As Chicago remembers through exhibitions, lectures, articles, radio programs, and other events a pivotal moment of 40 years ago when, during a hot August, our city, like the rest of the country, was at war with itself, we catch glimpses of protesters being beaten by police, Richard J. Daley trampling on every right this country holds dear, and artists’ responses to the “bloodbath.” What we have not seen, however, is an inquiry into the role of Chicago’s artists in the protests themselves, and how the movement utilized art to advance its cause and make it accessible to the wider public. Exhibitions like 1968: Art and Politics in Chicago at the DePaul University Museum of Art and Looks Like Freedom at DOVA on the University of Chicago campus show responses – but did visual art and artists actually play a role in communicating the message of the protest movement to the public at large during that week of the convention? And was it effective?
“Art doesn’t have the power to do that, and I don’t think it should be used for that,” says Chicago abstract painter Vera Klement. Klement adds that she did , however, participate in the Lo Giudice Gallery benefit show in support of the protesters, as many other local and national artists did, but the content of the work was not always political.
The story of the Paris uprisings of May 1968, just a few months before the Chicago convention, looks very different. Artists, students, and workers came together for a stunningly choreographed protest, where the message of the movement was branded and disseminated through scores of art posters, which remain testaments to the power of visual images to persuade and move people to action. The theorists behind the political movement were the Situationists, a group of Marxist artists and thinkers whose most visible figure, Guy Debord, author of the seminal book Society of the Spectacle, discussed the importance of mass media (what he called spectacle) in creating perception. Their slogans, plastering the walls and facades of Paris, infiltrated the consciousness of the entire country.
In 1968 Chicago, there was a different form of artistic participation. Artists like Claes Oldenburg, Mark di Suvero, Dominick di Meo, Ellen Lanyon, and others either participated in the protests or otherwise expressed their sympathies with the protesters through civic action. There was no concerted and coherent movement to engage the Chicago public’s sympathy for the cause through visual art.
Certainly there was plenty of documentation of the protests. Chicago documentarian Tom Palazzolo, for example, filmed the events, the beatings, and the organizers. He met with Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern, and others at the Coliseum exhibition Un-Birthday Party for LBJ, which featured artists who donated work in support of the protest movement, and where speeches were made to stir the passions of the people. In my brief interview with Palazzolo, he reminisced about the speeches and the performance-like atmosphere created by the “Yippies,” the Young International Party members that included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg and Phil Ochs. Also among that cohort was photographer Art Shay, who documented the Convention week, and recently wrote about his memories of the events at swans.com. But why was art only a tool for chronicling, and not advancing, the cause?
The 1968 Chicago protests were organized by the Students For a Democratic Society, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and the Yippies, formed only a year earlier in the home of Abbie Hoffman, the spokesperson for the group who would go on to write the iconic manual for dissidence, Steal This Book. Soon the Yippies took center stage in the planning of the protests in Chicago by proclaiming the event a music festival, “the festival of life,” and as such more likely to attract a national participation of hippies as well as activists. Abbie Hoffman wrote in the Yippie manifesto: “We shall not defeat Amerika by organizing a political party. We shall do it by building a new nation – a nation as rugged as the marijuana leaf.” To achieve this goal, the Yippies, and especially Hoffman, used theatrics and absurdist performances, which attracted the attention of the press and other media much more than pure political activism – a method directly inspired by the Situationists’ theories on massmedia and protest-as-art. Examples of Hoffman’s performances include organizing an anti-war demonstration in which 50,000 protesters tried to levitate the Pentagon; in 1967, bringing some of his colleagues to the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange, where he threw fistfuls of dollars down to the traders below, watching as many of them began furiously clamoring the money; and, during the 1968 protests, launching the rumor that they would put LSD in the water system, and nominating a pig, Pigasus, for president. These types of performances have been used most recently by the Yes Men, and even Michael Moore, who ran several ficus plants for congressional seats in several states during the 2000 elections.
In analyzing the role that visual art played in the protests, we realize the most significant difference between the situations in France and Chicago: France in 1968 was a country dominated by socialist and Marxist ideals, with the great majority of the population, not to mention the intellectuals, convinced of the inherent virtues of class equality and the need for reform. Although an important element in the uprising, the Vietnam War was just one of the concerns advanced by the students and workers who ended up paralyzing the French economy until the government caved to their economic demands. On the other hand, America in 1968 was divided between the young progressives and the older conservatives. And after its own internal fight with Communism in the 1950s, the America of the sixties was torn.
“Communist” was still a smear used to incite hatred and contempt for the reformists. In this climate, it is only logical that the dominant artistic movement in the States was Modernism, with its abstract painting devoid of narrative and direct social critique.
Art’s mission in the America of the sixties, as proclaimed by Clement Greenberg, was not to advance social agendas, but to engage in discourse with itself on its own nature; visual art simply was not utilized on a mass scale to communicate or advance political goals. Nonetheless, artists did support the progressive anti-war movement either directly by protesting, or subsequently by participating in response shows that attracted national media attention. Unfortunately, in the States that wasn’t enough; Richard Nixon still won the presidency. It would take a few more years for the movement to slowly convince the country to reform.
May 1968 posters made by the Atelier Populaire.
This article first appeared in the November 2008 of Chicago Artists’ News for the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.