists and leftists
    criticize it for its trendiness, narrow focus and air of white punk
    cliquishness. Many political artists say that in this day of mainstream
    political apathy and cynicism, more personal and subtle public art has
    greater political potential than the lineup of now-commonplace images. They
    say "black and red" revolutionary imagery has gotten hackneyed and boring,
    and that images of Malcolm X, Emiliano Zapata, Pedro Albizu-Campos, Che
    Guevara are so common that they don't even raise an eyebrow, let alone a
    dissonant or disruptive idea.
    "It's more inspiring when the politics are mixed in with real art, [where]
    the political message could be buried on the third layer of meaning," said
    Andrew Castrucci, a founder of the New York Bullet Space
    squatter-activist-artist organization. "It's very boring to have a
    straight-up political message. The more cryptic it is, the more powerful it
    Inspired Lunacy
    Humor and whimsy, as seen in puppet shows and light-hearted demonstrations
    going back to the '60s, are also effective weapons. The squatter and
    community garden movements in the US and throughout Europe are experts at
    pulling off loopy, hilarious occupations and protests. Even before the
    anti-globalization movement kicked off, microradio and democratic media
    activists were putting puppets and street theater to good use.
    "The garden people have done some amazing things with puppets," said
    Tobocman. "They give it a less militant tone^If you start playing kazoos,
    [they don't] know what to do."
    Juan Chavez, a Chicago artist who does both commissioned and guerrilla work
    and teaches art to youth, agrees. Though he does work on overtly political
    themes including an anonymous anti-police brutality mural, he prefers to
    break the status quo and challenge people to think with illegal works which
    are unexpected, abstract, and often funny and thought-provoking.
    "How many Boricua (Puerto Rican) pride murals do you need?" he asks. "I try
    to get the kids to think in new ways, to do things that people haven't done
    millions of times before."
    In 1999 Chavez and a friend placed a life-sized plaster cast of a homeless
    person on Chicago's Lower Wacker Drive, where many homeless people would
    survive the freezing winters huddled on heating grates until the city swept
    them out and fenced in the grates. The sculpture was soon smashed to bits
    and Chavez found it with a rat inside the obliterated hollow shell.
    "We don't know if it was a cop or someone who hated homeless people or a
    homeless person who thought we were making fun of them," he said. "The
    reaction was fitting considering what's been happening to the real homeless
    people there."
    Artistic Dissent Everyday
    If Tobocman and the Tompkins Square crowd epitomized the New York political
    art scene of the '80s, it may be James de la Vega with his less political
    but more personal, subtle, pop-cultural and even spiritual style who
    personifies the contemporary movement. A 27-year-old Cornell graduate of
    Puerto Rican descent, De la Vega returned to his economically-depressed
    Spanish Harlem neighborhood in 1994 to open a studio at 103rd and Lexington
    Avenue and proceeded to blanket the surrounding blocks with paint, chalk
    and tape collages. He sees his political role as waking people up, and
    stirring them from the alienated routine and torpor of the
    work-to-home-to-sleep-to-work grind.
    "Working here I see all these people walking back and forth every day with
    their heads down, in a total routine," he says. "My job is to snap them out
    of that. You see something that says something about the conditions around
    you and it makes you think. It's not in a gallery, it interrupts what
    you're doing so you have to deal with it."
    In the winter he uses tape to create huge images on the sidewalks and
    streets. He does murals of black and Puerto Rican musicians. Though De la
    Vega doesn't talk much about religion, he also creates spare, dramatic
    masking-tape and paint renditions of the crucifixion and the Last Supper .
    One of his masterpieces is a huge version of Picasso's Guernica, which
    included a needle in an arm until local residents demanded he paint over
    that part.
    De la Vega is clearly conscious of and engaged with broad political issues,
    but prefers to use his art to directly empower his immediate community. He
    feels he does this by brightening and decorating the area, and just by
    working in what he calls his "fishbowl studio," with a window on the street
    inviting people to come in and participate or just talk. It was his
    father's dream to be an artist, a dream that was crushed by poverty and
    long hours of low-wage labor before his death from AIDS. De la Vega feels
    he has transcended those circumstances and fulfilled his father's dream.
    His politics are manifest in his desire to inspire and teach other poor
    Spanish Harlem kids to do the same.
    San Francisco's Susan Green likewise believes that the act of creation and
    statement for oppressed people and especially youth, whether in apolitical
    graffiti or community murals, is the true political statement. The kids in
    her program at the Oakland projects aren't much interested by politics or
    the history of struggle. She says they were thoroughly bored by a local
    "Huey Newton Historical Tour" led by Bobby Seale himself. Whatever the
    subject matter, she says the fact that these kids are doing art is political.
    "The powers that be want these kids to go to prison," she said. "They need
    them in prison to keep the system going. They would much rather have them
    in prison than in college. So the most intensely political act is for them
    to be doing something like this that gives them an identity and confidence,
    where they get the sense that 'Fuck no, I can do whatever I want.'"
    In other words it isn't works of art about oppressed people but rather
    oppressed people out there doing art that has potential to change the
    system. The wave of art at the protests against the WTO, IMF, DNC, RNC and
    plans for more of the same at the protests against the Free Trade Area of
    the Americas (FTAA) meetings in Montreal has re-invigorated certain sectors
    of protest art, and draws on a long international tradition of artistic
    opposition to power and injustice. Murals, posters and street theater can
    often inspire, involve and move people in ways that rhetoric simply cannot.
    Now it remains to be seen if this resurgence will be integrated into an
    ongoing artistic rebellion, if it will foment a creative dialogue, in the
    ghettoes, suburbs, universities and financial districts of America and the
    world. It also remains to be seen if the "movement," such as it is, can
    deepen and strengthen that dialogue while developing an awareness and set
    of values coherent enough to insulate it, too, from eventually becoming a
    tool for commerce.

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