HISTORY

DISCLAIMER

The contents of this article are for information and educational purposes only. Patriot Propaganda does not officially recommend using any of the tactics, techniques or procedures presented.

“History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.” ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE

 

ALL SUCCESSFUL ACTIVISM HAS BEEN ART ACTIVISM

 

IT’S A CLICHÉ TO SAY that we learn from history but, like with many clichés, there’s a truth behind it. We learn from past successes and past failures, from people of the past whose struggles we identify with, and from those whose actions we oppose. And one lesson the past can teach us is that art activism is not anything new. Given the mass mediated, spectacle obsessed, hyper-aestheticized world of today, it makes sense that artistic forms of activism are currently being embraced by an increasing number of activists. But activists throughout history have used creativity and culture to wage their struggles for social change. And from the activists and organizers who came before us we can learn principles of art activism to employ today. 

This is not a comprehensive historic account of art activism. Not even close. Aside from the fact that one could fill several volumes writing this history, many of those whose stories are told in this article would not necessarily call themselves artistic, and some might not even describe themselves as activists. What we’ve tried to offer here is a creative perspective on a history of social change, looking at moments of political transformation through an aesthetic lens. Most of our examples are based in the United States because this is the context we know best, but once you know how to look for them, historical examples of art activism are not hard to find. You’ll see them in the histories you know best. All great activism is art activism, and it always has been. 

Another warning: as with the contemporary examples of art activism in our case studies article, the examples here won’t work for you. Everything we are about to describe was created in and for a particular time and place. We should not seek to replicate the examples of history but to learn from them. And we can, because each of the specific examples we’re about to cover embodies general principles that are applicable to art activism at any time and any place. Creativity comes from combination. 

 

JESUS

 

For the purposes of this study, we will be examining the historical Jesus: the Mediterranean Jewish man from the peasant class taking on religious authorities and the Roman Empire and building a revolutionary movement two millennia ago.  We will not be looking at Jesus Christ the Messiah as a divine figure, but rather, deconstructing what he did on the ground to propagate his message far and wide long after he departed. Jesus was, among other things, an activist and an organizer, and, judging by the two thousand-year lifespan and global spread of his message and movement, probably the greatest of all time. 

Like other great religious leaders — Moses, Mohammed, Buddha—Jesus was successful, in part, because he approached activism and organizing artistically. Jesus understood the fundamentals of using story and spectacle, signs and symbols as a means to criticize the status quo and offer up an alternative vision. The proselytizing we are interested in doing is political, not religious. 

Jesus knew how to kick off a protest. When he entered the main temple of Jerusalem and saw people changing money and selling ritual objects, Jesus was angry. He could have stood outside and harangued the passersby with his opinions on keeping sacred places sacred, the ancient equivalent of the activist on the soapbox, but instead he demonstrated his politics through a spectacular act of civil disobedience. He physically threw out the money changers and kicked over their tables, using his body and his actions to convey his message. It was a political performance so provocative that news of his deed, and therefore his message, travelled throughout the city.  A brilliant example of combining affect and effect.

The principle: demonstrate your politics. 

In the United States we use the words “demonstrate” and “protest” synonymously. It’s a meaningful slippage, and one we don’t think about enough. When we protest we are also demonstrating to the world who we are, what we believe in, and how we’d like the world to be. (The Spanish word for protest, manifestación, works much the same way.) Jesus, like most good art activists, understood the power of demonstrating his politics.

CONSIDER NEXT JESUS’ method of communicating his message. He didn’t deliver laws, he didn’t hand down commandments; rather, he told stories … often stories that didn’t seem to make much sense. One of his most famous parables involves likening the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. It’s a bewildering metaphor that we probably still don’t fully understand. This confusion was intentional. Using parables like these, Jesus created an opening for his audience to make the message their own. Unlike a list of grievances or demands, easily understood and just as easily ignored, the parables asked listeners to puzzle through their mysteries and meanings. One can imagine the scene following one of Jesus’s impromptu teachings: people walking away, debating among themselves what exactly this wacky holy man meant. And with every argument and counter-argument they made, Jesus’s words ceased to be his alone. Through interpretation, his teachings became the common property of his audience and cemented their belief. 

The principle: don’t preach, teach. 

As any good teacher can attest, rote learning lasts only about as long as the next test. If you want your students to remember the lesson, and to integrate it into their lives, they need to puzzle through it, process it, and make it their own. 

JESUS WAS FAMOUS for his miracles. When asked by the Devil, and later by Roman imperial authority, to perform miracles to benefit himself, Jesus refused. Instead he healed the physically and mentally ill, calmed the seas for simple fisherman, and conjured up food and wine for the multitude. 

It matters little whether these miracles happened or not; what matters is the message his actions communicated: an ideal of power not used selfishly to privilege oneself, as it often is, but as a gift for helping others, caring for and sharing with those on the bottom of society. In brief, he used popular culture to articulate a message that ran counter to its traditional practice. Jesus was a master of “ethical spectacle.” 

The principle: use the spectacular vernacular. 

Artists and activists are always operating within a cultural contest. In order to be heard and understood, an activist needs to learn how to use popular culture, but they also need to know how to transform it so that it speaks to and for their own cause. 

JESUS AGAIN EMPLOYED popular culture creatively when he entered Jerusalem during Passover riding a donkey. He knew, as did his audience, that biblical prophecy foretold that the savior would arrive riding upon a simple beast. Jesus borrowed the old story and turned it to his own use. He was acting out his vision of a better world tomorrow though employing creative methods in the present. By entering Jerusalem on a donkey — the Son of God seated upon a lowly ass — he performed his ideal of a world turned upside down in which “the last shall be first, and the first last.” This spectacle was even more powerful because it happened on the same day as the official entrance to Jerusalem—with all their pomp and circumstance —of the religious and political elite. Jesus prefigured the future in more everyday ways as well; for instance, through his dinner parties. By sitting down to the meaningful ritual of dinner with women, tax collectors, sinners, and the ill, Jesus enacted in the present the egalitarian community he envisaged for the future. 

The principle: prefigure the future. 

When we act in order to bring about social change, it’s important not only to “demonstrate” what we are against in the here and now, but also to create a vision of the world we would like to bring into being in the future. It is not enough to merely criticize the way things are. This, perversely, can actually reinforce the status quo by recentering what is. What’s also needed are new models for the way things might be. 

THERE IS A STIRRING SCENE in the Gospels in which Jesus is asked by religious officials whether it is proper to pay taxes to the Roman imperial authority. It’s a trick question. If Jesus answers “yes,” then he undermines his message of rebellion, but if he answers “no,” he can be arrested for treason. So this is what Jesus does: he asks those confronting him to take out a coin and tell him whose image is stamped upon it. As the coin is Roman, the visage is Caesar’s. Jesus then replies: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’s typically cryptic answer has been discussed and debated for millennia. The most common interpretation is that Jesus is preaching an apolitical stance: Church and State, religion and politics, shouldn’t mix. Maybe. But here’s a more radical interpretation: Jesus is arguing for a deeply political reframing of reality. The Roman Empire is to be rejected, sure, but not on its own terms whereby we either pay or do not pay the prescribed taxes. To play that game means accepting the Empire’s rules: pay or not, we are still in the position of reacting to the Romans. Instead, Jesus is saying that if we are going to be truly liberated from the Empire, we need to create, embrace, and enact an entirely different way of seeing and being that refuses to acknowledge its authority. 

The principle: shift the terrain. 

We need to learn to fight on the terrain of our enemy. But there are also times when we can shift the terrain to one more advantageous to ourselves. While it’s often impossible to change the physical realities of our situation, we can change the ways in which people make sense of that reality. There will always be death and taxes, but in shifting the terrain of the debate Jesus figured out how to escape both. 

FINALLY, BY ACCEPTING and even embracing his own execution, Jesus refused to do for his followers what they needed to do for themselves. By removing himself from the scene at the very moment both his friends and enemies demanded him to lead, Jesus put responsibility back upon his followers. He let the people know that if the world was to be changed, then they would have to be the ones to change it. The paradox being, that they had to change the world by trusting in Him as “the way, the Truth and the life. We leave it to your own contemplation to decide whether you believe this is in fact the case. 

The principle: empower the people. 

We are taught that history is made, and changed, by leaders. This is partly true: leaders often provide the skills, perspectives, examples, and charisma that are necessary for social movements. But it is people who make up those movements, and if change is to be far-reaching and sustainable, then all of us must be the movement. The mark of a good leader is to train others to lead, give them the tools to succeed on their own, and then get out of the way. 

In addition to teaching us that art activism is not only a modern strategy for social change, Jesus, and the movement he spawned, holds another important lesson that is relevant here. 

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews…. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 

These are the words of one of Jesus’s later followers, Paul, who was to become the most devoted organizer for the early Christian Church. His moral: that an effective activist, if they want to reach anyone with their message, needs to adapt to who, what, and where people already are—to “become all things to all people.” 

People have mixed feelings about Paul. He was a great organizer, but his words are in equal parts offensive and inspiring. Offensive because Paul presents himself as a rank opportunist, a shape-shifter, willing to “become all things to all people” just so that he can get his message across. Inspiring, because Paul understands the power of empathy and how human beings can use commonalities to connect with others unlike themselves. 

Jesus is an example of an influential figure – likely the most influential of all time – that Christians, including many who hold conservative politics that we might not agree with, can relate to and thus learn from. In Jewish communities, this figure might be Moses; among Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad; for Buddhists, Siddhartha Gautama; Guru Nanak for the Sikh faith; and for Hindus, stories from the Upanishads. 

All are treasuries of creative techniques for winning hearts and minds that can provide lessons and inspiration. Of course, religion isn’t the only influential force in people’s lives. Secular people often find their salvation through mass culture, their Messiahs taking the form of pop stars, athletes, and celebrities. Here, too, it matters little whether we personally share these passions and beliefs. If we want to reach out to people beyond our own small circles then we need to speak in a language that is widely understood, finding inspiration in the figures that inspire others. To be a great art activist in today’s world might just mean asking yourself “What Would Jesus or Mohammed or Krishna, or even Ye, Do?” 

The principle: talk the talk. 

The cultural symbols, stories, characters, and images that already exist in the world can inspire and be mobilized in the service of art activism in order to change that world. 

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

LET US NOW SKIP AHEAD nearly 1800 years, to a revolution both secular and closer to home: the American Revolution. The American Revolution was many things. It was a war between different factions of the economic and elite of America and Britain, and it was a radical people’s war against a colonial oppressor. One of the first political actions of the American Revolution was the Boston Tea Party. On the night of December 16, 1773, white activists dressed up as Mohawk Indians, climbed aboard ships in the Boston harbor, and dumped crates of tea into the harbor to keep it from being unloaded and sold. It was staged to protest the British Tea Act by which the British Government, which did not represent the American colonists, levied taxes on them and thereby violated their “rights as Englishmen.” 

The Tea Party worked on both symbolic and practical levels. Not only did the dumping of the tea demonstrate visually the colonists’ protest against the Tea Act, but, by destroying the tea, they were denying profits to the quasi-governmental East India Company and the ability of the British Government to tax the imports. The activists also understood the power of politics as performance. By dressing up as Mohawk Indians, the Colonists were able to act out things that they would likely have been reluctant to do as law-abiding citizens. While some might be triggered by this red-face pantomime, it was a brilliant spectacle. Dressing up and dumping tea in the harbor was tailor-made for the colonial American popular imagination. The Tea Party occurred on a cold evening in December, with no lights and probably very few spectators — but that’s not how it has been memorialized. The colonists understood that with effective staging they could create an image to be remembered.

The principle: stage a spectacle. 

We frequently present others with “the facts,” expecting these to speak for themselves. They rarely do. People like to visualize ideas. Pictures help give a form to abstract theories, causes, and grievances. Spectacles are a public way to draw a picture. 

“ONE IF BY LAND, two if by sea.” Every school child in the United States learns of “the midnight ride of Paul Revere” to warn colonists of an impending attack by British troops. Here’s what they don’t teach you… Paul Revere’s ride was relatively unknown at the time of the Revolution. It wasn’t until nearly a hundred years later, when the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Paul Revere’s Ride, that the ride became part of American popular history. The creative action here is not Revere’s ride, it’s Longfellow’s retelling. Published on the eve of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, the poem was making an appeal to a unified American identity by creating a national hero of Revere. 

The principle: tell a story. 

We often act as if people are encyclopedias in the making, waiting to be filled up with facts and figures. They aren’t. People need to make meaning out of ideas, and one of the ways they do this is through stories. Narratives are a way to string together facts and figures, characters and motivations. They give ideas emotional resonance by placing them within a human drama. In short: stories help us to “make sense” of our politics. 

THE U.S. CONSTITUTION, opening with the epic words, “We the People of the United States,” created the legal and political framework for the government of a newly independent country. But the document had a cultural role as well: in a nation composed of semi-autonomous states, and inhabited by people of multiple national origins and ethnicities, who were not all in agreement, the Constitution constituted and cemented in the public mind a new idea of a democratic nation. In other words, there was no “We the People,” nor even a “United States” at the time of the drafting of the Constitution. The Constitution created a vision for this ideal, which would ultimately form the foundation of Americanness. 

The principle: act as if. 

A great deal of activism and political art is directed toward criticizing what we don’t like. Occasionally it suggests the steps we might need to take to change things. But sometimes the best way to bring the world we want into being is to act “as if” it is already here. This takes “prefiguring the future” (see above) a step further, where we are not only suggesting that this is how things ought to be, but insisting that the future has already arrived. In doing this, we bring the future into our present and normalize as reality a state that still only exists in our imaginations. 

THE U.S. CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

OUR NEXT EXAMPLE took place almost two hundred years after the American Revolution. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement involved tens of thousands of people and won rights for millions. The struggle of African Americans for civil rights was one of the most successful activist campaigns in U.S. history. It was also a consciously creative campaign. 

This is how we often remember that movement: masses of people led by the shining star of courage and righteousness, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. There is no doubt that King was a courageous and righteous leader, but his power, and that of the broader movement, was collective and cultural. 

The civil rights movement would have been inconceivable without its foundation within Black churches. This network of institutions supplied organization and leadership for the movement, as is well known. But it also provided something equally important: culture. The Black church provided the creative material, the images and narratives, with which to imagine a successful struggle against great odds. The story of Moses and the Jewish slaves fleeing bondage under the Pharaoh to freedom in the promised land provided a template for imagining an alternative future. The churches also fostered solidarity through the communal experience of singing spirituals like “Let My People Go,” and provided songs that served as the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. Finally, the Black churches provided a place to collectively perform acts of creation and imagination. Each Sunday, a different society, one not controlled exclusively by whites, was celebrated. Makes you wonder why churches were closed during the covid lockdowns… 

The principle: build upon cultural foundations. 

We never start at zero, and it’s a mistake to think we create something from nothing. We are always drawing from repositories of words, images, and meanings that already exist. This is what makes changing society so hard: we are working within the very culture we are trying to change. But within even the most oppressive of societies there are pockets of counter-culture and of resistance that provide a cultural foundation—stories, songs, and institutions—upon which we can build. 

THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT didn’t just draw upon pre-existing songs, stories, and imagery, it created culture anew. This is seen in the example of Rosa Parks, a tired seamstress who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white man to sit in the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Parks’s action is well known, with many attributing it to have propelled the civil rights movement into the public eye, but the story behind it is lesser known: it was a planned performance by an accomplished political actor. Parks was an experienced activist and political organizer who trained at the Highlander Center, a progressive politics and cultural training center in Tennessee, and was the secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When she refused to move from her seat, she was well aware of the power of her action and what the ramifications would be. 

Rosa Parks also wasn’t the first Black woman to be arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery. Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old girl, had done the same thing nine months earlier. But Parks was a seasoned political operative and provided a more mature and sympathetic face for the press. And the iconic photograph of Parks seated on the bus? It was staged on an empty bus one year after her action. The white man pictured sitting behind her is not the racist who demanded her seat, but a United Press reporter whose placement was intended to create racial contrast. This is the real Rosa Parks story. 

That this was a staged performance doesn’t mean that Parks’s act of civil disobedience wasn’t “real.” When she refused to give up her seat that day she was, no doubt, tired from her long day of work as a seamstress, and it is true that she could not sit in the front of the bus in the segregated South. But, beyond this, her act was also a planned performance intended to dramatize the reality of racial inequality to a larger world that either didn’t know or didn’t care. And it worked. 

The principle: perform reality. 

We often think of performance as something that manifests a fiction. Here, it usefully allows us to visualize and to act out our dreams, to “demonstrate” our convictions or prefigure our ideals. In addition to this, however, performance is useful for dramatizing what already exists. Sometimes reality needs help. 

NOWHERE, PERHAPS, WAS the civil rights movement’s “performance of reality” better demonstrated than in the 1963 Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama. So many famous images of the dignity of the civil rights movement, and the brutality of Southern racism, come from that demonstration: unarmed men being attacked by police dogs, firemen turning their hoses on peaceful protesters, and school children being marched off to jail. Like the image and story of Rosa Parks, we know these well. 

What’s less well known is that the SCLC’s desegregation campaign was also staged. In fact, it was staged twice. Prior to the Birmingham events, a similar protest had been attempted by the SCLC in Albany, Georgia, but it failed. It failed in part because the police simply, and relatively non-violently, arrested everyone and held them in isolated jails across the state. No conflict, no images, no story. The SCLC treated this experience as a test run. It planned its next protest to take place in Birmingham, a city with a long history of labor and civil rights organizing, and an equally long history of racism (a Black church had just recently been bombed, killing four young girls). Another key factor in the civil rights activists’ decision upon Birmingham was one man: Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor. Bull Connor was the acting Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham. He was also an ex-member of the Ku Klux Klan, and known for his brutal policing methods. Given his history, the SCLC figured that Connor would overreact, and instead of quietly arresting protesters and hiding them out of sight, he would unleash the full fury of the police and fire departments on the protesters for the assembled media to witness and record. Which is exactly what happened. The result produced images of the struggle for civil rights that assisted with the SCLC’s campaign: images of Black decency and courage, and of the violence and racism of white officials. King cast Connor in the role of villain and he played it perfectly. One year after the desegregation campaign in Birmingham, the Civil Rights Act was passed in the U.S. Congress and signed into law by the president, guaranteeing voting rights and ending racial segregation. 

The principle: make the invisible visible. 

Problems are often hard to see. Racist violence frequently happens in back alleys and after the sun goes down. Economic inequality is often the result of abstract forces. Ecological degradation takes place over long periods of time. And most people would simply rather look away from things that make them uncomfortable. By dramatizing those aspects of reality that are hard to see, or that we are reluctant to look at, we can make the invisible visible. As King himself wrote from his Birmingham jail cell: “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” 

BLACK PANTHERS

THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT taught a generation of activists about the power of image and performance, and these lessons were passed on—most immediately to the Black Power movement and militant groups like the Black Panther Party. 

The Black Panthers formed in Oakland, California, in 1965 in response to police violence against African Americans. Distancing themselves from the suits and ties and reformist politics of the civil rights movement, they dressed and acted the part of militant revolutionaries: wearing berets and black leatherjackets, sporting Afros and dark sunglasses, raising their fists in the air, and, where they could, openly carrying guns. People thought they were “cool, bad and hip.” We don’t agree, but we certainly appreciate why they were such a popular cultural phenomenon. 

The principle: style matters. 

People associate the message with the messenger, and how we appear in public communicates a message that is often more powerful than the words on the pamphlets we hand out. This is why early civil rights activists dressed in coats and ties and the Black Panthers wore leather and berets: both communicate a message, to different audiences and in different contexts. Perhaps more important, people associate the very idea of activism with how we present ourselves. But style is not just about, or even primarily about, what we wear: it’s about the overall image we project. If we look joyful and confident, then this is what we are saying activism assures. If we look dour and defeated, then the promise we make is the opposite. We, as art activists, are part of the art of activism. 

The militant message and style of the Black Panthers resonated with younger activists and spread from the African American community to other groups like the Chicano Brown Berets, Puerto Rican Young Lords Party, Asian American Political Alliance, and the American Indian Movement. These groups were all masters at art activism. 

A particularly powerful piece of art activism was staged in 1968 by a group of Native American activists who invaded and occupied Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. They militantly claimed the former prison complex as sovereign Indian land. But they didn’t forget to bring their sense of humour. In front of assembled news cameras they made their case: 

We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty: We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these 16 acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years. 

1) We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian Reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations, in that: 

2) It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation. 

3) It has no fresh running water. 

4) It has inadequate sanitation facilities. 

5) There are no oil or mineral rights. 

6) There is no industry so unemployment is great. 

7) There are no health care facilities. 

8) The soil is rocky and non-productive; and the land does not support game. 

9) There are no educational facilities. 

10) The population has always exceeded the land base. 

11) The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others. 

The message the activists sought to communicate was a gravely serious one, but they also understood that using humour in its delivery meant that it had a better chance of being heard. 

The principle: be seriously funny. 

Humour is a key element in successful art activism. Where polemics and assertions put people on guard, and ask them to either agree or disagree, humour works more obliquely and doesn’t demand that a person take a stand, at least not immediately. As such, humour allows us to reach people who would otherwise shut us and our message out. 

HUMOUR IS ALSO important for activism in another way: it creates connections. It takes at least two people for a joke to work. This is something the stand-up comic is painfully aware of when faced with a silent audience. When a joke bombs, the failure is palpable. But when a joke works, it builds an emotive bond between the joker and the people laughing. This is particularly true for satire and irony, where in order to “get” the joke and understand the message, the audience has to fill in the reverse of what the comic is saying. And because laughter is a way we connect with others, we’re more likely to share something we find funny. When humour is done well, it is a powerful political weapon. 

While style and humour were at times important components, Native American and Black Power activism was often expressed through militancy. At the time of the civil rights movement, the assertive image of groups like the Black Panther Party was a potent symbol for young black people who saw the limits of legal reforms and were impatient with the movement’s progress. But this powerful symbol was double-edged. The militancy that for young black activists was a symbol of power and pride was perceived as threatening and dangerous by the majority of the white population, who were rightfully terrified by images of black people carrying guns and calling for revolution. 

The Black Panther Party understood the political liabilities of such representations early on and began expanding in other directions, launching campaigns that replaced direct confrontation with their opposition with programs that made a positive impact on their own communities, like the BPP Free Breakfast for School Children. But the image of violent Black militancy was hard to shake. Exploiting negative rhetoric and images associated with militancy, the FBI and local police forces launched operations to harass and arrest members of the Black Panther Party, American Indian Movement, and many other militant groups. 

The principle: symbols are slippery.

We need symbols, they are a way of making groups, causes, messages, and ideals less abstract, more visible, and easier to convey. But symbols are slippery: they can and will be interpreted differently by different audiences. We need to be aware of how the words we use, the images we employ, and the performances we stage will be made sense of in various contexts. Our opponents can consciously manipulate our symbols for their own ends, and we need to operate with the assumption that they will. 

UNITED FARM WORKERS

WHILE WE DON’T AGREE with Marx and Engels that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” to acknowledge that the struggle between labour and capital is an essential part of the history of social movements. The labour movement pioneered the use of many activist tactics we take for granted: the march, the rally, the picket, the strike, and the sit-in. Some of these tactics may now seem tired and overused—to emblematize exactly what we, as art activists, are trying to challenge and change—but at one time they were the cutting edge of creative innovation. 

The United Farm Workers union was one of the great innovators of the labour movement in the United States. The UFW grew out of a community rights organization founded in California in 1962 by Chicano activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, among others. It became a labour union three years later when it joined with the Filipino led labour group, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. From the beginning, the UFW realized that organizing farm workers posed a unique set of challenges. The workers were not protected by existing labor law and health regulations. They were poor immigrants who often did not speak English, and nor did they share a single language among themselves. And then there was this problem: 

Unions had traditionally organized in factories. When factory workers held an action, like a strike or a picket, it usually took place in or near big cities, and within sight of reporters, photographers, politicians, and passersby. But farm workers worked in the middle of nowhere, far from cities, towns, or even roads. The workers were largely invisible, not only to broader society, but to each other. Unlike industrial workers who worked together in big factories, farm workers were scattered over thousands of fields on hundreds of farms. 

Like the civil rights movement, the UFW needed to make the invisible visible. What needed to be seen, however, were less acts of individual injustice than the collective struggle for justice itself. To do this, the UFW used cultural tactics. Mashing up the traditions of the protest parade with the religious procession, and drawing upon the familiarity and authority of a powerful symbol of Mexican Catholicism, they marched with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe in their protests. They mobilized traditional art forms, like colourful public murals that drew upon their rich political history, and protest songs that adapted the conventional corrido to a new history-in-the-making. The UFW also forged artistic alliances with theater groups like Teatro Campesino (founded by a member of the famed San Francisco Mime Troupe) and poster makers coming out of the burgeoning Chicano poster movement. Using culture and the arts as a form of communication, the UFW was able to represent its struggle both to other farm workers in the rural fields, and to potential supporters in big cities. 

The principle: culture is communication. 

When we think of communications we often think of written words: reports, fact sheets, emails, text messages, and the like. These are all important. But there are other forms of communication we can utilize that are sometimes more effective. Important political messages can be communicated through performance, song, images, and symbols, appealing to different senses. The UFW understood that art moves people and needs to be part of all aspects of the movement. 

EMPLOYING CULTURAL SYMBOLS in its marches was not the only way the UFW organized artistically— it also approached the nuts and bolts of labor organizing creatively. The UFW knew that the traditional tactic of union organizing, the strike, wouldn’t work in the middle of a field. Who would see it? Prairie dogs? The UFW had to bring its struggle to the places where people lived, and involve more people than the farm workers themselves. Its solution: the boycott. The UFW asked consumers to boycott Agricultural goods produced by farms that wouldn’t allow its workers to organize. The boycott brought the struggle out of the fields and into the streets and stores. It was a way for the UFW to extend to consumers an invitation to participate in the workers’ struggle, thereby dramatically expanding its field of engagement. Families around the dinner table who, in terms of ethnicity, geography, and class, were worlds away from the farm workers of the UFW, could become part of the struggle. And this lesson of solidarity wasn’t taught at an infrequent rally or faraway protest, but through the domestic and everyday habits of ordinary people. This was the genius of the UFW boycott. 

The principle: think artistically about all activism. 

Thinking creatively about tactics doesn’t simply mean “adding” the arts to our actions and campaigns using symbols, making images, staging spectacles, and telling stories—it also means thinking creatively about the seemingly non-cultural aspects: tactics, strategies, objectives, goals, and organizational structure. The United Farm Workers thought creatively about the relationship between labour tactics and their own unique material and cultural context and came up with something innovative, and most important, covered both affective and effective elements of a successful art activism campaign. As art activists, we need to do the same. 

FEMINISM(s) 

YES, WE’RE GOING THERE… Over the past one hundred years, feminist movements have transformed the political, legal, and social status of women in many parts of the world. Feminism also succeeded in radically redefining what we mean by “politics” itself. The range of accomplishments that can be attributed to feminism are impressive and ought to be studied, especially by the conservative-minded. There is much we can learn. 

It is important to note that this is not a singular movement proper to any one place or time, but multiple different movements that continue to evolve. In the United States, the “first wave” of feminism began nearly a century ago with mostly white women demanding the right to vote. The suffragettes were portrayed in the mass media either as irrational women who could not be trusted with the vote, or as pants-wearing, masculine brutes, and thus not really women at all (…sounds about right!). Early feminist activists recognized that in order to convince the “patriarchal establishment” to give women the vote, they needed to create a different image of both their cause and themselves. In 1913, over five thousand suffragettes wearing long white dresses, pushing baby carriages, and led by a woman astride a white horse, staged a march on the Capitol in Washington DC for their right to vote. 

They countered negative stereotypes, not by directly refuting them, but instead by appropriating “positive” symbols and associating these with their movement.  It was brilliantly done. Their march on the Capitol drew on symbols of feminine purity and respectability and on Victorian middle-class ideals of “true womanhood.” Using traditional cultural myths and symbols about women and femininity, they legitimized their decidedly non-traditional agenda. Through creative tactics like these, first-wave feminists succeeded in creating a social context in which women’s suffrage could be perceived as both possible and positive, rather than outlandish and menacing. And it worked. The march was viewed by the New York Times, no great friend of feminism at that time, as “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country.” Seven years later, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress and signed by the president, giving women the right to vote. 

The principle: don’t just create, appropriate. 

The dominant symbols of society have real power, both intellectual and emotional. Sometimes these dominant symbols have to be challenged outright. One needs to be careful, however, that the symbols you mobilize today don’t return to haunt you tomorrow. What symbols of progressivism can patriots appropriate?

IN 1968, FEMINISTS now associated with the “second wave” gathered in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to hold a demonstration outside the Miss America pageant. Protesting the sexual objectification of women, they tossed bras and girdles into a “Freedom Trash Can,” creating a counter-spectacle to challenge normative societal ideals of women’s fashion and beauty. These new feminists were of course trashing some of the same symbols of traditional womanhood mobilized by their sisters half a century before. And of course today it’s become normal – even celebrated – for women to have an Only Fans account. So much for protesting the sexual objectification of women.

Anyway, while the Miss America protest made national news, perhaps the most profound performance by second-wave feminists happened not in public squares, but in private spaces, through face-to-face meetings called “consciousness raising circles.” In these intimate get-togethers, women discussed and defined their experiences of being women. They shared personal stories of oppression and injustice at home, in the workplace and on the street, as well as lessons in political education. They blurred the traditional boundaries between what was understood as the public and the private, the political and the personal. In doing this, feminists fundamentally challenged notions of what was defined as political, making the case that the “personal is political,” which meant, among other things, that equity within the home was as important as (and interconnected with) equality at a voting booth. This radically redefined the terrain of politics and activism. 

The principle: redefine the political. 

The powerful maintain their power by deciding who or what can act and be acted upon, and defining who and what counts as “political.” As art activists, our job is to not only to fight battles within the legitimate or prescribed arenas of politics, but to expand the very idea of the political and define new terrains of struggle and change. 

INTRODUCING THE IDEA that the personal is political raised critical questions for second wave feminists; chiefly, whose personal experiences were being discussed, contested, and represented? In the 1970s, black women, working-class women, lesbians, and radical feminists challenged the universalism of the “women’s experience” spoken of by mainly white middle-class feminists of the second wave. In a 1974 statement by the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black, lesbian, radical feminists pointed out that different women had different personal lives, and therefore different understandings of the political: 

In our consciousness-raising sessions … we have in many ways gone beyond white women’s revelations because we are dealing with the implications of race and class as well as sex. Even our Black women’s style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we have experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political. We have spent a great deal of energy delving into the cultural and experiential nature of our oppression out of necessity because none of these matters has ever been looked at before. 

Taking “the personal is political” seriously, these feminists challenged a definition of feminism that was, by and large, born from the culture, concerns, and experiences of straight middle-class white women, and expanded and advanced feminism by bringing to it a range of different voices and experiences. Thanks to feminism, in many ways, we’re living in hell on earth, as the scope of feminist objectives have insidiously gone way beyond the precepts of the “first wave.” This has resulted in the export of oppressive, destructive, sex-obsessed, totalitarian ideology from the United States to many other nations around the world. To defeat this enemy, we have to respect the enemy for what they’ve accomplished. Our task is to study and deconstruct how they do what they do, then reconstruct our own methods to restore order in our fallen world. 

EXERCISE: MAKING HISTORY

Time: 15 minutes

Now you’re ready to ask yourself this key question: What can I learn from history that can help me today? 

1) Think about the issue you are working on. 

2) Research historical examples of past successful activism campaigns (you can look them up on www.actipedia.org or go to a library). Select your top 3 favourite examples. Now, refer to this list of creative techniques and pick three that were in some way used in your historical examples:

  • Demonstrate their politics though their actions
  • Tell a story
  • Stage a spectacle
  • Use symbols
  • Use humor
  • Use style and costume
  • Use songs or music
  • Use popular culture
  • Appropriate traditions
  • Transform traditions
  • Turn audiences into participants
  • Make the invisible visible
  • Present a new perspective on the present or past
  • Perform the future?

3) Think about how you might apply those techniques to what you are working on now. 

For example, if I am working on police shutting down churches, and I use the creative technique of “making the invisible visible,” I might perform an aggressive arrest of clergy in a highly public place to demonstrate how degrading they are. If I use “staging the future,” I might want to create a community mural to depict freedom of religious expression.

4) Write down your issue.  Now take the three creative techniques you selected above, and how you might apply these in a creative ways to whatever issue or cause you are interested in working on today, like this:

CONCLUSION

HISTORY IS NOT DESTINY. History makes us, whether we like it or not. Where we have been shapes who we are now, as well as what we can imagine for the future. when we know our past, we are no longer captive to mysterious forces. We can understand that things happen for a reason. We see how certain actions, by certain actors, lead to certain results, and how other actions, by other actors, lead to other results, Knowing this, we begin to recognize our place, and our potential power, within history. 

Knowing our history is the first step in taking control of our destiny. But knowing is not enough. Simply knowing how Marxism disguised as feminism, for example, has largely led to totalitarian paedophile hell we’re living in today doesn’t make us any more free. Similarly, we may study the history of the civil rights movement in a classroom, but that knowledge doesn’t guarantee that we’ll fight for our own freedom, or that of others. As we’ve said before, the truth will not set us free. In fact, historical knowledge can at times have the opposite effect, convincing us that the present is the inevitable result of the past, or assuring us that the battles that need to be fought have already been won. 

In order for history to be useful, we need to use it—to learn from it and then put these lessons into action. We’ve drawn out some of the creative lessons to be learned from successful social movements. And we hope, too, that it has encouraged you to discover some new lessons from your own histories. This is a process that is as expansive and inspirational as human history itself. The past will always hold more for us to learn from, and there will always be more lessons to apply to the present. 

Next Article: CULTURE IS OUR OPERATING SYSTEM

REFERENCES:

This article was adapted from Duncombe, Stephen, and Steve Lambert. The Art of Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible. OR Books, 2021.

Other References:

Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy. Serpent’s Tail, 2022.

Beer, Michael, et al. Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.

Popović, Srđa, and Hardy Merriman. CANVAS Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle: Students Book. Serbia, CANVAS, 2007.

Marovic, Ivan. The Path of Most Resistance: A Step-By-Step Guide to Planning Nonviolent Campaigns, 2nd Edition. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.

Sholette, Gregory. The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art. New York, United States, Macmillan Publishers, 2022.

Clark, Howard; Garate. Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns. Revised edition, War resisters’ International, 2022.

Thompson, Nato. Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century. Melville House, 2015. 

Gavin, Francesca, and Alain Bieber. The Art of Protest: Political Art and Activism. Gestalten, 2022.

Miller, Matthew, and Srđa Popović. Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Random House, 2015.

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage; Reissue edition, 1989.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. Ig Publishing, 2004.

Abbott, Daniel. The Handbook of 5GW: A Fifth Generation of War? Amsterdam, Netherlands, Adfo Books, 2021.

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