Yes Men

Review: A People’s Art History of the United States

By Nicolas Lampert
New York: The New Press, 2013. 345 pp. $35.00 (hardcover).

The newest in a long line of people’s histories inspired by the work of Howard Zinn, A People’s Art History of the United States by Nicolas Lampert uncovers the many ways that the visual arts have served as a space for political action and resistance throughout US history. With hundreds of images of political art from across the past five centuries, this book makes a compelling argument that art and politics — often seen as separate realms — have always been intimately and inextricably intertwined.

Despite the cover image, which brings to mind a framed work of art, this is not a story about political paintings hanging in museums. Instead, it is a story about how popular and public forms of art — from posters and photographs to cartoons and statues — have always been a part of civic and political life. When professional gallery artists do show up, they are likely to be organizing a union or protesting against the gallery system.

The book starts in an unexpected place, with what Lampert argues is the first art form in the New World to be partially shaped by European colonizers: the wampum belt. Made from beads constructed out of shells and strung together, wampum belts developed as an indigenous art form using European tools. In addition to their beauty, the belts were used as a medium for communication and record-keeping among tribes, and between native peoples and the colonizers, forming both a literal and metaphorical connection between the Americas and Europe.

Lampert covers a wide array of historical narratives in his book, many of which have received little attention in the literature on art and social movements.There are chapters on printed maps of slaved ships distributed by abolitionists, banners used by advocates for women’s suffrage, a battle over a civil war memorial featuring African American soldiers, up through the media antics of the Yes Men. While some of the artists — like Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party — are well known, many others were new to me, including thousands of unnamed participants in collective art pieces like the IWW-led Patterson Pageant.

At times it is difficult to tell whether this is a story about arts activism, or whether political art is being used to tell the story of the United States itself. In reality it is both, and that is one of its greatest strengths. In uncovering the story of the Workers Film and Photo League in the 1930s, or the role that photographer Jacom Riis played in the tenement reform movement, Lampert is both highlighting the political use of photography and film, and giving voice to lesser-known resistance movements.

Importantly, Lampert does not shy away from the complications and tensions inherent in this work. For example, he takes time to examine the way that Riis’s photographs of the horrors of tenement life reflected racist and anti-immigrant views, and how the Patterson Pageant led to tensions between organized workers and the Greenwich Village artists who sought to ally themselves with the movement. The book is less an ode to the power of using art to create change, and more a complex exploration of how the arts are always political, and have long been a part of struggles over justice — we just have to look in the right places.


Book Review — Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution

The playing field has changed drastically for activists and organizers over the past few decades. The initially revolutionary tools of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts have become standardized and — let’s be honest — predictable. With media saturation reaching record levels, new avenues for protest have opened up. But at the same time it takes more and more effort to get even a brief moment of media attention. And the problems we struggle against are often less visible than they once were. Long-running oppressions like racism have shifted towards more subtle and covert forms, and newer issues like climate change can often feel invisible and distant.

These changes have arguably led to a new wave of creativity in political action, from flash mobs and critical mass bike rides to viral videos and culture jamming. People across the globe are taking action in innovative new ways — drawing on a long history of creative protest, but also responding to uniquely modern opportunities and constraints. Through this process, activists have developed an enormous amount of expertise and knowledge about how to do effective and creative protest.

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution seeks to gather together, in one place, as much of this dispersed knowledge as possible. In doing so, editors Andrew Boyd (of Billionaires for Bush) and Dave Oswald Mitchell have produced a true treasure trove of collective wisdom. Authors include activists from a wide array of organizations — including Code Pink, the Yes Men, Ruckus Society, Justice for Janitors, Rebel Clown Army, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers — along with journalists, filmmakers, trainers, and researchers. Some of these authors have been in the struggle for decades, and here have managed to summarize their expertise into compact, easily digestible bits — with plenty of additional resources for those who want to go into more depth.

The 99% Bat Signal on the Brooklyn Bridge

The book is broken up into four parts. Section one, Tactics, includes descriptions of and practical advice about specific forms of public action — occupation, banner drops, invisible theater — as well as couple broader pieces on the concepts of direct action and strategic nonviolence. Section two, Principles, shares “hard won insights” about activism, such as “Brand or be branded,” “Make the invisible visible,” and (my favorite title), “No one wants to watch a drum circle.” Section three, Theories, does an impressive job of taking theories about social change — cultural hegemony, pedagogy of the oppressed, environmental justice — and summarizing them in ways that are practical and easy to read. Section four, Case Studies, offers examples of these tactics, principles, and theories in action. Cases include the Teddy-bear Catapult, the 99% Bat Signal, and the Lysistrata Project.

To be clear, this book is primarily about action. It is not a comprehensive guide to organizing a movement — it is about that small but vital place where an organizing campaign or movement meets the public sphere. Many of the authors are not organizers as much specialists in political action, coming from groups like the Yes Men and the Rebel Clown Army. That said, a number of chapters do touch on broader aspects of organizing. Harsha Walia, for example, writes about challenging patriarchy within your organization or group. And Joshua Kahn Russell from the Ruckus Society pens a few thoughtful pieces on basic organizing principles like “Take leadership from the most impacted,”

The arts certainly have a significant presence in Beautiful Trouble. The book includes examples of forum theater, guerrilla videos, massive human banners, and lots of public performance. But many of the actions in the book are not “artistic” per se. What they all share is a close attention to the form that protest takes. Authors advocate aligning the form of an action with its message, audience, goals, and overall strategy. They push a vision of protest that thinks beyond standard marches and rallies, to utilizing the broad range of tools open to activists. And they understands that political action functions at both the literal and symbolic level.

The Lysistrata Project, a global theatrical peace event

Beautiful Struggle speaks to two cultural faces of social change. First of all, many of the chapters are based in an understanding of dominant culture. Mainstream culture is seen mostly as a target for social change, but also as containing a set of resources — memes, narratives — that are ripe for usurpation. Secondly, a smaller number of chapters touch onmovement culture, particularly collective decision making and addressing power relationships within organizations. What the book lacks is attention to the deep and powerful resources embedded in existing non-dominant cultures. A good addition might be a chapter on something like counter-storytelling, a narrative technique that draws on long histories of strength and resistance in marginalized communities.

Because I didn’t want to miss anything, I read Beautiful Trouble in order, from front to back. But I do not recommend this method, because one of the best things about the book is its modular structure. Each short piece ends with a list of related pieces in the book, and web links to more resources. And if you are reading the ebook version (which I highly recommend for just this reason), these lists are hyperlinked. So you can wander, weaving between practice and theory, between the book and the web, forging your own path.

At the same time, this modular structure leads to some lack of cohesion in terms of understanding how these pieces fit together into an overall strategy. For this reason, I think it would pair well with a book like (Re)Imagining Change by SmartMeme that offers a method for embedding creative action within an overarching strategic narrative. (Members of SmartMeme author some of the pieces in Beautiful Trouble, which can give you a sense of their approach.)

The editors are planning to make all of this content available online, with additional pieces. And they are inviting others to submit their own cases, theories, tactics, and principles for online publication. So Beautiful Trouble will be able to grow far beyond the confines of the book, offering an evolving, collaborative, and ultimately invaluable resource for action.

Profile: Yes Men and Yes Lab

The Yes Men's First Movie

It is the opinion of this blog (me) that organizing and activism could be a lot funnier. And I don’t just mean witty slogans, with creative plays on words — I mean laugh-out-loud funny. Maybe it’s the influence of being married to a comedian, but as I’ve argued in a prior post, comedy has long been a subversive medium, and it is highly under-utilized in working for progressive change. That’s why I’m excited by the work of the Yes Men and their more recently formed Yes Lab, through which they are sharing their skills and knowledge with the broader activist community.

The Yes Men are Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin (or, more recently, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno), two white men who have become famous for impersonating corporate executives, and subverting mass media in order to uncover lies and abuses perpetuated by international corporations. They began their “laughtivism” career in 1999, during the Seattle anti-globalization protests, when they created a fake World Trade Organization website satirizing the international group. Since then, they have posed as executives from Exxon Mobil, a Canadian environmental minister, and campaigners for Bush and Cheney. They have put out a fake paper edition of the New York Times and as corporate businessmen have been selling “Survivaballs,” live-in body suits to protect people from global warming. They’ve put out two movies that document their antics, the most recent one being The Yes Men Fix the World.

The Yes Men call what they do “identity correction,” or (more…)