Nicolas Lampert’s A People’s Art History of the United States is a fascinating, if anecdotal, look at the ways activist art propels and augments social change movements. It makes no bones about the fact that it is not an all-encompassing survey of progressive art but is instead a look at the ways specific activists have used visual media – broadly defined to include everything from installations and street theater to painting, sculpture, puppetry, poster-making and photography.
Along the way Lampert interrogates how imagery has been used to promote rebellion against the British; support abolition; boost woman suffrage; honor Chicago’s Haymarket martyrs; contest lynching; oppose World War I; publicize the World War II-era incarceration of Japanese citizens and US-born Japanese Americans; support civil rights and, later, build the Black Panther Party; push museums and galleries to feature more women and people of color; oppose nuclear power; support People with AIDS; and build a more peaceful and egalitarian world.
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All told, A People’s Art History covers a lot of ground and is a valuable resource for anyone interested in how community organizing and popular culture intersect. It is also an instructive look at the ways the historical record is distorted by the stories we choose to tell and the images we choose to accompany them.
Take the American Revolution. Lampert writes that the first person to die in the Boston Massacre of March 1770 was a former slave named Crispus Attucks. Attucks had been part of an enormous multi-racial, working-class group that confronted the British with the tools they had available – snowballs and wooden bats.
Three weeks after the fight Paul Revere published what became the most popular image of the incident, an engraving called The Bloody Massacre. It was wildly inaccurate. “Revere,” Lampert writes, “depicted the crowd as passive, turning a working class mob into a respectable assortment of men and women. Worst of all, he depicts Attucks as someone he wasn’t: a white man. Revere’s engraving was designed as anti-British propaganda that fell in line with how wealthy colonial elites wanted to portray the revolution: a revolt that was led by an educated, white, male leadership that had rallied the colonial population against the unjust policies of the British Parliament and its use of force.”
The image, Lampert adds, traveled up and down the East coast – and to Europe – and was likely the only thing most people saw or heard about the brawl. This, he writes, “obscured the class tensions that existed in colonial America,” and completely erased Attucks since, apparently, Revere was unwilling to allow a non-white rebel to become a revolutionary martyr.
Indeed Lampert writes that Revere, alongside his buddy John Quincy Adams, were overtly antagonistic toward those who led the anti-British fightback, dubbing them “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish Teagues, and out landish [sic] Jack Tarrs.” Small wonder that the despised were absent from Revere’s rendering of the day’s events.
Later historical events were, of course, different, and it is worth noting that the most powerful people were not always in control of what was seen – sometimes it was the downtrodden who moved people to action. In fact, decades after independence was won, the anti-slavery movement used one image to supplement written and verbal accounts of slavery’s brutal impact on those in captivity, a lithograph of the inside of a slave ship that carried hundreds of human beings from Africa to US or British shores. Seeing the cramped space was particularly effective in illustrating the barbarity of transport. It further fomented opposition to slavery itself.
Craftspeople also gravitated to the anti-slavery cause, Lampert writes, putting pro-freedom messages on a variety of household objects, mugs to bowls. That said, he notes that the abolitionist movement was of many minds on how best to mix imagery with messaging. For example, some activists were eager to show slaves in active revolt; others thought this unwise. “Abolitionists debated whether abolitionist art should portray the empowerment of African individuals, especially when it came to depicting violence and slave uprisings,” Lampert writes. “This echoed debates within the broader movement itself, where white activist leaders differed over whether slaves could or should participate in their own liberation.”
One example will illustrate. The fight over construction of Boston’s Shaw Memorial reveals the pushback against creation of a monument to honor the African American soldiers who fought in Union armies during the Civil War. Many whites, Lampert writes, bristled at such acknowledgement, and attempted to deny the contribution of African Americans to the war. The ultimate erection of the statue was a victory for Frederick Douglass and other Black activists who fought tooth-and-nail against an historical erasure.
And, while progressives tend to dismiss war memorials as antithetical to our agenda, in this case installing a sculpture to honor Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the soldiers in his all-Black regiment serves as a historical corrective to whitewashed accounts of military valor. “Black soldiers eventually accounted for 10 percent of the total number of Union soldiers,” Lampert notes, “an increase in military strength that helped Union armies deliver the final blow to the Confederacy and slavery.”
The memorial is an important recognition of this contribution.
What’s more, whether the art in question is created to honor someone like Shaw, expose atrocities, or inspire activism, images matter. The fight against lynching is a case in point.
Much like the drawings of cramped slave ships that were used by abolitionists, photos of lynching victims helped mobilize opposition to the practice. The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, pulled no punches and under editor W.E. B. DuBois, repeatedly ran grisly photos of victims.
The tactic – showing the horror – was also used by photographer Jacob Riis to highlight early 20th century slum conditions in New York City tenements. Neither he nor the NAACP was unique in adopting this strategy; both aimed to shock mainstream Americans into action.
Photographs are particularly well-suited for this; nonetheless, artists often employ other means to promulgate their message, from creating posters that are pasted on building walls to creating public spectacles – such as silent processions to reclaim city streets or street theater using masks, costumes, signs or papier mache characters to promote gender equity, oppose police brutality or protest war.
Some organizations, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, have used theater to “bring the war home.” Several years ago, IVAW members in several cities went to busy intersections during rush hour, in full battle gear and in formation, and proceeded to grab civilians – actually other IVAW members – while horrified onlookers watched. For some participants, the drama proved healing; others found it traumatizing to re-enact the chaos. The project was eventually abandoned, because, as one participant, revealed, “It was literally destroying our membership.”
Still, the willingness to see what works and experiment with different art forms is simply good organizing. For whether it’s through guerrilla theater or drawing, making posters, taking photographs, or creating lithographs, art can reach people in ways other mediums cannot.
In September a photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned while trying to get from Turkey to Greece with his family, touched more people than written or spoken news stories. Other images have also had a dramatic impact – remember the running Vietnamese girl hit by napalm or Danny Lyons’s photos of the civil rights movement – whether by showcasing inhumanity or by demonstrating how kind and compassionate humans can be.
The bottom line is that our attitudes, perceptions, desires and dreams are influenced by what we see, read and hear. A People’s Art History of the United States zeroes in on how different movements have utilized the arts and underscores how necessary it is to include culture in all our campaigns and outreach efforts. It may be a cliché, but when all is said and done, a picture is still worth 1,000 words.