Visual Arts Feature: Protest Art

Bill Marx talks with the Fogg Art Museum’s Susan Dackerman about DISSENT!, an exhibit that surveys printmaking and the history of political protest.


DISSENT!,” an illuminating exhibition (closed) at the Harvard University Art Museums through February 25, provided some valuable insight into what it was like when protest art had some cultural clout. And it suggested some reasons for why things have changed so radically for would-be radical artists. The show presented 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 ranged 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” stood 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 amused and unsettled. One of the most emotionally gripping images was Richard Hamilton’s 1970 screen print of one of the students shot at Kent State. Yet the show also exuded 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, said she often heard visitors lament that there is so little protest art today, in contrast to the wealth of creative dissent during the Vietnam War era. Dackerman agreed that the response of artists to the Iraq war has been disappointing, but she pointed to some pieces that tackled 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.

Read more of this commentary here.

— Bill Marx

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