On Fierce Barbarians

by Susan Tallman

March 2014

Unhappy BOSTON! see thy Sons deplore,
Thy hallowe'd Walks besmear'd with guiltless Gore:
While faithless — and his savage Bands,
With murd'rous Rancour stretch their bloody Hands;
Like fierce Barbarians grinning o'er their Prey,
Approve the Carnage, and enjoy the Day. 

Prints, we are often told, are political animals. If knowledge is power, then the distribution of knowledge through printed images is a redistribution of power, which is what political rebellion is all about. Paul Revere’s The Bloody Massacre, with its perps in uniform and victims on the ground, its incendiary couplets, its mass-market circulation, and its impassioned “speaking truth to power,” is an archetypal political print.

Conferences, catalogues and exhibitions have established the form’s contours: a repeatable image that aims to expose an injustice, right a wrong or instigate a change of power. (Though Robert Nanteuil’s engraved celebrations of the ancien régime’s high and mighty are certainly prints and are clearly political, they are rarely categorized as “political prints.”) The fact that Revere stole his composition from the artist Henry Pelham, or that the three years following its publication actually witnessed a decline in colonist-redcoat conflict, has done little to diminish the print’s standing as an icon of American liberty. (Its standing as art is a different question.)

This issue of Art in Print looks at multiple strategies through which art serves political ends, ranging from purpose-built propaganda (the British Museum’s Art of Influence: Asian Propaganda, reviewed by Jill Bugajski), to community reconciliation through papermaking (Jessica Cochrane and Melissa Potter), to intimate, subjective responses to political events (Shaurya Kumar’s case for Zarina’s quiet paperworks as a visceral reaction to the partition of India).

The portfolio as a tool of social change is at the core of three articles. William Gropper’s Capriccios (1953–56), surveyed by John Murphy, is the cri de coeur of a blacklisted artist destroyed by the anti-Communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Makeda Best rediscovers Twenty-Five Prints For Artists Against Racism and the War, a Boston-based contribution to politico-art events in 1968. Miguel de Baca examines the more gilt-edged Geldzahler Portfolio, produced 30 years later in the midst of the AIDS crisis. All these projects exploited not only the print’s potential to broadcast a message but also its ability to bring home the bacon: Gropper’s lithographs were sold by subscription to supporters at a time when all other avenues to making a living were denied him. Twenty-Five Prints and Geldzahler were designed to raise money for specific causes. This does not say anything in particular about the quality of the work (most art is made to be sold), but it indicates a strategic awareness of the print as, in Vito Acconci’s words, “an instrument in the world.”

The painter Franz Kline once dismissed printmaking as concerned with “politics and a public… Like the Mexicans in the 1930s; printing, multiplying, educating. I can’t think about it. I’m involved with the private image.” These days we tend to see public and private as interpenetrating fields that cannot be so neatly divided. Ester Hernandez’s screenprint Sun Mad employs the graphic dynamism of agit-prop posters, but as Rowan Bain reveals, it is simultaneously the personal statement of a Chicana artist raised by farmworkers, a pop parody of falsely folksy corporate branding and a call to attention on the issue of pesticides and human health. The works in the Geldzahler Portfolio, de Baca points out, make no overt political arguments; their political content exists in elegiac representations of loss—both public and private—and their implicit critique of the indifference and homophobia of the surrounding society.

Art is a social agent and the print especially so. The Renaissance print publishing house Aux Quatre Vents, the subject of a recent expansive exhibition and catalogue (reviewed here by Kate McCrickard and Alexandra Onuf, respectively) was not a political endeavor; it did not even have a social agenda to the extent of the Geldzahler Portfolio. Instead it was the heterogeneity and accessibility of its publications that expanded knowledge and experience and changed the face of Europe. Suffice it to say, the social workings of print extend far beyond what musters under the flag of the political print.

The artist William Kentridge put it this way: “I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings, an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.” Prints may argue for change or stasis, or they may simply put things on the table to say, “look—there is this too.” Patriots, redcoats, a small confused dog.