On Partisanship

by Susan Tallman

November 2011

“Prints and protest are frequent fellow travelers,” David Carr noted recently in The New York Times. He was writing about the Occupied Wall Street Journal, a broadsheet newspaper published in conjunction with the current protests in Manhattan, and handed out in Zuccotti Park (it was also available online as a PDF). He is right, of course. The history of printed art is littered with cant and propaganda both avant la lettre and après. Artists in the 17th century pilloried the Papacy (see “The Print in Early Modern England”), Paul Revere raked muck with The Bloody Massacre, Daumier served time for his depiction of an excretory King Louis-Philippe, and Warhol weighed in with a diabolical dayglo Nixon in in hisVote McGovern screenprint. These works eschew the high art imperatives of lasting truth and/or beauty in favor of nose-thumbing distortion, topical events and ephemeral references. Made in times of conflict, they take a side. They are partisan.

Partisanship is a problematic term these days. In America at least there is a growing sense that “taking a side” is somehow synonymous with “brooking no compromise” and possibly even “blind adherence to an ideological position in defiance of all evidence.” So the recent spate of exhibitions devoted to propaganda, political satire and war has been liberating and instructive: “Collateral Damage: Scenes from a War” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; “Belligerent Encounters: Graphic Chronicles of War and Revolution” at the Art Institute of Chicago; “Impressions from South Africa” at MoMA. From the 15th century to the present artists have relied on demonization and mockery, giving the enemy fangs or cutting him down to size and treating him as a buffoon. (Certain tropes, like the ape, work neatly for both.) Decades or centuries after they were made, it is clear that while works made to shock retain their power, in those meant to tease the jokes get lost. And yet, caricatures can have remarkable cultural staying power, as with the belittling of Napoleon discussed here by Constance C. McPhee.

No longer able to participate in these historic struggles, we are left to respond to the objects as objects. The Soviet TASS posters produced during World War II bring this viscerally to the fore: hand-stenciled prints the size of shop-windows, they reward close viewing with rich colors, luscious brushstrokes, and a poignant physical frailty. Step back, and all that loveliness resolves into a deformed ape in a German helmet and iron cross climbing over dead women and children, with the Russian for “Kill Him!” blazoned across the top. The question Jill Bugajski explores in these pages is whether the posters’ ambitions as art aided or undermined their mission as propaganda.

It’s clear that prints can be effective political expressions, but are they successful political tools? Goya’s Disasters of War—possibly the most cited exemplar of “political” printmaking—was not distributed until decades after the fact. Vote McGovern did little to diminish Nixon’s landslide victory. And when the American colonies finally rebelled against the crown, they did so six years after Revere’s broadside. If such prints don’t change the world, what good do they do?

Carr’s phrase “fellow travelers” (presumably chosen for its pinko credentials) seems apt. Crowds gathered round the windows of printsellers were a frequent subject in early 19th century art (see Art in Print’s previous cover) and a similar image was shot by Margaret Bourke-White in Moscow in July 1941. Such situations may not produce a change of heart (one could take hatred for the enemy as a given), but they promote solidarity. In that crush of bodies, the shared chuckle or the rolling eyeball conveys a message: all of us together cannot lose. Prints, unlike paintings, have the power of distribution: they can speak to many people in many different places at once. But unlike pixels they are concrete and limited. The Arab Spring demonstrated how effectively Facebook could distribute information and coordinate action, but social media cannot provide the psychological boost of physically sharing a particular time and place.

The Occupied Wall Street Journa is not a work of art, but it tells us something about the way printed objects interact with people. As Carr observed: “Getting something in the hands of your average New Yorker is a pretty tough sell, but The Occupied Wall Street Journal was eagerly received, even by the people who just came to gawk…”