Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Art of Protest

Gee Vaucher Liberty
     In dark times when people have suffered, when ugly wars have ravaged people and place, when there has been economic depression, attempts at suppression, racism and other injustice, movements have risen that  attempt to change the direction of history.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while: Right now there is a Resistance involved in a daily struggle with the regime in Washington - a cabal that threatens democracy itself.  There are movements fighting against all forms of intolerance, and others struggling with the forces that are destroying the planet.  But we need the artists, the poets, playwrights the authors who highlight these issues in a form that speaks more creatively than editorial and polemic.

    From the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes' Lysistrata to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, theater has been a force for protest and change. Picasso’s great painting Guernica depicted the destruction of that town by Nazi bombers. The American artist Ben Shahn  painted the political outrages of his time. He also used his art as a way to bring people together. Where are the artists of our time who provide the images we need?

    Sometimes satire and caricature perform that function. A mental scan of of history brings us back to Greece, to the fifth century B.C.E., and the comic playwright Aristophanes, whose masterpiece Lysistrata uses the comic stratagem of women refusing sex to their soldier husbands to create a peaceful truce between the Athenians and Spartans. (That this play could be produced during the Pelopennesian war is some tribute to a culture that gave neither power nor place to women, and whose empirium was as dear to Athens as empire is to any modern colonial power.)
We now have the satire of the late night shows, with their nightly piercing of all the hot air balloons floating from the White House. 
But we need something beyond monologues - something to hold onto. I think of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, satirizing the  worship of nuclear power in 1964.  And I remember reading Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, a brilliant anti-war novel.

    I think of John Steinback’s  The Grapes of Wrath which drama-tized the plight of the people who were forced to leave family farms during the depression, where drought had turned productive land into a dust bowl. Steinbeck wrote the story of how they became migrant workers living in tents and desperate for work. 

Cover by Ben Shahn

And then there is Picasso’s Guernica, which is often considered the greatest work of political art in the twentieth century. 
The painting was commissioned by a revolutionary body that understood the power of uniting a great artist with a popular cause: Picasso's Guernica  was the response to a delegation from the Spanish Republican government, who asked Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish Republican Pavilion built for the 1937 World's Fair.  
At first Picasso was going to choose a nonpolitical theme, but the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German Air Force occurred shortly after  the request, and that aerial terror catalyzed his imagination. The painting is neither narrative nor a blasted landscape. It is unreadable accept symbolically, but the images and the terror speak to us in the modern idiom Picasso painted. 
    And there is Ben Shahn, whose paintings were both calls to action and graphic images of injustice and suffering. From the Sacco & Vanzetti case, where two men with radical political beliefs were tried and executed for a murder they didn’t commit, to the suffering of Japanese fishermen who died from radiation poisoning, Ben Shahn was our graphic conscience. 

The poetry of protest has been a powerful force - and it need not be written by « professional » poets. Visions of War, Dreams of Peace is an anthology of poems written by military nurses who served in Vietnam, a book created to raise funds for a Women’s Vietnam Memorial. « Dusty » was the pseudonym of one of the poets, who suffered from PTSD when that acronym did not yet exist.  

Like Emily Dickinson
tucking tight little poems
into the corners and crannies
 of her father’s home
 I tuck their names
 into the crevices
 of my crenellated heart.  

    Rupert Garcia also served in Vietnam. He came home and attended San Francisco State University, receiving the first of three degrees in art, and many awards.  He joined with other Chicano and Latino artists, bringing their experiences into the art world. They were also involved in protesting the disproportionate number of minorities who served in Vietnam.  Garcia, inspired by German Expressionist art of WW I,  created both triptychs and diptychs on the theme of war, especially Fenix , which includes the death symbol of modern wars - the « chopper ». 

     Dana Schutz  is a contemporary artist whose imagery has been controversial. A large painting of Emmet Till in his coffin was derided by many, who questioned this provocation from a white woman -  but in this time of police shootings and Black Lives Matter, she evokes one of the tragedies that inspired a nation's sympathy with the Civil Rights movement. 
    Schutz's large bold, brightly colored Cubist/Expressionist canvases attempt to evoke the zeitgeist of the time. The paintings display us in our narcissism and despair, and though they are not narrative, not inherently political, they speak directly to what America has become since the last election. Schutz wrote:
  “I want to make a painting about shame. Public shaming has become an element in contemporary life. You can take a picture of someone and post it online, and thousands of people see it. We’re so ashamed, about so many things, and I think for a candidate to be without shame, like Trump, is really powerful. His lack of shame becomes our shame.”

    Finally, there are the remarkable prints created by
Pipelines and Borderlines  https://www.pipelinesandborderlines.org/ It is a non-profit organization that educates the public about the consequences of consumption and production of unsustainable energy."  The group consists of artists from North and South America who create traveling exhibits of  fine art - hand pulled prints that are profound visions of what we are facing.
Heart of the Monster, Ed 2017

      More art please! More images that inspire and move us, that we can rally around. Let art, in all its many forms, be the partner of Resistance.