Given the growing inclination, in the name of security, to regulate public expression, is it any wonder that protest art is scarce?
By Bill Marx
You know protest art is in trouble when a green cipher flipping the bird, Cartoon Network’s “Mooninite,” generates the kind of intense public consternation most rebellious artists could only dream of. The cartoon creature, attached to three dozen blinking electronic boards that looked suspiciously like bombs, some planted on bridges and highways, generated a daylong clamp-down in Boston that, according to your point of view, either showed proper vigilance or inflexible hysteria. Either way, the city’s all-out reaction suggests why there has been so little public art protesting the war in Iraq. Fearing a terrorist attack, government and law enforcement have been putting pressure on freedom of expression: artists risk being treated as if they were aiding the enemy when they mass produce and distribute art made to provoke strong political responses.
Worse, what happened in Boston shows how protest art is being squeezed from another direction. Turner Broadcasting System, owner of the Cartoon Network, wanted to give its corporate wares an underground sheen by mimicking the techniques of guerilla art. But by co-opting guerilla tactics, TBS and other corporations begin to undercut the credibility of protest art because it makes it harder to tell the difference between dissent and product branding, agitation and selling-out. What you see plastered on public surfaces becomes one more possible marketing scam: is it an artist making a radical statement or is it a company hawking a counterculture image?
“DISSENT!,” an illuminating exhibition at the Harvard University Art Museums through February 25, provides some valuable insight into what it was like when protest art had some cultural clout. And it suggests some reasons for why things have changed so radically for would-be radical artists. The show presents art that was made for wide distribution (via playing cards, t-shirts, posters, postcards, and fine art prints) and designed to challenge the oppressive powers-that-be. The anti-establishment images range from 18th-century etchings by Goya that take on aristocrats, to postcard-sized prints from Pablo Picasso that ridicule Spain’s Franco, and Andy Warhol’s 1972 multicolor print of Richard Nixon with “Vote McGovern” scrawled underneath. Karen Hanmer’s “America’s Most Wanted: Black Gold Texas Tea” stands out as one of the most effective, and witty, of the exhibition’s takes on the Iraq war. Hanmer swaps the images of Saddam’s higher-ups on the famous playing cards distributed to the American military with a lineup of gas-guzzling SUVS, sending up the war and consumerism at the same time, an incisive approach given President Bush’s suggestion that the best way for average Americans to fight terrorism is to shop.
“DISSENT!” both amuses and unsettles. One of the most emotionally gripping images is Richard Hamilton’s 1970 screen print of one of the students shot at Kent State. Yet the show also exudes an air of nostalgia, a suggestion that the days when earnest images of rebellion on posters and t-shirts were effective have come to an end. The exhibition’s curator, Susan Dackerman, the Museums’ Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, says she often hears visitors lament that there is so little protest art today, in contrast to the wealth of creative dissent during the Vietnam War era. Dackerman agrees that the response of artists to the Iraq war has been disappointing, but she points to some pieces that tackle the current conflict, citing Hanmer’s playing cards and two Richard Serra prints, which feature a grainy image of the iconic hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner standing with his arms spread wide. “STOP B S” is written on one and “STOP BUSH” on the other. Serra had originally offered the images as free internet downloads before making photolithographs to be sold through print dealers and art galleries.
The mention of the internet points to one reason protest art has hit hard times. The rise of the web has contributed to the creation of an image-saturated culture: it is increasingly difficult for artists to come up with pictures that shock, given how blasé we have become to countless images of violence on TV or in the movies and video games. And the rise of the web has also spawned an army of politically charged sites that cater to niche audiences. This balkanization of American culture makes it easier for consumers to exercise control over what messages they receive. The sites we visit and the media we consume are tailored to give consumers what they want to see and hear, and that has the value of making people, on a superficial level at least, feel more secure. Traditional protest art was often about taking people by surprise, knocking them off-center: it was distributed in places — via flyers, posters, and postcards — where artists could present challenging points of view to a wider public.
Given the growing inclination, in the name of security, to regulate public expression, it is no wonder that protest art is scarce. A recent “Boston Globe” editorial praised the angry political art of the “DISSENT!” exhibition, citing, among other works in the show, Jenny Holzer’s INFLAMMATORY ESSAYS series. Between 1979 and 1982 Holzer plastered around Manhattan, in subway platforms and on billboards, sheets with messages typed in blaring capital letters, such as: “FEAR IS THE MOST ELEGANT WEAPON, YOUR HANDS ARE NEVER MESSY.” Would Holzer be able to do this today and stay out of jail, particularly if her messages included references to terrorism and bombs? Wouldn’t some argue that she was trying to undermine the government, indirectly calling for violence? In its editorial, the “Globe” insists that more of us should “accept the invitation to step up to the microphone.” Is it any surprise that artists are turning down the offer?