Post Road Magazine #7

On the Aesthetic Agenda of the Antiwar Movement by Lori Cole

Protest Image. Photography by Lori Cole.

Photo credit: Lori Cole

While avenues for sanctioned political resistance are being increasingly restricted by the federal government, the political left has been using the irreverent, innovative tactics of the visual to express fury and garner support for the antiwar movement. Artists can get away with a lot–blasphemy, controversy, confrontation–in the name of cultural expression. Since patronage and institutional support for work meant to spark debate can be seen as neutralizing and reifying, activist artists have escaped political inefficacy by directing their skills, funding, and their knack for getting attention to pressing political issues, taking the street as their venue and the general public as their audience. Likewise, protesters apply high art aesthetics to do-it-yourself methods to streamline their messages into slogans, express themselves through images, and harness a playful energy for their cause. The use of street stencils, posters, and protest paraphernalia that developed around the recent antiwar movement gestures towards '60s-era traditions of artistic resistance and reinvigorates them for a fresh political purpose. Such visual production also redirects earlier activist public art movements of the '80s and '90s that focused on identity or community-based issues towards new collective action. The diverse agendas, complex affiliations, and conflicting identifications of demonstrators serve as the fiercest resistance to recent government setbacks by embodying a democratic public space that is characterized by difference and strengthened by debate.

A scruffy-haired teenager carries an orange sign proclaiming “War is terrorism” alongside an old man in a baseball cap with a sheet of notebook paper reading “Another veteran for peace.” Members of a socialist organization wield enormous “No Blood for Oil” signs depicting a mournful girl in pigtails. A middle-aged woman carries an “Axis of Weasels” picture complete with caricatures of Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfeld. Some posters simply state “International Criminal Court,” while others colorfully depict what “Bush's empty warhead” looks like. From the hastily scribbled to the mass produced, these posters and signs play on feelings of rage, incredulity, helplessness, and empowerment. They also serve as counter-proclamations to repressive government policy and unilateral military strikes, suggesting alternatives that range from pleas for UN approval to anarchy. Activist ingenuity registers on the bodies of protesters as well: a man is draped toga-style in the American flag, a piece of duct tape covering his mouth, wearing a sign reading “Patriot Act.” Another wears a Bush mask while juggling a toy globe with blood-covered hands. These colorful, cheaply made, and easily disseminated visual statements reveal not only what is at stake at these protests–protection of civil liberties, opposition to American imperialism–but also the grassroots diversity of political identifications at play in the broader peace movement. Such art serves as a counter-history to what is being expressed in official discourse. Protesters hope their posters appear in newspapers or on television, on buildings and in streets, as accessible visual reminders of a crowd's density, creativity, and fighting spirit.

Before there were antiwar posters, there were government-issued propaganda posters, intended to popularize American military objectives. The government rallied support for World War I with bright, recognizable posters because much of the American population was illiterate. Even after these conditions changed, the propagandistic poster, demanding military service, obedience, and economy, became associated with wars, and it continued to be a convenient tool for controlling subversive behavior (“Loose lips sink ships!”) and encouraging economic investment in the government (“Buy war bonds!”). As a result, the Left considered the political poster a battleground for what images and slogans dominate the culture and what opinions get formed accordingly. This practice continues: in a neat inversion of the Uncle Sam recruitment poster (“I want YOU!”), a crippled post-Vietnam Uncle Sam screams, “I want OUT!” in a 1970s street protest poster1. In our media-saturated culture, such anti-establishment posters retain their power by allowing for quick recognition and then an inversion of expectations for the viewer.

Advertisements, billboards, street signs, graffiti–both institutionally generated and independent, oppositional, visual texts–clutter the walls and sidewalks of city streets, vying for the public's attention. Textual site-specific street art has to intervene in these spaces, making itself legible and provocative amidst the multiplicity of urban languages. While these textual responses range in content and context, most adopt the formal block lettering of an ad or billboard. Starting in 1977, artist Jenny Holzer postered buildings with what she called “Truisms,” written observations on the allocation of wealth and influence, such as “Abuse of power should come as no surprise.” Using segments of time purchased by the Public Art Fund on a spectacolor board in Times Square in 1982, Holzer drew attention to political and social inequalities through slogans such as “It is man's fate to outsmart himself.” Co-opting the language of advertising, in 1991 Barbara Kruger placed posters in bus shelters throughout New York City promoting awareness of women's political issues. Pictures of men screamed, “Help! . . . I've decided to enter politics. The campaign is going really well but I just found out I'm pregnant. What should I do?” By situating attention-grabbing messages in public spaces, artists can expose the inadequacies and discrimination that shape official discourse, thereby opening up spectacle to doubt, difference, and debate.

Since the 1960s, artists have been forming collectives to battle political issues both in and outside of the art world. A group called Artists Protest formed in 1965 to oppose the war in Vietnam, sponsoring “Angry Arts Week” in 1967, replete with a range of performances, actions, and rallies. Artists Poster Committee formed in 1969, as a subgroup of the Art Workers Coalition, to produce and distribute anti-Vietnam War posters. The successful non-profits Creative Time and the Public Art Fund began in the 1970s to fund alternative and often ephemeral public art projects, offering alternative means of production and distribution for art2. Merging political campaigning with artistic practice, artists participating in activist collectives such as Group Material, Guerilla Girls, ACT UP, and Political Art Documentation and Distribution (PAD/D) integrated well-honed slogans with graphic design to rally around issues such as homelessness, gentrification, discrimination, AIDS, American foreign and economic policies–and even art elitism. Group Material dissected the term “democracy” in one of their poster campaigns. PAD/D, as described by one of its founding members, Lucy Lippard, “began in 1979 as an archive of socially concerned art to combat the suppression and amnesia about activist art internationally and almost immediately became an activist organization as well.”3 Such activist artists drew attention to the exclusion of minorities, women, and homosexuals from the established art world and to the interconnectedness of these different identity groups' continued rights struggles.

For artists hoping to change both the production and circulation of art and to incite public anger over political issues, the street serves as an ideal location for radical aesthetic interventions. As the site of public interaction, confrontation, and collaboration, the street functions as a microcosm of local urban democratic experience, and thus as a location in which to model political theories through applied artistic practice. While certain streets, marked for “redevelopment” or “aestheticization” projects, are indeed socially stratified, many public streets serve as a theater for various conflicting interests, where a mixing of ethnicities, classes, and ideas often occurs. Michel de Certeau's “Walking in the City” focuses on the opportunities the city offers to subvert official order: “Beneath the discourses that ideologize the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate.”4 By inscribing words onto architecture, by subverting the space of the advertisement, public artists try to dismantle dominant political ideology through popular, visual instruments of communication. Walking in the city is part of “inventing” space, according to de Certeau, displacing the imposed order and inserting yourself within a re-signified order: “The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order,” he explains.5 By opening up spaces for dissent, artists force viewers to question the demands made by billboards and advertisements, as well as their own complacency as passive consumers of city-mandated texts.

Political stickers, graffiti, and posters signal to a wide audience that there exist alternative modes of political influence and avenues for debate. Many demonstrators use signs and slogans to include themselves in and also to invite others into a larger framework of accepted rhetoric. This strain of the antiwar movement produces phrases such as “Peace is Patriotic” and “Support the Troops, Bring Them Home.” Other approaches employ a lighthearted sarcasm to cope with a sense of exclusion from national decisions. Onion newspaper headlines such as “Dead Iraqi Would Have Loved Democracy” are winks to the antiwar movement, acknowledging the hypocrisy of the government with laughter.6 Such inversion, invention, and insertion of mockery into the art produced by those involved in the antiwar movement uses playfulness to confront frightening realities. Self-critique, laughter, and exuberance invigorate crowds, offering relief amidst depressing headlines and neglect from a radically conservative administration. Aesthetic playfulness–the brightly colored poster board, the obscenities, the distorted presidential portraits, the costuming and fanfare–infuses every moment of a protest, allowing the Left to celebrate its ingenuity without having to sacrifice its ideals. It is at this intersection of aesthetics and activism that I would like to situate the public sphere created by recent demonstrations: at the forefront of new forms of debate, in confusion and celebration, in anger and in pride.

Idealized as a spatial location, a discursive site, or a mass of people, the “public” has indelibly inscribed itself on the political imagination. The idea of “public consensus” is seductive, marketable. After all, isn't the democratic political promise to represent and serve the public? By fashioning their own definitions of what constitutes the public, ideologues of all political persuasions lay claim to this term, touting their political agendas as universally beneficial and ethically sound. Protesters at this past year's demonstrations sought to destroy the illusion of “public” consensus through their actions.7 Even the New York Times recognizes the effectiveness of this approach:

The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion. In his campaign to disarm Iraq, by war if necessary, President Bush appears to be eyeball to eyeball with a tenacious new adversary: millions of people who flooded the streets of New York and dozens of other world cities to say they are against war based on the evidence at hand.8
Protest Image. Photography by Lori Cole.

Photo credit: Lori Cole

Bush's war for approval was played out in terms of public opinion, a vague term informed by polls, not by protests. “Public opinion” operates according to the logic of the public as an idealized, homogenous, universal body, or as a series of pluralistic subjects with identical collective concerns. The federal administration seeks to enact a vision of the public that is carefully scripted, structured, and exclusive. Meanwhile the Left idealizes its own version of the public: one that questions the rhetoric of community and subjectivity. “Social space is produced and structured by conflict,” art historian Rosalyn Deutsche explains–and it is at these points of conflict or contiguity that similarities between political projects are recognized and that real democratic debate occurs.9 By being self-conscious about its construction of a counter-discourse of the public, critical public art and activism can model and initiate alternate visions of the public. The posters activists devised in the antiwar protests this year drew attention to the condition of conflict, serving collectively as a site for sustained confrontation. It is through questioning governmental declarations and media-generated texts, and through critically re-examining relationships between people of varying socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and political interests that one can begin to contest the idea of a uniform public. For demonstrators, laying claim to a broad and representative constituency of Americans became the crucial definition of “the public,” and by extension, public opinion.

The public sphere has long been a rhetorical space available for the disenfranchised to potentially influence government policy. Political theorist Jürgen Habermas defines the public sphere as an arena between the state and society where problems of public welfare are debated in an atmosphere free of restrictions and characterized by “rational” discourse. “A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body,” Habermas argues.10 Casual, friendly conversations as well as the more fiery political arguments that arise at protests formally adhere to this Habermasian model. As Habermas aptly points out, public opinion is produced by the willful participation of constituents, keen on conserving their right to criticize and control the behavior of their government. However, he recognizes that such a promise of political influence is impossible to realize in the climate of late capitalism, when private interests influence decision-making and control communication.

Though antiwar demonstrators have not had their opinions represented in Congress and have not been acknowledged by government assessors of public opinion, they do serve as a version of the public themselves, in their boas and berets, with their strollers and megaphones. Many of the cries heard at recent protests, as frustration mounts, concern the nature of democracy. Though many participants cannot resolve their positions on specific political issues, all recognize that there should at least be a debate, and that debate is fundamental to democratic decision-making structures. “Whose streets? Our streets,” as well as “This is what democracy looks like,” were repeated as policemen barricaded streets, arrested activists, and forced protesters onto sidewalks at the February 15, 2003, rally in New York City. By claiming democracy, protesters suggest that their ranks are composed of people with diverse political agendas and backgrounds, as opposed to the homogenous public referred to by government pollsters, or the “focus group” President Bush referred to as a way of dismissing the internationally coordinated large-scale February 15 protests.

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe locates political agency in the kinds of alliances that are formed between disparate political groups. While Mouffe, like Habermas, believes that debate is fundamental to a productive public sphere, she disagrees with Habermas that such a debate occurs according to the terms of rational discourse, which would end in consensus, a unified public opinion that can then inform state decisions. Rather, she argues, individuals adopt multiple, contradictory, and discursively constructed subject positions. Speakers used the podium at the Washington and New York rallies to draw a sympathetic audience's attention to causes ranging from gender discrimination to education policies. Participants also raised awareness of personal issues, but subsumed them under the larger rhetoric and goal of the antiwar movement: peaceful reconciliation, diplomatic dialogue, and recognition of other nations' interests and concerns. Therefore, at protests, in addition to declarations of democracy, one overheard slogans like “Money for jobs, not for oil,” and “Build schools, not bombs.” Further optimistic agendas were disclosed: rather than just denouncing Bush, people rallied for alternate political candidates. Gray-haired women with feathered boas marched proudly and sang, '60s-era peace songs behind a large “Code Pink, Women's Pre-Emptive Strike for Peace” banner. Protesters identified themselves as businessmen, parents, Yale graduates, veterans, and Texans, so as not to be absorbed by an amorphous “movement” or dismissed as “liberal college students.”

Mouffe argues that a person who recognizes the slippages between his or her own political identifications–based on national origin, ethnicity, race, class or gender–will, by extension, also recognize the necessity to align him or herself with other disadvantaged individuals and groups seeking political and economic equality, especially those in close social proximity. Some protests held in specific racial strongholds emphasized particular counter-agendas to that of war, such as the Black Radical Congress youth rally in Harlem. While the multiplicity of issues raised at protests, from the first one in Washington in October through the March 22 rally in New York, do indicate the government's ever-growing neglect of its constituents' interests, it also distracts protesters and media alike from the urgency of the antiwar message. Street demonstrations of this nature therefore did represent a kind of democratic process. A kaleidoscope of opinions, personal fury over a spectrum of issues, indecisiveness, extremist visions, and utopic possibilities: a gathering of incongruent masses, poised alongside each other, cheering and shouting. The efficacy of such marches was hard to tally in numbers or in media coverage, and usually took the form of personal and interpersonal transformation: a bright-eyed old gentleman recounting stories of civil rights marches in Washington to girls leading their first protest chants; a family waving peace signs from a Fifth Avenue window.

Artists model this democratic version of the public sphere and implement it on a small scale by creating alternative networks for disseminating information that question the national discourse. From the Theaters Against the War staging of the ancient Greek antiwar play Lysistrata, in fifty-nine different countries, to the “Poems Not Fit for the White House” reading at Lincoln Center, to a show at the Chisholm Gallery juxtaposing government-sponsored war propaganda posters with responses created by the Left, a broad swath of the art world uses their networks to support the antiwar movement.11 There exist literally hundreds of online sources for antiwar posters, such as the “Another Poster for Peace” web site, whose slogan is “copyright-free art for public use,” encouraging sharing resources for the purposes of solidarity and refuting the autonomy or ownership of art. Poster art facilitates the movement's visibility in newspapers, on television, and to passersby on the street. Such visual production remains as one of the few public outlets available for debate. The posters “Fuck Bush- It Feels Good” and “War is Unhealthy for Children and Other Living Things,” while seemingly incongruous, inhabit the same stretch of Fifth Avenue in New York City or the Mall in Washington, mimicking the daily mixture of cultures in urban street life and the wide constituency that begs representation at the level of government.

Eager to construct a counter-history to the one being advocated by the government, protesters assert their presence through visual reminders: buttons seen in passing on coats and purses, graffiti stenciled on a city sidewalk. Protesters also infiltrate dominant spaces of communication, such as billboards or newspapers, and provide alternative venues for debate–at community centers, through independent media outlets, and on the street. Recent antiwar demonstrations have proved that there is no fixed political identity of the Left, and that any such vision of “the public”–even one against the Iraq war–is unproductive. Nor is there a single utopic vision of the future. If anything, the spate of recent antiwar protests demonstrate that “the public square has to be reinvented again and again . . . anyone with experience of the Left knows that those unhappy with an existing critical space will feel free to invent new ones, more receptive to their needs. There is no set formula for the dialectic of institutionalization and fluidity which defines the idea of the public square.”12 Politically and publicly minded artists help to subvert the neutralizing tactics of a government's tacit dismissal of their dissent and to instigate this reinvention.

The fluid, inclusive DIY culture that produces and inseminates clever, direct, and inexpensive art encourages others to visually render and promote their own politics. Such aesthetic material is in dialogue with more established socially minded artistic practices, such as the large-scale public art projects of Kruger, Holzer, and Group Material. Artists can use their influence as recognized cultural producers to persistently poke holes in the official discourse, allowing room for a multiplicity of subject-positions to filter through. The DIY aesthetic of the antiwar movement's artistic production is free form, contradictory, and open to working with artists and activists alike to disseminate a message of peaceful coexistence. Yet the beginnings of a broad-based coalition movement emerged as participation at protests increased throughout the year and protesters unified through internationally consistent slogans, posters, and practices. With involvement from a range of politically identified subgroups, the antiwar movement creates an atmosphere of sustained debate at protests, embodying the model of democracy it seeks to enact. These conversations and confrontations will lead to further social engagement, applying old forms of political and artistic intervention to new purposes and developing aesthetic tactics for an ever-evolving public sphere. •

  • “Propaganda” exhibition at the Chisholm Gallery, 55 W 17 St. 6th Fl. NYC 10011.
  • Ault, Julie. Alternative Art New York: 1965-1985. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minnesota UP, 2002.
  • Lippard, Lucy, “Biting the Hand: Artists and Museums in New York Since 1969.” Alternative Art New York: 1965-1985. Ed. Julie Ault. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minnesota U P, 2002; 104-5.
  • de Certeau, Michel. Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984; 158.
  • de Certeau, 160.
  • “Dead Iraqi Would Have Loved Democracy.” The Onion, 39:11, March 26 2003.
  • Clementson, Lynette. “Threats and Responses: Rally; Thousands Converge in Capital to Protest Plans for War.” New York Times, January 19, 2003.
  • Tyler, Patrick E. “Threats and Responses: News Analysis; A New Power in the Streets.” New York Times, February 17, 2003.
  • “Deutsche, Roslyn. Evictions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996; xxiv.
  • Habermas, Jürgen, “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964).” New German Critique (Fall 1974) 49.
  • West, Debra, “No Sex as Antiwar Protest? What Sex?” New York Times, March 9 2003.
  • Hirschkop, Ken, “The Public Square as Public Sphere.” Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy. New York: Oxford UP, 1999; 271.

Lori Cole was a 2002-3 Helena Rubinstein Critical Studies Fellow of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program. She has contributed articles to the Providence Phoenix and the Village Voice and currently lives in Brooklyn.

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