On Resistance

by Susan Tallman

September 2017

In 1999, a candidate running in the parliamentary elections in Berlin put up posters promising to be “Sozialistisch / Ökologisch / Oppositionell” (Socialist / Environmental / Oppositional). As a motto it had the implacable absurdity of Groucho Marx’s ode to obstruction in Horse Feathers (1932):

Your proposition may be good
But let's have one thing understood:
Whatever it is, I'm against it!
And even when you've changed it or condensed it, 
I'm against it!

What, exactly, was the candidate pledging to oppose? “Socialism” and “Environmentalism” are freestanding political beliefs with attendant policy positions, but the implications of “oppositional” depend on context. What if the Socialists or the Greens came to power in a landslide? Would our poor candidate implode?

And yet Groucho was onto something profound. Opposition and resistance—the gritty disinclination to slip fluidly along—are the heart of dialectical reasoning, the intellectual chest-bumping that is supposed to expose weak ideas and identify strong ones. Resistance—physically and metaphorically—is what allows us to get a grip.

Since the November elections in the United States, “resistance” has become shorthand for principled perseverance in the face of a variety of assaults on human rights. As artist and historian Nell Painter observes in this issue, the word “brings along a string of political connotations that have to do with the current administration and the outbreak of hatred.” Alison Chang reports here on the responses of print artists and organizations around the country, as they have geared up to produce prints, protest signage, participatory public events and the strategic studies of activism and its material accessories.

Resistance, however, can take innumerable forms, from teenage truculence to heroic self-sacrifice, and from the political to the chemical. The making of prints has always depended on physical obstruction—on acid resistance, on the mutual shunning of oil and water, on the forbearance of paper under pressure. In his essay, Brian Cohen explains how the rigors of copperplate engraving provided Albrecht Dürer not just with compositional discipline, but with a coherent cosmology. (One need only look at Rembrandt’s religious etchings, discussed here by Cheryl Snay, to recognize how an alternate technology can meld to a different world view.) Ralph Overill, selected by Nicolas Collins as the winner of this issue’s Prix de Print, exploits screenprint and fabric to disrupt the digital precision of picture files of celluloid film stills—resistance piled on resistance.

Social resistance is also woven through the history of the print, in complicated ways that are often oversimplified in the attempt to cast the print as an inherently left-wing art form. It isn’t. And Elizabeth Rudy’s insightful investigation of French Revolutionary prints demonstrates just how easily contemporary readings of historical images can go off the rails.

And yet it is undoubtedly true that over the past half-century, prints have been used again and again by artists attempting to speak leftist truths to corporate and military powers. Morgan Dowty’s article resurrects a little-known 1969 portfolio by the activist artist Tom Lewis (1940–2008), who, along with the Berrigan brothers and several others, went to prison for burning draft cards during the Vietnam War. Merging news photos and intimate drawings, Lewis’s etchings build a bridge between the world’s first “television war” and the TV set at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.

Hans Haacke’s long history with prints is charted here by John Tyson, from his early inkless abstractions at Atelier 17 to his witty exposures of the maneuvering of money and power, to his refugee postering project in this year’s Documenta.

Sandow Birk’s major projects American Qur’an (2005–2014)and The Depravities of War (2007)—surveyed here by Ben Levy—lay open all these themes: the horror of an unjust war; the covert exercise of power; the scapegoating of the powerless; the outrage and ignorance that come of experiencing the world as a distant media event.

Finally, Nell Painter speaks about her own singular career. A distinguished historian, Painter has written broadly on African-American history, but she is also an artist and recently completed a residency at the Brodsky Center for Contemporary Printmaking at Rutgers University. In conversation with Paola Morsiani, she discusses prints and resistance—not just resistance to social ills such as racism, but also to the expectation that a black artist must speak for black people, and not simply for herself.

The value of resistance is just this: by getting in the way of the easy, effortless glide of hand or thought, it makes us examine, prioritize and question what the outside world has presented. With prints, this often means reconsidering the relationship between the artist as an individual and the artist as a purveyor of public information. The history of the medium is replete with great works made by artists who have come to very different conclusions. Vive la résistance.