“Genes” for Antiwar Art?

Matthew Israel
Oct 9, 2013 2:23PM

Politics is a central topic for contemporary art and artists and I wanted to share the news of an exciting conference being organized on the topic by SFMoMA. The conference, titled Visual Activism, focuses “on the...relationship between visual culture and activist practices.” It will bring together scholars, artists and activists, and among the questions the organizers want to engage with are the ability of political art to travel (or resonate with different geographic and national audiences); how political art functions in a highly censored community, as well as how the past becomes a form of visual activism in the present.

The final question the organizers raise—regarding how the past can inform the visual activism of the future—is near and dear to my heart. Part of the motivation for my recent book, Kill for Peace, was to inform artists of the present about different historical strategies which have been available for “antiwar” art. In this respect, I considered my book a political act of scholarship, to counter what Giovanni Arrighi has called “one of the great strengths of the world’s ruling strata throughout history—the non-continuity of rebellion.”

Within Kill for Peace I identified a list of antiwar artistic strategies which either originated or were much more dramatically present during the 1960s and can still be found in the work of artists who engaged with later American wars and political conflicts, most notably American conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Looked at through the lens of Artsy and The Art Genome Project, one might consider these strategies to be “genes” for antiwar art. Among others, I identified the following:

Extra-aesthetic actions:

An array of strategies of engagement which did not involve any conscious creation of art, i.e. marches, advertisements, strikes, walk-outs, and petitions.

Collective aesthetic endeavors:
Group artworks, usually murals or large quilt-like works, which relied on their size and collective facture—rather than the particular character of the individual contributions involved—to make their statement against the war. The most famous example of this from the war was 1966's Artists' Tower of Protest (known also as the Peace Tower).

The defacement of patriotic symbols or political figures. Images were often visually reversed in order to deface. Rather than acting as symbols of freedom, idealism, and democracy, they thus became revised into images representative of a police state, terrorism, or fascism.

Disfiguring of American weaponry: 
Related to defacement, an aggressive way to reject the military might of America. Nancy Spero’s War Series was one of the best-known pieces to do this. Spero’s work turned helicopters into serpents and snakes, converting what in the wake of World War II had been symbols of pride into images of sin and deceit.

Direct evidence:
“Direct evidence” as a legal term refers to evidence directly related to the facts in dispute. I used this term in Kill for Peace to identify photography from the war front that characteristically featured Vietnamese women and children civilians injured by American attacks. Since the dawn of photography, images of direct evidence from the war front have been central to dissent.

Benefit works:
Benefit works were created by artists who wanted to donate their work to benefit the antiwar effort financially (in portfolios, auctions, and gallery exhibitions) but did not want to modify their work—which did not engage with the conflict—in any way to do so.

Juxtaposition of the war and the domestic environment:
Martha Rosler’s series of collages, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful are arguably the best known example of this. These works exhibited an innovative approach to making antiwar work: the juxtaposition of direct evidence from the war with contemporary domestic interiors. In so doing, they suggested the stark division between home and the war, and the apathy of the American public regarding the war.

Advance memorials:
Advance memorials critiqued the historical look and format of war memorials through the following techniques: featuring dead soldiers or empty, grave-like spaces instead of valiant heroes; siting works on the floor without historical contextualization (as opposed to elevated, monumental podiums that clearly explained the historical event); and constructing monuments out of ephemeral materials.

Juxtaposition of body counts and individual victims:
Such a strategy could be seen in later protest works and aimed to humanize the death toll.

If you're interested, you can learn more about each of these strategies in Kill for Peace. At the same time I hope posting these ideas here will further encourage others to explore the historical possibilities available for political art and inform the work of present-day politically-engaged artists.

Matthew Israel