Violence, Artistic Activism, and the Social Turn

One of the courses that I am following this year, Art Against the World, focuses on the relation between art practices and political activism in the period of the Cold War. This is a crucial period for contemporary art, encompassing several major movements that characterised the twentieth century and Western art ever since. In this post, I will focus on one of the themes that I have encountered during my studies, the issue of socially engaged art and political activism. I will focus on three works of art: Bloodbath by the Guerrilla Art Action Group (1969), And Babies by the Art Workers Coalition (1969), and Cuntleaders by the students of the Fresno Feminist Art Program (1970-1971).

Bloodbath, Guerrilla Art Action Group

Bloodbath – Guerrilla Art Action Group – 1969 – performance

In 1969, following the escalation of the US involvement in the Vietnam war, some artists started attacking the silence of financial and cultural institutions about the violences perpetrated by the government. Protest and performance mingled and it is often difficult to draw a separation between the two. An example of this is the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and her happenings, of which you can find an analysis here. Bloodbath is an example of these practices and involved the Guerrilla Art Action Group. Its members invaded the foyer of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and started stabbing each other with knives. In order to simulate the gore and violence of a real fight, they hid balloons filled with ox blood under they clothes and soon the museum became the background of a carnage. Pictures of the event highlight the gory nature of the performance, which terminated with the participants lying on the floor like corpses soaked in blood. The event was supposed to criticise the silence of the cultural establishment in regards to the US foreign policy. In this regard, MoMA was an immediate target since it had been founded by the Rockefeller family, which also entertained deep relation with the American political circles.

And Babies, Art Workers Coalition

And Babies – Art Workers Coalition – 1969 – lithograph

And Babies shows some resemblance to the documentation photographs of Bloodbath. Here too we can see a group of corpses piled up one on top of each other. The main difference is that these are real bodies of Vietnamese civilians who had been killed by US soldiers. The image in itself is meant to convey a sense of sheer horror, further emphasised by the quote “Q[uestion]: and babies? A[nswer]: and babies”. This refers to an interview by Mike Wallace to Paul Meadlo, aired on CBS News. Meadlo was a soldier in the US army and took part to a similar carnage to that depicted in the image. The emblematic sentence, paired with “visual evidence”, creates an immediate message of condemnation of the war. Interestingly, the work of art was included in the exhibition Information, the first big collective show of Conceptual art at MoMA. This shows how, toward the end of the 1960s, the emotionless canon of the movement, which is embodied by the text works of Joseph Kosuth, moved toward more traditional artistic devices, seeking the viewer’s empathetic response so as to convey a political message.

Cuntleaders, Feminist Art Program

Cuntleaders – Feminist Art Program’s students – 1970-1971 – documentation photograph

The third work of art in this series is part of a broader project, the Feminist Art Program which Judy Chicago taught at Fresno State College, California, between 1970 and 1971 (the course later continued at CalArt). Cuntleaders shows a group of students posing and creating choreographies. The letters on their clothes form the word “cunt”. While this picture is clearly staged and was made for documentation purposes, the group also performed by dancing and singing feminist-inspired slogans filled with vulgar language. This is a typical feature of second-wave feminist art, which used explicit imagery and language to produce a shock effect against the sex-negative and patriarchal institutions of Western society. By “wearing” the negative term “cunt”, the participants re-appropriated sexist terms used against women, turning them into a badge of identity. The work has a double effect. On the one hand, it expresses the violence of sexist slurs used to shame women. Moreover, it creates a parodistic effect of it by associating them to the stereotypically female activity of cheerleading, turning it into an act of empowerment.

One and Three Coats, Joseph Kosuth

One and Three Coats – Joseph Kosuth – 1945 – installation

The three works of art share their focus on violence. In both Bloodbath and And Babies, this is physical violence which is respectively enacted or displayed. In the Cuntleaders project, on the other hand, the violence is verbal and lies in a denounce of the treatment of women in Western society. The attempt to re-appropriate derogatory terms is enacted through a parodistic action which seeks to deconstruct traditionally gendered activities, such as cheerleading, associated to women. Notably, all the three works of art were made by a group rather than individual artists and they all share a clear activistic attitude. Therefore, they all employ an immediate, bold visual language which forces the viewer to acknowledge a message. There is no space for ambiguity and clarity appears to be the first concern in all the three cases. This shows how art could be employed in the field of social engagement. In this way, aesthetic ceases being the only concern, thus opening the field to new forms of criticisms aware of the potential political and ethical connotations of art.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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