Feel your solidarity with the left political art of the 1960s and 1970s. View it to the Beatles' Revolution.
When does the Left become fascist? Do art and entertainment arrest revolutions?
These aren't trick questions. Their answers have everything to do with the reasons that the many revolutionary movements that rallied the Left collectively in the 1960s became derailed in the 1970s. They can also help us to understand why the primary model of dissent we have today is, by comparison to the Radical Left of the 1960s, more congregated at a moderate middle cultural terrain, while hesitant to articulate clearly defined, but potentially polarizing, plans for implementing a fairer political and economic system.
As for the question, "When does the Left become fascist? It's a question I asked myself as I organized Part 3 of the Art of the Left Timeline and found myself drawn in by irresistible graphic art and romantically alluring tropes of revolution waged for the alleged good of humanity--only to come face to face with wholly resistible--as in unsavory, unscrupulous, and unrestrained--paramilitary organizations posing as liberators of the people. Which people, we should ask. It's a question that wasn't asked enough, if asked at all, by the activist youth of the 1960s.
I was only fourteen when, in 1970, I met my first Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who were only a few years older. But even at that age, I recognized that among those who carried Mao Zedong's Little Red Book, many were blithely ignorant of the reports that their infallible Chairman had in that very decade murdered upwards of 42 million of his own people. Neither did the question seem to be asked sufficiently by the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, as they rejected Malcolm X upon his return from Mecca with his new advocacy of unity among the races. Certainly it wasn't asked by the Weathermen, or the Baader-Meinhof, or the IRA, or the Symbionese Liberation Army, the PLO, the JDL, FALN, or any other of the terrorist groups that justified the kidnapping, bombing, hijacking, maiming and killing of human beings in the name of the people's struggle.
We should resist a circular metaphor of the Left becoming the Right. Of course, it's wrong to equate the Right with a direction leading to fascism, just as it is wrong to suggest that the Left leads to anarchy. Another reason to dispose of the visual metaphor of the ideological circle is that demarcations between the many philosophies of the Left -- progressive, liberal, anarchist, socialist, communist--are becoming blurred not just because people no longer wish to be so precisely defined. Just as the generations of the 1940s and 1950s became disillusioned by the magnitude of the genocides committed in the names of the utopian systems they formerly subscribed to, in the 1970s, we watched terrorists groups claiming to espouse "Left" values committing the same crimes in miniature -- with small groups of paramilitary ideologues instead of national armies. The excesses of the militant Left reinforced the conviction among ordinary thinking people that once the humanist principle of life is sacrificed, when empathy is discarded as a hindrance to utopia, the extreme Left resorts to all the same military tactics of coercion, torture, destruction and control that fascists employ. The cliché that hardened ideologues by blind conviction fall prey to the illogic of "the ends justifying the means" would be laughable if it weren't an accurate description of the deadly delusion extremists put forward to legitimize the rage propelling their militancy. It is why that coinage, "the ends justifying the means," gnaws at the thinking moralist. How can the ends justify the means when the ends can't be reached by the means?
Only after the 1960s and 1970s were behind us could we see that we were wrong to place fascism only at the door of the Right. We learned that fascism insidiously permeates all human structures. If we can be excused for our failing sight in the 1960s, it's because there was nothing subtle about the liberation culture of the day, just as there was nothing subtle about the era's political repressions. Sides were drawn more starkly then. Whereas prejudice today in public is largely restrained and expressed in code audible and visible only to those recognized as sharing supremacy, at the beginning of the 1960s, prejudice was the slur spewed and joke cracked in every store and office. The Left of the 1960s had to be blunt, brash and loud to drown out the din of the bigots. There was no overstatement possible when no understatement could be heard. As for all the lurid colors, the excesses in fashion and art of the day, that was all part of the signification of expressive individuation -- the swing of the pendulum as far to the opposite of the repressive conformity and deference of the 1940s and 1950s.
The revolution will not be televised.The revolution will not be brought to you by XeroxIn 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
Gil Scott-Heron couldn't have gotten it more wrong. Not only was the revolution televised, television was the revolution, as the internet and mobile phones are today. When we think that the Revolution never materialized, it's because we entertain romantic fantasies that political and social revolutions should be more than a revolution of technology. Here art can play a key role in enabling us to see where the revolution was realized. Our demands for a totally free and equal society may not have been met, but our expression of those demands in sheer numbers and force was the gratification that stalled us from accomplishing more. Our role as dissenters became our gratification in the same way that writers, actors and directors often feel they no longer need to live out the dramas they just wrote, performed, or staged. In this regard, dissent, like all expression, is a salve. Freud argued this as he advanced the talking cure of psychoanalysis. To air the repressed contents of the psyche, our fears and discomforts, our objections to the moral injunctions imposed on us, often become gratification enough to defer our revolutionary fates. Our expressions become our liberations from the buried shame of our repressions -- at least so goes the Freudian conceit.
The Left of the 1960s and 1970s raged against the machinery of racism, sexism, war, and U.S. imperialism. But by the 1980s, when the revolutionaries were largely assimilating into the middle class of our parents, so many of us became resigned to the Reagan-Bush administrations, the First Gulf War, and the Iraq War, rather than gather in mass and sustained protests as had the Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrators of the 1960s. Is this also why women didn't rally in sufficient numbers to pass the ERA amendment? Or why funding for AIDS research was slow to materialize? Possibly. We know that in the 1990s, it took a new generation to serve as the foot soldiers of ACT UP and the Third Wave of the Women's movement. The 1960s Left activists had relished their roles as revolutionaries, perhaps more than they relished their commitment to seeing the revolution through to the end. Many of the repressions we protested against continue to this day in the hoods, the prisons, in occupied territories, and in what we used to call the Third World. But we educated elites who had made our demands for justice and equality on campus and in our published books and newspaper columns--we achieved a measure of self-gratification in finding so many voices like our own. But in Cuba, Haiti, New Orleans, South Africa, Gaza, and the Sudan -- all the impoverished regions of the world to whom we Western revolutionaries once proclaimed our ardent solidarity--go forgotten after the catastrophes and civil wars pass, and our impassioned expression proves sufficient enough only to do temporary good -- and assuage our collective conscience in its short attention span.
It may be no coincidence that as the avant-garde evolved into an elite postwar art market in the 1950s and 1960s, the avant-garde also fell increasingly behind the populist Left politically. The spread of media coverage of international affairs, which formerly was limited largely to the intelligentsia, now is broadcasted to the public. From this point on, in terms of Left and Liberal political and social issues, popular dissent precedes the dissent of artists, whereas in the eras preceding the modern media, artists were required to rally dissent.
Of the eleven decades of the Left Political Art Timeline being published here, the 1960s is the one that is the most overwhelmingly populist. The popular culture feeds the artists who, from the 1960s to the present, reflect the ideological shifts of Left politics back at it. In the 1970s, a rigorously critical sector of the artworld will react against the vivid colors and effusive proclamations of the 1960s with an austerity it has never previously or since known. This can be explained in part as merely the shift of tastes to a preference for the black and white formats of the then-predominant photographic and video genres. Of course, photography and television inform the art of the Left throughout the 1960s as well but it is regurgitated as technicolored painting and sculpture. By the 1970s, photography and video dominate the avant-garde, to the point of tyrannically declaring painting to be dead, and with it "excessive" color. It is a development reinforced by the intelligentsia informing the artists with theories devoted to media and semiotics. The media and its signs inform the "manufacturing of consent" for Noam Chomsky, the mediated message of Marshall McLuhan, the moralism of photography for Susan Sontag, the post-industrial labor of Herbert Marcuse, the media-driven mythologies of Roland Barthes. By the 1980s, most of the world's trend-setting theories are produced in response to the forces experienced through the media, whereas by contrast the Existentialists a generation before them responded directly to the forces and events in the world. For that matter, the new generation of structuralists and post-structuralists reject the Existentialists largely because the view finders of the media facilitate seeing political relations and issues in terms of structures and processes we might never have fathomed or recognized without the mediation of media between us and the world.
By the 1980s, the medium not only becomes the message, it becomes the morale. In the 1960s, the media was still too new to totally dominate our consciousness. We still interfaced directly with the world. If in the 1970s we stopped the revolution because we reached the saturation point of our radicalism as a result of being photographed and painted and postered and filmed and televised so amply, how could we have been expected to go further? We watched ourselves, or people we identified with, make great waves in the social fabric once conceptualized as impenetrable and immobile. But when we came to making the sacrifices necessary to take the revolution to its conclusion, we stopped short. But not because we ran out of steam or were too comfortable. We stopped because we had satisfied our need for narcissistic expression. It comes down to a process of catharsis. Just as art and entertainment heal our wounds, political expression satisfies us even when we are deprived of pragmatic results.
TIMELINE OF LEFTIST SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ART, PART 3: 1966-1980 (and some proactive art to 1963).
1963-1976: Photojournalism has from its inception been a site of division. But whereas in the 1930s and 1940s photojournalism divided viewers from some foreign enemy, in the 1960s, for the democratic nations, the boundaries, even when reflecting foreign events, are drawn ideologically between the people we know at home. The moment the photographer's lens is turned within, depicting events so that the society viewing is also made the society scrutinized, photojournalism becomes an instrument of the Left. For whereas the Right's first impulse is generally to criticize the other, the foreigner, the scapegoat, the Left's first impulse is to scrutinize the cultural self--at least that is the conceit the Left entertains. At the same cultural moment -- as wars between nations ironically become more mechanized, airborne, and more difficult for still-photographers to follow -- the conflict of the photojournalist shifts from the trench to the street, a more familiar and visible territory, and thereby more given to instilling empathy.
In previous decades, photographs of conflicts registered horror and fear of the foreigner. In the 1960s, scenes shot on streets around the world now more often converted our horror and fear to moral outrage directed at our own nationals and leaders. Even the photographer isn't free of judgment. In the early 1970s, Susan Sontag famously wrote that "Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention. Part of the horror of such memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene." And if this is the choice of the photographer, then we must be complicit in that choice, given that it is our demand the photographer meets.
1964-1966: In the first half of the 1960s, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist revolutionize painting by combining the techniques of billboard painting, silkscreening and lithography with the appropriation of photographic imagery from advertising and news media. Warhol takes the initially random collages a step further by introducing his 1962-63 Death and Disaster series, in which death and disaster are purposely reduced to such chromatic essays on the media's potential to equalize all events in such works as Red Car Crash, Purple Jumping Man, and Orange Disaster.
Amid this largely apolitical commentary, Vija Celmins quietly begins her photo-realist paintings of violent political events. Although she appears to be exercising the same dispassionate pop analysis of media as Warhol, Rosenquist and Rauschenberg, in refraining from combining seemingly random images in collages and instead re-imaging a single photograph, televised image, or magazine cover, Celmins creates compositions whose focus and framing heighten the political significance of the paintings. Celmins' art will not become celebrated until well into the 1980s, as a result of a feminist review of modern art history. But Celmins' then-overlooked series from 1964-66 now appears as significant for its incorporation of pop signage as the iconography of the male pop stars. Only Warhol precedes her, but whereas Warhol isn't making an overt political commentary, Celmins is. Her painting after a 1965 Time Magazine cover featuring photographs of the Los Angeles Riot is from Celmins' Television and Disaster series made from 1964-66. Others from the series include crashing warplanes, smoking handguns, and various images of death and disaster.
1964-72: Romare Bearden, who grew up during the 1920s in a middle-class African-American family in Harlem, then the epicenter of African-American culture, also spent much time with relatives in North Carolina and Pittsburgh. His art assimilates his personal experiences of place with the larger understanding of African-American social, cultural and political history, and which manifests in his most accomplished work as urban cityscapes and rural landscapes with acute views of African-American workers, street life, and homelife. In the early-to-mid 1960s, Bearden's collage art in particular takes on a hard edge that, despite their being no more than portraits of black neighborhoods, frightens conservative white viewers of the day who read into them the 'threat" that the black civil rights movement holds for society. Seen in a more civil light, Bearden conveys a sense of Black Pride that within a few years will come to replace the more polite and deferential transracial unity of the Civil Rights movement. In this sense, Bearden's art, along with that of Faith Ringgold, seems at first to anticipate, then reflect, such black activist leaders as Stokely Carmichael, whose Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966 endorses Black Power politics as the "mainstream" civil rights movement. That same year, the Black Panther Party is founded and the First World Festival of Negro Arts is held in Dakar, Senegal, which begins the long post-colonial recovery and reclamation of African cultural history and arts that can already be seen in Bearden's art.
1963-1967: In 1963, Faith Ringgold begins four years of work on a series of political paintings she calls American People, along with related murals and political posters. Although she becomes highly regarded from the 1970s onward for her many series of African-American story quilts, the American People series remains hidden from public view until September, 2010, when the Neuberger Museum in upstate New York, and then the Miami Art Museum in December 2011, feature the paintings in the exhibition, "American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold's Paintings of the 1960s." Displaying the extremist and violent side to American life that we came to know well in the 1960s both as a result of the proliferation of television and the profusion of hand guns circulating among ordinary Americans newly empowered by postwar income, the series comes somewhat as a shock to the audiences accustomed to seeing Ringgold's later depictions of historical scenes and everyday African American life.
1966-74: In December, 1966, Stephen Radich, owner of the Stephen Radich Gallery at 818 Madison Avenue, is issued a summons for exhibiting artwork that is, as the summoning officer worded it, "casting contempt on the American flag." The work is by Marc Morrel, a former marine who protests against the Vietnam War by making soft sculpture incorporating the flag. In his sculpture The United States Flag in a Yellow Noose, the flag is stuffed with rubber into the form of a corpse hung with a noose. In The United States Flag as a Crucified Phallus, a crucified corpse on a seven foot cross is possessed of a phallus made from an American flag. Radich is eventually convicted under a turn-of-the century statute and ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 60 days in jail. In eight years of appeals, Radich takes the case to the United States Supreme Court in 1971. With Justice William O. Douglas abstaining, the case is deadlocked with four justices overturning the conviction and four upholding it. It isn't until 1974 that a federal judge overturns the conviction and Radich is cleared of wrongdoing. It will not be until 1989 that all use of the flag, including it's public desecration and burning, is upheld by the Supreme Court as an act of free speech in Texas v Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, and again in 1990 by U.S. v Eichman, 496 U.S. 310. Prior to Radich's vindication, various artists protest the legal proceedings by making art with the flag, the most renown being the People's Flag Show at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village (see 1970 below).
1966-76. Mao Zedong's campaign of industrialization and agricultural collectivization, instituted in the late 1950s and known as The Great Leap Forward, ends in mass eviction, internment, and murder of rural populations, with some estimates of the death toll as high as 42 million people executed to meet Mao's impractical and poorly prepared demands. To counter the disastrous effects of the campaign, and to regain his esteem among party members, Mao launches the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which is yet another wave of oppression, internment and execution, this time of the nation's intellectuals, artists and journalists, and all other critics of the chairman. The new campaign employs highly visible public propaganda that espouses the same principles of seduction employed by the commercial advertising of capitalism--gleaming optimistic views in vivid paints and high resolution photography of a future repressing all acknowledgement of the extreme oppression such implementations require. Everywhere Mao and his adoring followers are seen smiling as the leader inspects factories and farms, emerges invigorated by a swim in the Yangtze River, or tirelessly leads the Chinese people on The Long March. The art of the Cultural Revolution in China is nothing if not an orgy of the representation of Mao overseen by Mao. As with the art of many utopian dictatorships, the signage is largely academic and excessively idealized and antiseptic--as aestheticized views of life inevitably must be. Excessive, unreal beauty, must be fascistic to keep the reality of life from marring the extreme idealization desired. The additional fact that the Western genre of oil painting is sanctioned, while the inks of traditional Chinese painting are proscribed, speaks volumes on Mao's feeling of cultural inadequacy in the face of Western economy and power.
1967: It may be a case of putting the cart before the horse. The Fluxus events organized on the cusp of the 1960s by George Macuinas and Wolf Vostell in the U.S. and Europe, and the Happenings introduced by Allan Kaprow in the U.S., become a subject of controversy when inquiring how much of their origins were motivated by political responses to events in the world theater. Unlike similar European artists groups that arose in the mid-to-late 1950s--Cobra, The Lettrists, the Situationist International -- the Fluxus and Happenings artists issued no manifestos informed by political, economic or social theories, nor did they resemble the Vienna Actionists in being arrested by authorities for making art that was "subversive to the interests of the state," despite being as rooted in Dada And Surrealism as the European groups were. Their interests by virtue of public statements and the work made collectively between 1961 and 1966 appear largely designed to dissolve what in theater is known as the imaginary "fourth wall" dividing audiences from artists. In that some of the Fluxus and Happening artists further elaborated tearing down the hierarchal wall between the art system that decides what is and isn't art and the audience that passively receives their dictates, and replacing it with a shared participatory relationship between audience, artist, and art -- the interactive art of its day--might suggest a political venture except that before 1966, such events remain insulated by formal and uncanny artistic concerns and rarely to events in the world at large.
Overt politics arrive in the late 1960s, when such Fluxus and Happenings artists as Wolf Vostell, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Yoyoi Kusama, and others will go on to make individual Fluxus events and Happenings of a political nature, while the free-flowing and open-ended nature of the work of the groups as a whole inspired later political street theater and grassroots protest movements, including the be-ins, love-ins, and sit-ins of the hippies and yippies. There is also no doubt that the ongoing dematerialization and dynamic transience of art keeps Fluxus and the Happenings at least marginally within the Left Political parameter. Allan Kaprow in particular voiced dissent when the Happenings became co-opted by commercial interests in the late 1960s. In 1969, Vostell would write of Fluxus as a movement formed with the utopian vision of spreading an ideology of sharing power and property. Considering that he wrote this a full decade after Fluxus was founded, his claims can't be held exempt from suspicion that they express the kind of opportunism that hitches Fluxus to the political vehicle of the day, rather than being the vehicle that ushered in the decade of protest that followed. Ultimately, with such a large, amorphous, and ever-changing roster of participating artists diverging in their aesthetic concerns, it is impossible to define specific political aims held by the artists then or now, leaving it best to consider the individual artists' political events separately.
1967: With the chilling effect of the Cold War and McCarthyism during the 1950s, the Red Scare made it impossible for the Left to make overtly political art, especially for a popular audience. As a consequence, political posters in the United States will not blossom as a cultural form until May 1965, with a poster to announce the first mass organization of the emerging anti-war movement at Berkeley. At the same time, the rock and counterculture movements, populated by a new generation unconcerned with the 1950s and its repressive values, begins producing posters that explode onto the San Francisco Bay Area. The U.S. political poster renaissance is born with the emerging Farmworkers struggle, which as a result of its largely Latin American workforce brings with it ideas from Cuban poster art and the Mexican social-realist artistic movements that have evolved since the time of Mexican muralists of the 1930s. Political poster-production quickly evolves into a vivid and vital progressive enterprise, with advances in color serigraphy enabling artists to inexpensively produce vividly-colored, large posters in quantities that can cover localities quickly and with little training other than that which most artists already have. By 1967, the Bay area art-poster community inspires a national renaissance of graphic art, much of which is politically activist, and imported both through grassroots organizations and commercially throughout the U.S. and abroad. It's not that poster art arrives in time for the Summer of Love; it's poster art that officially proclaims it.
1967-1989: The art of Left political posters, underground newspapers, and political pamphlets shows off the creative resources of artists most comfortable with the graphic medium of lithographic offset. In Cuba, poster art already had a rich history as a commercial vehicle when Fidel Castro seized power. He quickly recognized in it the Cuban vehicle for promoting his Marxist-Lennist agenda. OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa & Latin America) is formed to grow a Cuban political movement with the stated purpose of fighting globalization, imperialism, neoliberalism and defending human rights. Although the bluster never translates into long-term results, the sheer outpouring of vibrant and artistically stirring posters make OSPAAAL the tent post of all political graphic artists in the support of postcolonial liberation movements and Third World solidarity. Founded in Havana in January 1966, OSPAAAL has ties with the communist parties of Guinea, the Congo, South Africa, Angola, Vietnam, Syria, North Korea, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Puerto Rico, Chile, and the Dominican Republic. Despite the off-putting effect of the artists' visualization of armed resistance, OSPAAAL provokes serious debates among students and intellectuals over the injustices and occupations of many state actions in the world, despite the irony that the nations OSPAAAL supports count both as the most despotic and militaristic regimes extant, and the chief exporters of international terrorism.
In the U.S., the poster movement has an immediate impact on the graphic artists of the counterculture, the anti-war movements, and the radical turns taken by numerous student and campus organizations. Although the greater activities of the Civil Rights movement precede the American poster renaissance, the Black Power Movement and the various political Solidarity movements that emerge in the late 1960s tap the talents of visual artists and their wielding of the medium's popularity to great propagandistic effect. Left lithography eventually impacts even on the artworld, where artists, and in recent decades, museums and critics, recognize the vital link supplied by the political poster renaissance between the social and political artists of early generations -- Käthe Kollwitz, Diego Rivera, John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters, Elizabeth Catlett--and a new generation of political artists working in myriad art world venues, such as Alfredo Jaar, Hans Haake, the Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring, General Idea, Gran Fury, Kara Walker, Glen Ligon, and numerous others.
1967: The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Anacostia Museum of Culture and History in Washington, D.C. are founded.
1968: The Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists (COBRA), renames itself the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA, with 'bad' meaning 'super good'), and formed in support of Pan-Africanism. Consisting of artists Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Nelson Stevens, AfriCOBRA's signature art is self-described as paintings made in "Koolaid colors" and "jazzy, polyrhythmic movements," a kind of "visual music" and "synesthetic ideas" related to Kandinsky's theories on sound and color. AfriCOBRA becomes a leading visual banner for the Black Power movement, contributing an art of solidarity with black activists (Wadsworth Jarrell's portrait of activist Angela Davis), a didactic and inspirational sense of community (Barbara Jones-Hogu, Unite, and Nelson Stevens, Unite Africa), and even a swaggering African-American revolutionary mythos (Jeff Donaldson's Wives of Shango). Their art is a vital mirror of the media and fashions of the late 1960s, with electric pictorial compositions pulsing and popping with random letters and words forming sometimes tightly intricate, sometimes loose and loud, textures and special effects, which have been described by its admirers as "loudly opposing segregation in all forms political, social and aesthetic."
1968: The widespread dissent in Paris known commonly as Paris '68 is in part a result of the Situationist International's remedy for recovering a free life catching fire among French intellectuals and students, (see Part 2). The situations are physical and political interventions not so unlike today's Occupy movements. Arguably in art, this stage of Situationism culminates with Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's 1972 film Tout Va Bien, in which a production plant, and later a supermarket, are seen as the sites of Situationist-like occupations. Ultimately Godard is accused by subsequent Situationists as representing and informing the very capitalist culture that the Situationists resent.
1968-75: The Spanish Pop Art movement, Equipo Cronica (translated as Team Chronicle or Chronicles of Reality), and comprised of the artists Manolo Valdés, Rafael Solbes and Juan Antonio Toledo, continue with the Situationists project of making an art of political intervention (see part 2) -- only adding their unique twist of vibrantly-colored satire. If their art seems unduly preoccupied by scenarios of forcible arrest, it's not only because all of Europe has been watching the Paris demonstrations and the Prague Spring unfold. The Spanish trio also are commenting on the dictatorship of the Franco regime. In much the same fashion that Komar and Melamid lampooned the Brezhnev regime in the Soviet Union (see part 2), the three Spaniards respond to the political and social repression of the state with courageous anti-Franco irony. The imagery of figures from renown modernist painting and sculpture being apprehended by art police seem comic, even juvenile, until we realize that modern art such as that made by Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein -- artists humorously quoted in Equipo Cronica's post '68 work -- coincides with Franco's notorious repression of cultural production that lasted until his death in 1975. Considering that the assassination and anonymous burial of the poet Federico García Lorca bears all the signs of Franco's contempt for artists, Equipo Cronica were risking their lives in making such work.
1968: With the introduction of Conceptual Art and Performance Art, postmodernism matures into a widespread critique of the power relations regulating the market promotion, institutional legitimization, and historical reification of artists. For some artists, such as the British collaborative team, Art & Language, an analysis of art and its relations is to replace the art object, in essence appropriating and equating the methods of the critic with the creative process itself. Conceptual art didn't break with modernism completely. For in assuming the text and the visual document (of photography, video, and film), and the transient artistic processes (of performance art and temporary environments and installations), conceptualism remained informed by various art movements in terms of its criticism and theory. By the mid-1970s, Conceptual Art ushers in an institutional critique of the gallery, museum, and market-system of art, the theories of which survive through to the end of the century and even informed the hyper-marketing of object-based art such as that made by Jeff Koons. Performance art in particular, with its anti-narrative, taboo-breaking, sometimes dangerous, and often politically activist content and contextualization, brand 1970s performances as coming as close to establishing a dematerializing, alternative to the commodity-based artworld as any modern art movement has achieved.
1969: After their wedding, John Lennon and Yoko Ono travel to Amsterdam, where they stage a Bed-In for Peace as a demonstration against the Vietnam War. They repeat the Bed-In two months later in Montreal. In both events, the couple invite the press into their hotel room, where they remain in bed and politely answer questions about the Bed-In while explaining that their method of protest is offered as an alternative to the violent anti-war protests that have been breaking out in the U.S. and Europe. Although the Bed-In has never been referred to as an artwork, happening, or performance art, Ono's customary approach has been to regard all her public actions as art.
1969-75: After Time Magazine puts the face of the founder of the United Farm Workers of America on its Independence Day cover, the name Cesar Chavez remains on the lips of American union workers and Left activists for the next decade. The fame and reputation of the selfless Chavez works to benefit thousands of farmworkers when, in the summer of 1972, Arizona lawmakers pass a law that made it illegal for farm workers to go on strike or to lead boycotts of farm products. Disregarding the legal ramifications, Chavez mobilized Mexican-American farm workers like himself, and later a full array of workers, in a massive boycott in 1973. With the support of graphic artists such as Xavier Viramontes, who designed an Aztec warrior squeezing blood out of red and green grapes, word of Chavez's grassroots efforts went viral as artists volunteered their talents and posters were spread out over all fifty states. A 1975 Harris poll estimated that as a result of the art poster campaign, 17 million Americans were boycotting grapes as much in admiration of Chavez as out of support of the farm workers.
1969-1971: The exhibition policies of museums, specifically their neglect of a diverse range of vital productions of the day, attracts the scrutiny of a representation of artists, filmmakers, writers, critics, and museum personnel in the form of the Art Workers' Coalition (AWC) of New York. Having the principal aim of applying pressure on the city's museums, most notably the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), to expand the range of exhibitions and collections to represent the diversity of art and artists, the coalition successfully pressures MoMA and other museums into implementing a free admission day. As part of the coalition's aim to pressure MoMA and other picketed museums into taking a moral stance on the Vietnam War, the AWC issues its famous My Lai poster And babies, widely regarded as among the single most important works of political art of the Vietnam era, and of which over 50,000 free copies were distributed throughout New York City and nearby college campuses.
1969: Although the new Native American activism has been gathering steam throughout the 1960s, it attracts the first great outpouring of sympathy from non-native Americans in 1969 with the Occupation of Alcatraz by the group, Indians of All Tribes (IAT). Lasting for nineteen months, from November 20, 1969 to June 11, 1971, when the occupation is forcibly ended by the U.S. government, the occupation of the abandoned federal penitentiary that once housed America's most notorious criminals until its closing in 1963, is waged by thousands of American Indians. With the occupation stated as a reclamation of Indian lands, and a call for the U.S. treaties and tribal sovereignty to be honored, the occupation becomes a symbolic demand on the part of all the tribes for the fairness and respect due Indian peoples. Comprised of families with children, many from reservations, others from urban centers, along with college activists, the occupiers were unified in their disillusionment over the neglect of Native Americans by the government. Although the occupation of Alcatraz is chaotic and laced with tragedy, it succeeds in restoring a measure of the dignity craved by the more than 554 American Indian nations in the eyes of the American public and leads to improved conditions for millions of Native Americans throughout the country. Such activist organizations as the Trail of Broken Treaties, the Wounded Knee incident, and the Longest Walk, all have their roots in the occupation.
1969-1985: After the police raid of the New York gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, the gay and lesbian community protests against the unwarranted arrest of transgendered and homosexual patrons. The riots, which last several days, are considered the genesis of the gay rights movement. From this point through the late 1980s, the most blatantly in-your-face gay male art is produced photographically. It is a time when merely celebrating Gay Pride is a political act, and the new Out attitude is ideally suited to photography's graphic sensibilities. Only the Left can tolerate the new profusion of images among Straights, and often not even among them. With few exceptions, such as the art of the Canadian trio, General Idea, most of the significant pre-AIDS queer art doesn't concern itself with the formal issues of Conceptualism, Performance Art, Painting or Sculpture. That changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the entire queer politic and aesthetic changes radically in the ensuing mobilization of all genres and media in protest of the stigmatization of gay men in the onslaught of AIDS. (See Part 4.)
1970: During the time that gallery owner Stephen Radich contests his conviction for "casting contempt" on the American flag for exhibiting art made with the flag (see 1966-1974 above) the case, now headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, becomes an art world cause célèbre. In November, the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village hosts the People's Flag Show with an array of well-known artists coming out in support of Radich. During the exhibition, Faith Ringgold, Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks are arrested for their "desecrations" of the flag, which in Ringgold's case isn't really the use of a flag as much as it is a repainting of the flag with the words Die Nigger interspersed with the Stars and Stripes. (The stripes themselves vertically spell the word "Nigger.")
1972: Spurred on by the Paris 1968 student riots and former student-activist Jean-Pierre Gorin, New Wave visionary, Jean-Luc Godard, attempts a Situationist, Marxist-styled cinematic intervention on consumer capitalism in Tout va bien (All is Well). Godard can't keep himself from undermining the anti-art agenda of his own ideological fervor by branding the film with both his distinctly austere and formal aestheticism and the star appeal of the lead actors, Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. Although the central narrative revolves around a workers' strike at a sausage factory, Godard's passion for complex sexual relations breaks through by intertwining the secondary, yet altogether more intriguing, story of an American feminist-reporter (Fonda) and her chauvinistic film-director husband (Montand) -- a marriage increasingly thwarted by the couple's steep political and sexual differences. The stills here of the film's supermarket riot leading to a clash with police is comic for ironically portraying the rioters as well-dressed, upper-middle class consumers -- the very class who by the 1970s keeps widespread revolt from taking hold. From the Marxist view, the film is an unresolved sellout. But it is a sellout that reflexively depicts why the absurdity of life counts as the greatest of foils to politically-inspired utopias.
Before Tout va bien can be released, Fonda visits Hanoi, where a photograph is taken showing the actress amid the North Vietnamese, then the enemy of the U.S., a potentially treasonable act that earns Fonda the nickname "Hanoi Jane." Godard and Gorin seize on the opportunity to make a film projecting the single press still of Fonda for the entire 51 minutes of the film and accompanied by the voiceover commentary of the two directors subjecting the photograph to a Marxist-Maoist styled deconstruction. The film, Letter to Jane, generally accompanies Tout va bien as a postscript.
1970: In October 1970, the artist Judy Gerowitz, known up to this time for her minimalist art, takes out an ad in Artforum announcing, "Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name: Judy Chicago." Among the first significant artists to make art for and about the promotion of women artists against the backdrop of a mainstream art world dominated overwhelmingly by men, Chicago founded the Feminist Art Program, the first of its kind in the United States, at California State University at Fresno.
In 1971, in collaboration with artist Miriam Schapiro, Chicago moves the Feminist Art Program to the Cal Arts campus in Venice, CA. With the program filling a gap felt by women artists internationally, women who enroll go on to found other such programs that in succeeding years multiply exponentially and make Los Angeles the first epicenter of the feminist art movement. The 1970s rapidly becomes marked by widespread feminist art activism by leading women artists of the day, though most of the artists find the mainstream art market, which has closed access to all political art except that made by such international art stars as Picasso, extremely resistant to their entry. Countering this intransigence, a number of esteemed and professionally well-place women curators and critics, most notably curator Marcia Tucker of the Whitney Museum of Art and soon-to-be founder and Director of the New Museum in New York, and art historian Linda Nochlin, take the lead in promoting women artists, respectively, in contemporary art and historical art studies.
1972: Womanhouse is the name of the now-legendary site on which twenty-one women students of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts convert a vacant Hollywood home into a temporary feminist artwork. Enacted under the supervision of groundbreaking feminist artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, the site becomes the women's collective commentary on the life of the suburban housewife to "search out and reveal the female experience...the dreams and fantasies of women as they sewed, cooked, washed and ironed away their lives." The artists divided up the contents of the house to make their personal contributions as artists and according to presumed feminine functions. Rooms embody themes, such as the Menstruation Bathroom, Nurturant Kitchen, Bridal Staircase, Linen Closet and Ironing, Garden Jungle, Doll's House, Nightmare Bathroom, Womb Room & Waiting, and The Nursery. The project has been called the "Cradle of Feminist Art," composed as it was of some of the earliest self-declared feminist artists, many of whom contributed to the spread of feminism in art. Artists participating in the original Womanhouse include Beth Bachenheimer, Sherry Brody, Susan Frazier, Camille Grey, Vicky Hodgett, Kathy Huberland, Judy Huddleston, Janice Johnson, Karen Le Cocq, Janice Lester, Paula Longendyke, Ann Mills, Carol Edison Mitchell, Robin Mitchell, Sandra Orgel, Jan Oxenburg, Christine Rush, Marsha Salisbury, Robin Schiff, Mira Schor, Robin Weltsch, Wanda Westcoast, Faith Wilding, Shawnee Wollenma and Nancy Youdelman.
1972-76. Few women in the 1970s broke the gender barrier in video arts. Among the first to do so, Joan Jonas creates an indelible masterpiece of structuralist media reflection in Vertical Roll. Four years later Dara Birnbaum contributed one of the earliest appropriation works with her decompositional riff off the Wonder Woman television series. The two works count among the most significant early feminist art both for their formal innovations and for their analysis, confounding, complication and outright dismissal of the myths of women as victims, heroines, goddesses, narcissists, and nymphomaniacs, while at the same time redefining the parameters of video as a non-narrative art form.
1974: Judy Chicago begins production on her most celebrated work, The Dinner Party, an installation comprised of place settings for 39 mythical and historical women artists.
1974: In the early 1970s, an art of Nazi chic begins surreptitiously spreading, taking on an aura of transgression and provocation for artists on the left, as well as ordinary consumers who become captivated with fetishes of bondage and discipline. Surprisingly, few critics on the left seem alarmed, a slackness that Susan Sontag prominently cautions against in her 1974 essay, Fascinating Fascism. "Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irrepressible promiscuity of taste will save us. But the judgments of taste themselves seem less innocent. Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed."
Sontag's essay may have arrested the fashion for fascism. On the other hand, it seems precognitive of the inroads that the fascist aesthetic seizes in mainstream advertising. In his ca. 1990 magazine ads and TV commercials for Calvin Kline underwear and cologne, photographer Bruce Weber mimics the detached and vacuous but beautifully sculpted and monochromatic nudes that characterize the sculpture and painting of the Third Reich's favorite artists.
1974: Cadillac Ranch is the product of the early 1970s trio of hippie artist-architects calling themselves Ant Farm, and whose real names are Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Hudson Marquez. At a time when most environmental artists responded to the great outdoors with reverent romanticism, Ant Farm became invested in multimedia spectacles made from discarded consumer items rescued from junk yards. Earlier work, such as Electronic Oasis became a performance setting draped in parachutes and consisting of projected slides and closed-circuit video capturing both the audience and the performers. 100 Television Sets both names and describes a landscape installation comprised of a hundred unplugged TV sets distributed about a meadow.
By far their most iconic work, Cadillac Ranch consists of no more than a row of vintage Cadillacs of successive models and years, frontally buried in the desert outside Amarillo, Texas. Seen here in its 1974, pre-graffiti state, the work is elegiac in embodying the passing of the American West and its nomadic trails as it becomes progressively stripped of its natural splendor and romantic mythos of solitude and escape. Ironically, it is the newly-paved and sprawling five-lane thoroughfares clogged with sightseeing families and truckers laded down with ever more consumer items to choke our landfills, that has over the decades made Cadillac Ranch the Texan Stonehenge for sight-seers and graffiti enthusiasts eager to leave their mark of existence. In its invocation of the ghosts of American consumption and capitalism, Cadillac Ranch takes on increasing political significance the more that the work gives way to the entropy of time and human desecration. Made just months before the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, it seems a fitting tribute to the end of American innocence and the slow disappearance of environmental sanctuary.
1977: Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus stage In Mourning and In Rage on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. Designed as a media performance drawing the attention of news reporters in print and television, the performance responded to the inadequate media coverage given the ongoing case of the Hillside Strangler, a serial killer who targeted women. Participants from the Woman's Building, the Rape Hotline Alliance, and City Council joined with the feminist community and families of the victims in creating a public ritual that was covered by all local news stations and became a model for media intervention through public art. The action drew attention to larger questions concerning violence against women, and exemplified the community-oriented artistic activism that emerged.
1978: Known for his deep research into the histories and financial dealings of corporations and government administrations, Hans Haacke incorporates his negative findings in an art that mimics and appropriates the public face of his subjects. Whether it is then presented to the public in the form of simulated advertising or as reports on charitable contributions that his subjects have made to the arts, Haacke's intent is to link the complicity of arts funding with the social abuses and criminal acts of its sponsors.
In A Breed Apart, Haacke's simulates magazine ads for Leyland Vehicles, in which he appropriates actual Leyland ad copy and conjoins it with journalistic photographs of white military officers apprehending black South Africans during the South African government's apartheid rule. As Leyland supplied the vehicles used by the government for round-ups of dissidents and other "undesirables," many of whom then disappeared, were imprisoned and beaten, or found dead, Haacke is indicting not only the collaboration of the Leyland corporation with apartheid, he is also implying that the cultural institutions receiving Leyland's generous endowments and grants are tainted by their association with Leyland's South African affiliations.
Above left: In the simulated ad showing a man being abducted by two military officers, the Leyland copy reads: "No Leyland military display could be complete without the world-famous Land Rover. In 28 years of production the Land Rover has become one of the United Kingdom's greatest export winners, opening up areas of the world previously inaccessible to ordinary vehicles and playing a major role in the development of many overseas territories." Above right: The ad showing a man made to lie prostrate on the ground by four military officers reads: "No other vehicle ever produced can claim the international admiration and fame that surround the Land Rover: overseas military authorities in particular continue to rely on this famous cross-country vehicle despite ever-increasing competition from motor manufacturers worldwide."
1979-82: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as figuration in painting again explodes on the international scene amid the mix of the Italian transavantgarde, German Neo-expressionist painters, and the American Pictures artists, the singular vision of Leon Golub's paintings stood out from the group movements in presenting audiences politically-charged depictions of nefarious figures as direct commentaries on America's sponsorship of covert warfare against international insurgencies, particularly in Latin America. Golub's Mercenaries, Interrogation, White Squad and Riot series depict male figures with all the iconography of thugs dressed in an array of "official" uniforms and combat fatigues applying torture to their captives.
Although referencing photography in depicting the bound, gagged, and naked victims "caught in the act," and with some of the participants acknowledging an audience, Golub's compositions are largely wishful scenarios on the part of activists craving the visual evidence to confirm rumors of a given U.S. presidential administration breaking the international law of the Geneva Convention. In Golub's case the administration belonged to Ronald Reagan. Although Reagan officials were never legally accused of executing covert kidnappings, beatings, or sexual acts, Golub's Mercenaries and Interrogation paintings in particular seem to knowingly anticipate the Iran-Contra Affair that would break four-to-five years after Golub's paintings were completed, and which would implicate senior Reagan administration officials involved with the criminal activities of the Nicaraguan Contras. But until Abu Ghraib breaks the news in 2004, we had only Leon Golub's imagined indictments as visualization of U.S. involvement in acts of torture and abuse of prisoners.
1988-89: Although made well after the bracket of this timeline, two bodies of work, one by Gerhard Richter and one by Cady Noland, made at nearly the same time, seem fitting postscripts to the 1960s-70s youth revolution-gone horribly wrong. Taking what were sensational police and media stories of domestic terrorism and kidnapping -- the Baader-Meinhof Gang in the Republic of Germany and the Symbionese Liberation Army with its famous hostage-turned-conspirator Patty Hearst in the U.S. -- and re-presenting their photographed remains in oil (Richter) and silkscreen on aluminum (Noland), the enflamed iconography and rhetoric of the 1960s-70s Left generation seems appropriately eulogized and put to rest. In appropriating both the widely disseminated iconography of a tumultuous time and the idealistic (if mythical) principle of journalistic objectivity recording it, Richter and Noland refrain from projecting new valuations on the historical actors of these dramas.
This is art that couldn't be further removed from the propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s that similarly appropriated media imagery but then recolored and overlaid their unique revolutionary slogans and iconography. It's not that Richter and Noland are ideologically removed from the 1960s and 1970s. But the images are chosen precisely because they represent the first period of history known even by those who lived it almost entirely through the media. Of course, representing this period for that reason is itself a political choice in that the lessons to be learned from these broadcast and front-page failures informs whatever amounts to the new revolutionary spirit of 2011 -- which so far appears to be one of cautious self-reflection before, during, and after action. In this respect, the images of 1970s terrorists don't represent the 1970s, insomuch as they are mirrors of who we have now become in response to who we, or they, were then. It is by reviewing the mistakes made by the revolutionaries of the 1960s-70s generation that we better understand why the dissent of the 1990s and 2000s remains more firmly situated in a moderate and middle-ideological placement bridging the extremes of Left and Right, while remaining staunchly opposed to violence. It is this tempered sensibility of a more globally and historically-aware Left, which having come of age between 1989 and 2011, explains why the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements are so hard to pin down ideologically beyond vague generalizations of remaining aligned to democratic and fair-capitalist principles.
Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.