Curated by Carol A. Wells, director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles (from which all the work was drawn), ‘Art Against Empire: Graphic Responses to US Interventions Since World War II’ at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) was a reminder that the liberalism of the Obama generation triumphed on a rhetoric of yes-we-can populism and that activist art calls for an active viewer.
The exhibition’s premise was that the history of the United States as an imperial power is something that continues into the present day, with global implications. Nearly 150 posters spanning 60 years, most matted on plain white boards, voiced a multinational chorus of opposition to US interventions in sovereign nations. Arranged by regions and countries – and accompanied by one or two wall texts with bullet-point political histories and, in some cases, statistics of American and non-American deaths and cost to the US – it was essentially an archive of active indignation (a particularly timely notion in light of recent system-wide student demonstrations at the University of California). The format was a practical response to the abundance of material, but it also highlighted the origins of the posters and their dual tasks as reportage and provocation.
In the same spirit of provocation, an accompanying brochure opened with the statement: ‘As citizens, we are ultimately responsible for the actions that are taken by our government in our name.’ The question is: how? When the action is an unjust intervention by US governmental and military forces, what is the individual citizen’s responsibility? The question was historically situated in posters such as Dirty Linen Corp.’s undated Fuck the Draft, which located civic responsibility in civil disobedience. But it also raised critical points regarding current corporate and consumer practices. Located along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in sight of the iconic Hollywood sign, LACE is at the nerve centre of capitalist diversion. In wall texts on Central and South America, terms such as ‘fair trade’ and ‘sustainability’ – marketed by ‘specialty’ corporations like Whole Foods as shorthand for the non-exploitation of workers – were stripped down to an agenda of silent subjugation of developing nations by the first world. Similarly, a poster by Winston Smith portrayed an army uniform decorated with names of corporate giants including Wal-Mart and Microsoft (The Spoils of War, 2000), and another poster addressed the suspected complicity by Coca-Cola in the murder of unionized workers in Columbia.
The point, presumably, is that it’s easy to distance oneself from the leviathan of US imperialism by writing it off as the work of a government opposed to one’s personal ideology. The problem is that US intervention is as much the imposition of one nation’s ideology onto another nation as it is the deployment of American troops on foreign soil. If intervention is an ideological problem, it’s a problem that concerns us all.
Many of the posters iterated familiar themes – for example, US intervention as a means of securing foreign oil. Clearly, the prominence of the themes speaks to their urgency, but in the province of political protest – that the exhibition was channeling here – awareness does not equal action. It’s unlikely that anyone who saw the show advocates deaths driven by private interest groups, but at what point does sympathy fall short of responsibility? The best posters were those which provoked the viewer, either through the strategies of advertising or photojournalism, by exposing the consequences of US interventions. One such example was Art Workers’ Coalition’s brutal image of dead villagers in the wake of the 1968 My Lai Massacre in South Vietnam, across which are printed the question, ‘And babies?’ and the American officer’s answer, ‘And babies’ (1969–70).
A handful of works were by artists with longstanding political stakes, such as Martha Rosler and Nancy Spero, along with a large lithograph by Richard Serra: a black silhouette of an Abu Ghraib torture victim in a pointed dunce cap, under the phrase ‘Stop BS’ (Stop BS, 2004). (An earlier version of the poster read ‘Stop Bush’.) For the most part, though, the works were by designers or independent activists, including a sheet from The Black Panther newspaper by Emory Douglas and a more recent image of bombs identified with nations by artist/curator and founder of Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, Josh MacPhee (Places the US has Bombed Since WWII, 2002).
In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Wells recounted a memory of watching a young boy decipher a poster about feminism in Nicaragua. According to Wells, the poster’s capacity to capture the boy demonstrated the viability of the medium. The overarching question raised by an exhibition spanning six decades is, why has this viability continued? ‘Art Against Empire’ offered no simple solutions, but the texts and images, all dialogues in wait, suggest that the viewer’s responsibility lies in the possibility of responding. Imperialism sees only itself in the mirror; getting out of someone else’s revolution is an act of rebellion in itself.
First published in Issue 132