“Following the trail blazed by historian Howard Zinn, author of the paradigm-shifting A People’s History of the United States (1980), artist and writer Lampert addresses the essential yet underappreciated role activist art has played in diverse social reform movements. In a sweeping journey across America and through past eras, Lampert casts light on the stories behind such propagandistic images as Paul Revere’s engraving The Bloody Massacre and the “liberation graphics” in abolitionist materials. The work of progressive photographers is prominent here, from Jacob A. Riis’ famous tenement images to Danny Lyon’s courageous civil rights movement documentation and army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle’s exposure of the My Lai massacre. Covering vast amounts of information in a free-rolling, thoroughly engaging manner, Lampert analyzes the posters, flyers, placards, banners, publications, and street theater associated with everything from the labor, antiwar, and nuclear disarmament movements to feminist, Chicano, and AIDS civil rights organizations. Lampert’s eye-opening, history-enriching, and superbly well-illustrated exposition of the union of art and activism reminds us of how creative dissent can be and how necessary it is to our democracy.”
— DONNA SEAMAN, Booklist, November 1, 2013 review
This latest addition to the New Press’s People’s History series, with a preface by Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), is both readable and instructive. Rather than writing a comprehensive history of social-justice-movement art, Lampert, an activist artist himself, focuses on “examples that were complicated, where the decisions made by artists were controversial and confounding,” his premise being that “analyzing histories that are deeply complicated helps us learn.” His examples range from an examination of the changing uses of wampum belts between Native Americans and Europeans to the contemporary Yes Men’s audacious hoaxes that expose corporate and capitalist culture. Encouraging readers to consider how art can instigate—or dilute—activism and social change, and emphasizing lessons that can be learned and techniques that can be borrowed from earlier activists, the book is a useful and thought-provoking text for history and art students. It may also inspire activists, artist or otherwise, to maximize their effectiveness.” 236 b&w illus. (Nov.)- Publishers Weekly, November 1, 2013 review
“This is an important first volley in what I hope is an ongoing fusillade of people’s art histories. There are many more stories to retell, here and abroad. Those relayed by Nicolas Lampert offer models for an art that actively engages in and helps change the course of history.” —LUCY R. LIPPARD, AUTHOR OF GET THE MESSAGE? A DECADE OF ART FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

“A much welcome, fresh view of American political art.” —PAUL BUHLE, EDITOR OF A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF AMERICAN EMPIRE

“This book is an excellent jumping-off point for anyone unfamiliar with the powerful social justice roots of American culture, offering wonderful examples illustrating historical points along the timeline of agitational American art. Lampert’s credentials as an activist artist give him an insider’s view of this important yet marginalized subject. It’s an antidote to the conventional ‘Art’ model where form dominates content and artistic creativity is reduced to marketable commodities.”

“By introducing the significant role that artists have played throughout the history of the United States, Nicolas Lampert offers readers the delight of returning to a familiar narrative and discovering a fascinating reinterpretation. This well-wrought interdisciplinary text demonstrates that artists do not merely respond to and record the events transpiring in their lifetimes; they also shape these events by applying the tools of their profession to accomplish clearly articulated political agendas.” —LINDA WEINTRAUB, AUTHOR OF ART ON THE EDGE AND OVER: SEARCHING FOR ART’S MEANING IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY

“Inspired by the revisionist social histories of Howard Zinn, Nicolas Lampert’s A People’s Art History of the United States is an inspiration in itself. Looking beyond an art world framed by museums and markets, Lampert surveys American activist cultures from the colonial era to the present. His passion for social change and his optimism about creative and constructive resistance come on strong in this well-written and wonderfully illustrated book. Highly recommended.” —ERIKA DOSS, PROFESSOR OF AMERICAN STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME

“Historical amnesia is rampant in U.S. politics today, no less so in the visual arts, where the current wave of social practice art often suffers from a lack of awareness of what came before. This is an original piece of research, pointing us toward a vast territory of reconnection.”—SUZANNE LACY, ARTIST AND WRITER, OTIS COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN

“As much as it is easy to say that there are many histories of art that aren’t those of the commercial system,the backing up of that statement with counter-histories is no small task. Here we have a tremendous contribution to a history of art that demonstrates how critical culture is to the production of people’s movements.” – NATO THOMPSON, CHIEF CURATOR, CREATIVE TIME

“Written in accessible prose, Lampert’s wonderful book is suitable for the university classroom or the union hall; the anarchist bookstore or bedtime reading for teenagers.  When teaching on art and social justice at the university level, A People’s History of Art in the United States has become the go-to book on the subject.”  – DYLAN MINER, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY and author or Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island

“In an image-based culture such as late-stage America capitalism, political art is frequently deployed as a stand in for political engagement itself, with little explanation of the social context that drove the work into being. Nicolas Lampert gives us the stories behind the potent images that have changed the way we think about ourselves, which is the point in studying them in the first place.” – AVRAM FINKELSTEIN, ACT UP NYC


SNCC poster, Come Let Us Build a New World Together, 1962, photograph by Danny Lyon. (Credit: Copyright Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos; image reproduction: Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan)

SNCC poster, Come Let Us Build a New World Together, 1962, photograph by Danny Lyon. (Credit: Copyright Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos; image reproduction: Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan)

Nicolas Lampert’s A People’s Art History of the United States is a fascinating, if anecdotal, look at the ways activist art propels and augments social change movements. It makes no bones about the fact that it is not an all-encompassing survey of progressive art but is instead a look at the ways specific activists have used visual media – broadly defined to include everything from installations and street theater to painting, sculpture, puppetry, poster-making and photography.

Along the way Lampert interrogates how imagery has been used to promote rebellion against the British; support abolition; boost woman suffrage; honor Chicago’s Haymarket martyrs; contest lynching; oppose World War I; publicize the World War II-era incarceration of Japanese citizens and US-born Japanese Americans; support civil rights and, later, build the Black Panther Party; push museums and galleries to feature more women and people of color; oppose nuclear power; support People with AIDS; and build a more peaceful and egalitarian world.

Miné Okubo. Evacuees Arrives from Tule Lake. Citizen 13660. (Credit: Courtesy of Miné Okubo Estate)

Miné Okubo. “Evacuees Arrives from Tule Lake.” Citizen 13660. (Credit: Courtesy of Miné Okubo Estate)

All told, A People’s Art History covers a lot of ground and is a valuable resource for anyone interested in how community organizing and popular culture intersect. It is also an instructive look at the ways the historical record is distorted by the stories we choose to tell and the images we choose to accompany them.

Take the American Revolution. Lampert writes that the first person to die in the Boston Massacre of March 1770 was a former slave named Crispus Attucks. Attucks had been part of an enormous multi-racial, working-class group that confronted the British with the tools they had available – snowballs and wooden bats.

Three weeks after the fight Paul Revere published what became the most popular image of the incident, an engraving called The Bloody Massacre. It was wildly inaccurate. “Revere,” Lampert writes, “depicted the crowd as passive, turning a working class mob into a respectable assortment of men and women. Worst of all, he depicts Attucks as someone he wasn’t: a white man. Revere’s engraving was designed as anti-British propaganda that fell in line with how wealthy colonial elites wanted to portray the revolution: a revolt that was led by an educated, white, male leadership that had rallied the colonial population against the unjust policies of the British Parliament and its use of force.”

Paul Revere, after Henry Pelham's design. The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt., 1770. (Credit: LC-DIG-ppmsca-10657, Library of Congress)

Paul Revere, after Henry Pelham’s design. The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt., 1770. (Credit: LC-DIG-ppmsca-10657, Library of Congress)

The image, Lampert adds, traveled up and down the East coast – and to Europe – and was likely the only thing most people saw or heard about the brawl. This, he writes, “obscured the class tensions that existed in colonial America,” and completely erased Attucks since, apparently, Revere was unwilling to allow a non-white rebel to become a revolutionary martyr.

Indeed Lampert writes that Revere, alongside his buddy John Quincy Adams, were overtly antagonistic toward those who led the anti-British fightback, dubbing them “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish Teagues, and out landish [sic] Jack Tarrs.” Small wonder that the despised were absent from Revere’s rendering of the day’s events.

Later historical events were, of course, different, and it is worth noting that the most powerful people were not always in control of what was seen – sometimes it was the downtrodden who moved people to action. In fact, decades after independence was won, the anti-slavery movement used one image to supplement written and verbal accounts of slavery’s brutal impact on those in captivity, a lithograph of the inside of a slave ship that carried hundreds of human beings from Africa to US or British shores. Seeing the cramped space was particularly effective in illustrating the barbarity of transport. It further fomented opposition to slavery itself.

Unidentified artist/s, Stowage of the British Slave Ship "Brookes" Under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788, etching, ca. 1788. (Credit: LC-USZ62-44000, Library of Congress)

Unidentified artist/s, Stowage of the British Slave Ship “Brookes” Under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788, etching, ca. 1788. (Credit: LC-USZ62-44000, Library of Congress)

Craftspeople also gravitated to the anti-slavery cause, Lampert writes, putting pro-freedom messages on a variety of household objects, mugs to bowls. That said, he notes that the abolitionist movement was of many minds on how best to mix imagery with messaging. For example, some activists were eager to show slaves in active revolt; others thought this unwise. “Abolitionists debated whether abolitionist art should portray the empowerment of African individuals, especially when it came to depicting violence and slave uprisings,” Lampert writes. “This echoed debates within the broader movement itself, where white activist leaders differed over whether slaves could or should participate in their own liberation.”

One example will illustrate. The fight over construction of Boston’s Shaw Memorial reveals the pushback against creation of a monument to honor the African American soldiers who fought in Union armies during the Civil War. Many whites, Lampert writes, bristled at such acknowledgement, and attempted to deny the contribution of African Americans to the war. The ultimate erection of the statue was a victory for Frederick Douglass and other Black activists who fought tooth-and-nail against an historical erasure.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Shaw Memorial (detail), 1884-1897, Boston Commons. (Credit: Photograph courtesy of Michael Lampert)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Shaw Memorial (detail), 1884-1897, Boston Commons. (Credit: Photograph courtesy of Michael Lampert)

And, while progressives tend to dismiss war memorials as antithetical to our agenda, in this case installing a sculpture to honor Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the soldiers in his all-Black regiment serves as a historical corrective to whitewashed accounts of military valor. “Black soldiers eventually accounted for 10 percent of the total number of Union soldiers,” Lampert notes, “an increase in military strength that helped Union armies deliver the final blow to the Confederacy and slavery.”

The memorial is an important recognition of this contribution.

What’s more, whether the art in question is created to honor someone like Shaw, expose atrocities, or inspire activism, images matter. The fight against lynching is a case in point.

Much like the drawings of cramped slave ships that were used by abolitionists, photos of lynching victims helped mobilize opposition to the practice. The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, pulled no punches and under editor W.E. B. DuBois, repeatedly ran grisly photos of victims.

Fred A. Gildersleeve. [Large crowd looking at the burned body of Jesse Washington, seventeen-year-old African American, lynched in Waco, Texas, May 15, 1916] (Credit: LC-USZC4-4647, Library of Congress)

Fred A. Gildersleeve. “[Large crowd looking at the burned body of Jesse Washington, seventeen-year-old African American, lynched in Waco, Texas, May 15, 1916]” (Credit: LC-USZC4-4647, Library of Congress)

The tactic – showing the horror – was also used by photographer Jacob Riis to highlight early 20th century slum conditions in New York City tenements. Neither he nor the NAACP was unique in adopting this strategy; both aimed to shock mainstream Americans into action.

Jacob A. Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement—Five Cents a Spot, 1889. (Credit: Museum of the City of New York)

Jacob A. Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement—”Five Cents a Spot,” 1889. (Credit: Museum of the City of New York)

Photographs are particularly well-suited for this; nonetheless, artists often employ other means to promulgate their message, from creating posters that are pasted on building walls to creating public spectacles – such as silent processions to reclaim city streets or street theater using masks, costumes, signs or papier mache characters to promote gender equity, oppose police brutality or protest war.

Some organizations, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, have used theater to “bring the war home.” Several years ago, IVAW members in several cities went to busy intersections during rush hour, in full battle gear and in formation, and proceeded to grab civilians – actually other IVAW members – while horrified onlookers watched. For some participants, the drama proved healing; others found it traumatizing to re-enact the chaos. The project was eventually abandoned, because, as one participant, revealed, “It was literally destroying our membership.”

Still, the willingness to see what works and experiment with different art forms is simply good organizing. For whether it’s through guerrilla theater or drawing, making posters, taking photographs, or creating lithographs, art can reach people in ways other mediums cannot.

In September a photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned while trying to get from Turkey to Greece with his family, touched more people than written or spoken news stories. Other images have also had a dramatic impact – remember the running Vietnamese girl hit by napalm or Danny Lyons’s photos of the civil rights movement – whether by showcasing inhumanity or by demonstrating how kind and compassionate humans can be.

The bottom line is that our attitudes, perceptions, desires and dreams are influenced by what we see, read and hear. A People’s Art History of the United States zeroes in on how different movements have utilized the arts and underscores how necessary it is to include culture in all our campaigns and outreach efforts. It may be a cliché, but when all is said and done, a picture is still worth 1,000 words.

Review from

Review: A People’s Art History of the United States

By Nicolas Lampert
New York: The New Press, 2013. 345 pp. $35.00 (hardcover).

People's Art History CoverThe newest in a long line of people’s histories inspired by the work of Howard Zinn, A People’s Art History of the United States by Nicolas Lampert uncovers the many ways that the visual arts have served as a space for political action and resistance throughout US history. With hundreds of images of political art from across the past five centuries, this book makes a compelling argument that art and politics — often seen as separate realms — have always been intimately and inextricably intertwined.

Despite the cover image, which brings to mind a framed work of art, this is not a story about political paintings hanging in museums. Instead, it is a story about how popular and public forms of art — from posters and photographs to cartoons and statues — have always been a part of civic and political life. When professional gallery artists do show up, they are likely to be organizing a union or protesting against the gallery system.

The book starts in an unexpected place, with what Lampert argues is the first art form in the New World to be partially shaped by European colonizers: the wampum belt. Made from beads constructed out of shells and strung together, wampum belts developed as an indigenous art form using European tools. In addition to their beauty, the belts were used as a medium for communication and record-keeping among tribes, and between native peoples and the colonizers, forming both a literal and metaphorical connection between the Americas and Europe.

Lampert covers a wide array of historical narratives in his book, many of which have received little attention in the literature on art and social movements.There are chapters on printed maps of slaved ships distributed by abolitionists, banners used by advocates for women’s suffrage, a battle over a civil war memorial featuring African American soldiers, up through the media antics of the Yes Men. While some of the artists — like Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party — are well known, many others were new to me, including thousands of unnamed participants in collective art pieces like the IWW-led Patterson Pageant.

At times it is difficult to tell whether this is a story about arts activism, or whether political art is being used to tell the story of the United States itself. In reality it is both, and that is one of its greatest strengths. In uncovering the story of the Workers Film and Photo League in the 1930s, or the role that photographer Jacom Riis played in the tenement reform movement, Lampert is both highlighting the political use of photography and film, and giving voice to lesser-known resistance movements.

Importantly, Lampert does not shy away from the complications and tensions inherent in this work. For example, he takes time to examine the way that Riis’s photographs of the horrors of tenement life reflected racist and anti-immigrant views, and how the Patterson Pageant led to tensions between organized workers and the Greenwich Village artists who sought to ally themselves with the movement. The book is less an ode to the power of using art to create change, and more a complex exploration of how the arts are always political, and have long been a part of struggles over justice — we just have to look in the right places.


A Rebel’s Guide to Art History

August 6, 2015 Paul Mullan


Longstanding left debates over the relation between art and politics are again significant, given mass upsurges such as Occupy. Nicolas Lampert’s latest publication, A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements, is heavily weighted towards understanding this relation in these terms: an engaged art produced within really-existing mass struggles.

The 29 chapters span US history — from the era before the American Revolution, to the post-2001 antiwar movement. Each discusses a specific instance of struggle and associated artistic projects. In a brief preface, Lampert lays out core assumptions of the book.

First, the emphasis is not on more established artworld figures, such as Nancy Spero, politically active during the Vietnam War era. Instead, the emphasis is on activist art, mostly by lesser-known figures and mostly outside of museums, galleries, and the institutional artworld.

Illustrative is the East Los Angeles arts collective Asco, which arose out of the vital Chicano movements of the early 1970s and is highlighted in chapter 23. Asco was long neglected in mainstream artworld discourse. That changed following a major retrospective, part of the enormous Pacific Standard Time initiative on LA art, at the beginning of this decade.

Second, Lampert looks at works only sometimes made by self-identified artists; and, in other cases, by people who identify first as activists — and as artists only peripherally (if at all).

In 2005, the anti-immigrant Save Our State (SOS) targeted Judith Baca’s public monument Danzas Indigenas (1993). The far-right group objected to quotations, from Chicana feminist writer Gloria Anzaldúa, engraved on the installation in Baldwin Park, near LA. Chapter 27 recounts the response: more than 1000 local community members participated in a new Baca work, Mural in Three Movements, at the site. The vast majority of those involved in Mural, and (victoriously) confronting the SOS racists, did not primarily identify as artists.

Third, the book features “art” which, using traditional definitions, can frequently be difficult to locate: art that “shares commonality with the tactics of social-justice movements”; and “art that intervenes in public space and the mass media” (x). This is an effect of the first two assumptions, which suggest a withdrawal from the legitimation, and very categorization as “art”, bestowed by the institutional artworld and its discourses.

In 2007, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) members reenacted their experiences of combat patrols. These public performances, Operation First Casualty, are considered in chapter 28. The veterans wore their full uniforms, minus weapons; marched in standard patrol formations; and “arrested” detainees played by fellow antiwar activists dressed in civilian clothing. The resulting realism was enough to occasionally raise alarms. Video of the street theater in a crowded Times Square shows passers-by being inadvertently confronted, with some screaming in terror or reflexively putting their hands over their heads. “Audiences” did always correctly interpret this Operation as “art”.

Fourth, the case studies reveal consistent “tactics” that can be “recycled” and “redeployed” by current and future political movements (x).

Of art’s “engagement”, there are multiple degrees: null, weak, and strong. There are also multiple types: an engagement primarily driven by forces external to the artworld; and another, by that world itself. (Though this is not explicitly formulated by Lampert in such terms.)

In the first, “weak” scenario, there is an historical context characterized by strong mass mobilizations. An artist here can produce a subjectively political art, in terms of conscious intentions or motivations; or an art that, in the larger social field, has general, objective political effects, however indirect or attenuated. However, the artist never commits, in the strong sense, to an actual political sequence.

“Sequence” does not mean simply an individual fidelity to an abstract idea — that is virtuous but insufficient. Instead, it refers to political organizations, with structure, meetings, political debate, democratic accountability, demonstrations, and the required, routine work. (This can be occasionally exciting but much of the time not, as most left activists know). Commitment — missing here — would materially concentrate political effects, and elevate above a mere ideal, an artistic practice.

In the second, “null” scenario, an artist does commit, with high intensity, to a political sequence. However, no visual “art”, per popular or institutional categories, , appears in this artist’s practice.

In the third, “strong” scenario, an artist, again, commits to an actual sequence. Further, art is produced that is popularly or institutionally recognized as such. Lastly, that art is subordinate to an organization’s projects and political perspective.

There are no chapters on null engagement, as Lampert does not seek art’s negation, but, instead, to understand its specificity vis-à-vis politics. There are a handful of case studies on artworld-driven engagements. The vast majority concern weak or strong engagements driven by forces outside of that world. These latter cases are most striking and differentiate Lampert’s book from much current debate about art and politics.

Chapter 4 looks at Henry “Box” Brown, a black slave who escaped a Virginia plantation by mailing himself, in a three-foot long crate, to the house of a sympathetic abolitionist in Philadelphia in 1849. Afterwards, Brown worked with the abolitionist movement to tell his story. A biography was ghostwritten, as Brown could neither read nor write; a lithograph was made, showing Brown exiting the infamous box and greeting supporters in Philadelphia; and Brown spoke around the country.

Key black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, for tactical reasons, opposed fugitive slaves revealing their methods of flight; that information would impede incremental efforts to help others trapped in the South. Douglass noted that had not Brown “’and his friends attracted slaveholding attention … we might have had a thousand Box Browns per annum’” (35). Conversely, other abolitionists believed publicizing Brown’s sensational escape would help turn mass opinion against slavery and facilitate ending the entire system in one stroke.

To evade slave catchers prowling the north, Brown fled to Britain the following year. In popular appearances, Brown reenacted his escape, with theatrical élan; sang accessible, abolitionist songs; and displayed a huge panorama laying out the brutality of the slavery system. A panorama was a long, canvas painting mounted on two vertical rollers; the images were continuously scrolled before the audience, to the accompaniment of live music and narration. This essentially offered “moving pictures”, before the development of cinema.

Financially pressed, Brown turned these appearances into moneymaking opportunities, and this unseemly grandstanding soured his relations with the movement. Nonetheless, Lampert argues, Brown was crucial in swaying public opinion against slavery. This happened outside the relatively closed, limited circles of abolitionist militants, via a mass culture strategy. Lampert concludes:

His path allows us to consider the importance of those who veer away from the standard approaches and boundaries that often define social activism. Brown’s antislavery message reached tens of thousands of people through an accessible medium that was rooted in popular culture. (38)

This was an advance, despite Brown’s ultimate separation from the political formations that grounded the abolitionist struggle. Such was this instance of ultimately weak engagement.

From one vantage, chapter 19 — on the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas — is paradigmatic of the strong engagement prominent elsewhere in the book. Per Lampert, Douglas was a “party artist” who created works in conformance with the politico-ideological line of the BPP, even as that line shifted over time (Lampert 2014).

Such a major shift followed the 1970 release of BPP Minister of Defense Huey Newton from prison. There was a move from armed struggle perspectives, focusing upon confrontations with the police and state forces, towards a more long-term revolutionary perspective emphasizing community survival efforts like the well-known free breakfast programs. Lampert argues that “Douglas’s images in the Black Panther” — the weekly party newspaper — “reflected the shift in BPP policy”: from anti-police agitation; towards images of African-American community members receiving free food or campaigning for BPP electoral candidates (208)

“Party” as a category can be applied more expansively. Certain left tendencies have historically interpreted the party not as a specific organizational sequence limited to the Marxist-Leninist and democratic-centralist traditions; but as the totality of the broad movement of the proletariat, whatever workers’ actual affiliations, or lack thereof, with self-declared parties. In this case, a “party artist” would be an one that, first, creates work within an organized political sequence and, second, in the service of its political line. This category can thus be applied, not merely to party formations, but also to the expanse of social movements without the structures, decision-making processes, and overall politics of such formations.

Many of Lampert’s studies are of those movements. Others, such as chapter 13, concern the cultural policies of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) during the infamous Third Period; the later, anti-fascist, Popular Front era is detailed in chapter 16.

Such is strong engagement. Also relevant is whether an engagement is driven primarily by forces outside the artworld; or by that world itself. The latter type is examined in chapter 20, on the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) and Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG). Chapter 9 examines the former type, which is much more the emphasis of the book as a whole.

That chapter considers The Pageant of the Paterson Strike, a 1913 performance at Madison Square Garden and one which reenacted the silk industry strike then underway in New Jersey. Over 1000 of the 25,000 striking workers departed from Paterson by train and marched up Fifth Avenue to the Garden, with an IWW (International Workers of the World) band playing “The Internationale”. The inside of the venue was decked out as an IWW meeting hall, complete with volunteers selling programs and copies of The Masses.

These worker-actors performed events from the very struggle currently raging across the Hudson River. The space was configured so that audience members mingled with actors, sang in unison with them, and listened to speeches — almost identical to the original orations — by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other renowned IWW organizers. The lines in traditional drama were blurred: between audience and players; between “actors” and their roles; between fact and “fiction”; between the space of theater and the real; and between representation and its referent.

The collapse of art and life — in this case, art and politics — has been an integral idea for many revolutions of the twentieth century. This anti-representational framework continues today within left thought, such as socially engaged art This has limitations, however. While Flynn praised the Pageant as “’splendid propaganda for the workers in New York’”, she also criticized it as a “’turning to the stage of the hall, away from the field of life’” (97).

First, the demand to push art as close as possible to the real-time world — as in a restaging of ongoing struggles — creates challenges. The director, revolutionary John Reed, wrote into the script episodes which had occurred merely weeks prior. This drive towards immediacy and directness damaged the ability to properly organize the show in a three-week timeframe, which was insufficient for selling enough tickets and printed programs and for rounding up volunteers. Per Flynn, the IWW lost money. For good reasons, grand art of this kind tends to draw on the distant past.

Second, Flynn maintained that having 1000 workers busy rehearsing, rather than reinforcing picket lines, allowed the first scabs to enter the mills; and that this facilitated the strike’s collapse seven weeks after the Garden. A more carefully calibrated representation would have been preferred. Key issues would be, for example, whether the reenactment should preferably have actors or artists, rather than real workers, playing the onstage roles — assuming the latter had more skills or experience, on the picket line, than the former. Another issue would be numbers. A thousand added a sense of verity and realness, indeed spectacle, to the presentation. Fewer might have been more strategically sound, though more clearly reducing the Pageant to classical synecdoche, the part standing for the whole.

The IWW’s novel foray into performance was intensely grounded, to a near-maximum degree, in an organized political sequence and not centrally determined by the artworld. Similar examples of this approach are found in chapter 24, on the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP; chapter 25, on the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Harbor in NYC and the movement against nuclear weapons; and chapter 22, on artist Suzanne Lacy’s mass media interventions and work, in the women’s movements, against sexual violence.

Meanings of the well-known “Silence = Death” graphic, associated with ACT UP, have shifted over time. The poster shows the slogan, in white, towards the bottom and a pink, equilateral triangle pointing upwards above that; both are horizontally centered against a black backdrop. In tiny font below the slogan is an explanation:

Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable … Use your power … Vote … Boycott … Defend yourselves … Turn anger, fear, grief into action (Crimp with Rolston 1990, 30)

A collective of then-anonymous artists designed this initial version of the work through 1986, and thousands were wheatpasted around NYC in early 1987 — without any foreknowledge of ACT UP’s imminent founding (Finkelstein 2010, 30).

From a physical distance, the graphic’s formal, austere minimalism and predominance of the ominous black backdrop would have – in the political context at that specific moment, and for most audiences – made the poster appear ambiguous and reinforced an impression of “silence” on the main question: “’Silence about what?’” (252).

The pink triangle had been used (pointing downwards) by the Nazis to identify gay people in concentration camps, and this was widely understood within LGBT communities; outside those communities, not so much. The same could be said of the term “death”, in proximity to the pink triangle. As the gay film critic Vito Russo polemicized:

Living with AIDS is living through a war which is happening only for those people who are in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes you look around to discover that you’ve lost more of your friends. But nobody else notices –It isn’t happening to them. (Russo 1988, 10)

So, particular audiences were being targeted by the image. Interested pedestrians would have moved closer to read the small explanatory text.

Politicization around the AIDS epidemic had begun in the City (and around the country) in late 1985. Rapidly escalating deaths was only one factor. The Gay and Lesbian Anti-Defamation League (GLADL) had formed, incensed at the bigoted and homophobic AIDS reporting of the newsmedia. The Lavender Hill Mob was created in the aftermath of the Bowers versus Hardwick decision in mid-1986, when the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional Georgia’s statute illegalizing sodomy.

Still, after less than a year, there was not yet a hegemonic political or organizational center for AIDS activism. A set of firm concepts and language had not yet cohered. That is manifest in the political potpourri at the bottom of the original Silence = Death design. Regarding “voting”, for instance, ACT UP was to never endorse candidates; “boycotts” would be a minimal factor in the group’s work. In this early phase, then, the poster was oriented towards the future and a militant politics that was still only coming into being.

The designers joined ACT UP shortly after its creation in March, 1987, and Silence = Death essentially became the fledging group’s logo. This image appeared In multiple permutations over the years – on buttons, demonstration placards, t-shirts, posters, and other media.

In the original political situation, this sign, insofar as it addressed a general, mass audience, posed a mystery. Within the LGBT communities, the slogan was more comprehensible. In the declarative, it represented existing conditions; in the imperative and with the force of “death”, it also materialized a call to political action and the making of a different future. When politicization around the AIDS crisis accelerated and ACT UP was underway, this singular, canonical image came to represent a cohesive organization and to address an audience more of militants and activists — both in the group and in the increasingly aware LGBT communities.

Case studies in the book are abbreviated, given space limitations. This inhibits a fuller or comparative analysis of the different historical situations in question and their specificity. The book is better appreciated as an introduction to each of the struggles, and an invitation to further research and study by the reader, particularly given persistent biases on the US left against recognizing the role art has played in progressive politics.

Also notably absent from the book is an overview of any of the theoretical frameworks predominant in art history and criticism, such as psychoanalysis. Given the different character of the mass struggles that appear in each chapter, applicable frameworks would also shift. Those theoretical models are, to repeat, not merely about art, but also about politics: psychoanalysis, in the above example, is surely pertinent to radical feminisms. Again, these points are not explicit in the book, and any relevant summations are dependent upon the reader.

Such interpretive and comparative work is challenging, given the sheer profusion of examples laid out by Lampert. However, grasping the dynamics of each of those movements is indispensable to grasping the art therein. Questions raised above about ACT UP can apply to such work elsewhere: a mass, atomized, anonymous audience, versus an audience of militants and activists; organized political sequences versus more amorphous, scattered political forms; periods of political mobilization versus those of downturn; addressing distinct subcultures versus dominant, mass cultures; the present versus a sense of futurity; and how all of this impacts, and is impacted in turn, by the artistic form itself.

A People’s Art History of the United States is an invaluable contribution to understanding the engaged, militant art that is so much a part of the history of the US left.



  • Crimp, Douglas with Rolston, Adam. 1990. AIDS Demo Graphics. 1st ed. Seattle: Bay Press.
  • Finkelstein, Avram. 2010. Interview conducted by the ACT UP Oral History Project. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Sep. 2014].
  • Lampert, Nicolas. 2014. “A People’s Art History of the United States.” [online] Red Wedge, 1 June. Available at: [Accessed 28 Sep. 2014].
  • Russo, Vito. 1988. “Viewpoints: It Isn’t Happening to Them.” Windy City Times, 28 July, 10-11.

This article appears in Red Wedge Issue One: “Art + Revolution.” A copy can be purchased at our shop.

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Paul Mullan is an activist and writer in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared in Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead, Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, and elsewhere. He can be reached at

Review from: Wisconsin Labor History Society Newsletter—Winter 201314

New book shows how art impacts labor and social justice causes

A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements, By Nicolas Lampert. The New Press. 2013. $35.00.

As you might suspect from the title of this remarkable and muchneeded book, this new publication follows the theme articulated by the late Howard Zinn’s popular book, “A People’s History of the United States.” Written by Milwaukeebased artist and educator Nicolas Lampert, the book shows that artists of all types have played critical roles in furthering numerous social justice efforts in U.S. history from the colonial days of the 1700s to the antiIraq War campaigns of the early 2000s.

Historic moments in labor history are also featured. As he does with all of the social justice examples, Lampert provides a brief but clear narrative, for instance, of the Haymarket Tragedy of May 4, 1886. After that tragic event in which a bomb (thrown by some unidentified person) killed more than eight persons, Lampert describes the various artistic monuments made in the succeeding 125 years to memorialize the event. “Organized labor, anarchists and the police have clashed over opposing visions about how the Haymarket Tragedy should be remembered,” he writes. In 1889, a monument showing a police officer with his hand raised in a “halt” pose was erected at the site of the tragedy after a fundraising effort by the Chicago Tribune and a businessman’s club. Protesters toppled the monument in 1927 and it was moved twice to other locations before returning to the Haymarket area where it remained until 1969 when it was dynamited; the monument eventually moved into the lobby of Central Police Headquarters in 1972.

Four years after the police monument was erected, anarchists sponsored the creation of a Martyrs Monument in Waldheim Cemetery in suburban Forest Park at the gravesite of those who were unjustly sentenced to hang after the 1886 killings. Some 8,000 persons attended a massive dedication ceremony for this alternative monument in 1893; since then the Martyrs Monument has become the site of annual rallies each May.

The Haymarket site remained empty of any monument after 1972 until the late 1990s when the Illinois Labor History Society, the Chicago Historical Association and the Police Department formed a coalition to seek funds to create a new monument with a positive theme. Sculptor Mary Brogger created a monument that is neutral in its message. It was unveiled with great fanfare in 2004 at the site.

The struggle over what monument best represents the Haymarket Tragedy in Chicago is indicative as to how important art can be in the fight for social justice. This was true for all of the examples portrayed in the book. Photographs by Jacob A. Riis of life in the late 18th Century in New York City helped move reforms by President Theodore Roosevelt and posters and artwork told the story of the IWW in the early parts of the 20th Century. Lampert continues showing how art, sometimes of the shortlived street variety and other times through playlets and various creative endeavors affected the major social and economic justice campaigns in U.S. history from Indian rights to the abolition movement, from lynching of African Americans into the civil rights movement of the 60s and from the artists of the New Deal projects to the performance artwork of the environmental movement.

Each chapter is richly illustrated with period drawings and photographs; none are in color, but that does little to weaken the message of the book that artists of all types offer a myriad of tools for those persons seeking social and economic justice.

In these days, when organized labor is struggling to find effective tools in order to regain its power, it might be wise to look into this book for some ideas for the future. – Ken Germanson