An Idea Cannot Be Destroyed (But It Can Be Revolutionized)
Over the last few months, my California College of the Arts undergraduates and I have been considering the “formal” questions raised by, about, and within the Occupy movement. In addition to exhibitions (like the one at Yerba Beuna Center for the Arts last summer/fall) devoted to Occupy’s visual culture, we studied the forms of protest, assembly, performance, governance, and communication that have arisen in this and other contemporary activist environments. We also analyzed coverage of Occupy in mainstream and indie media, and attended to Occupy’s own visual platforms and strategies: websites, YouTube videos, agitprop, costumes, habitats. By investigating these systems for altering received ideas, and by studying the deeper historical roots of Occupy, we reached a better understanding of how social justice movements gain momentum in and through their visual initiatives.
On the basis of research conducted during classroom workshops, each student produced a blog post that relates to some aspect of Occupy’s visual culture. You will find selections below. The Occupy posters reproduced here are protected by Creative Commons licenses and have been archived by Occuprint.
“AN IDEA CANNOT BE DESTROYED,” the text reads, Sharpied in bold red on what appears to be a slightly worn brown paper bag. The silhouette of a police officer in full riot gear overshadows the text. He raises a standard-issue police baton in one hand over his other, which is grasping a dandelion by the throat. The moment between brutal impacts has been captured. Some seeds scatter outwards, as dandelion seeds often do when struck, even in the slightest. The correlation between the imagery and the text being that, the use of excessive force by a police department is not only unnecessary, but also counter-productive.
Much of the discussion topics at general assemblies during Occupy Oakland revolved around issues of police brutality, particularly pertaining to communities of color, where police officers often get away with unjust actions because they are the acting authority with barely any policing on themselves. One of the more horrifying significant instances of overly excessive force was the 2009 BART Police killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man involved in a fight on a train near Fruitvale station in East Oakland. He was detained by officers in the station, put facedown on the ground, while suffering a barrage of racial slurs and shot in the back with a police-issue handgun; execution-style. The whole world saw through shaky cell phone recordings of the incident. This, compounded by the fact that the officer in question was convicted only of involuntary manslaughter and served less than two years in a private cell, led to protests and mass riots, reminiscent of the 1991 Rodney King police beating and following riots. It most importantly led to discussion and awareness about the topic. Not that the issue of excessive use of police force wasn’t blatantly obvious, especially in Oakland, prior to the BART shooting, but the incident spread the dandelion seeds of change which grew to help fuel the Occupy movement in Oakland. Frank Ogawa Plaza, overlooked by Mayor Quan from her city hall office, was colloquially named “Oscar Grant Plaza.” This is where mass discussions, votes, and community organizing took place to raise awareness, debate, and make plans of action on issues of social justice and relevant issues plaguing our community.
The other major incarnate icon within the Occupy movement in Oakland was ex-Marine Scott Olsen. The 24-year-old Veterans for Peace member’s skull was fractured by a police projectile during the first violent raid of the makeshift tent-city in Oscar Grant Plaza on October 25, 2011. Olsen became an instant martyr for Occupy Oakland’s battle against police brutality with the help of YouTube, Twitter, and other social media websites. As the masses became more and more skeptical of corporate news coverage of Occupy, many turned to the voice of the people through social networking and media sources. Within a day of the police blitz, thousands had seen Olsen’s fall and the subsequent police use of the guerrilla tactic of baiting, in which a tear gas canister is fired into the crowd of protestors who rushed to the fallen comrade’s aid, again through the lens of a cell phone cradled by shaky hands. This footage, along with hi-res dSLR photographs of his barely conscious body, face dripping with blood, being carried away by multiple occupiers, was eerily reminiscent of iconic images of Jesus Christ being carried away from his crucifixion in martyrdom. The video, not unlike the Grant or King videos, sparked mass action, though after the previous night of chaos, the protests the following day took a more peaceful, tactical form. It was in the general assembly of October 26 that the Oakland general strike was planned, one of Occupy Oakland’s greatest accomplishments, which was to take place on November 2. Though there were many injured during the raids of Occupy encampments, Olsen’s head wound propelled him to martyrdom due to his background as a symbol of the fight for freedom and justice, as well as the instantaneous outrage about police brutality and excessive force against a white male, and one who served his country’s military at that. This garnered the attention of even a mainstream media system that regularly ignores police violence against people from communities of color. The world was shocked by the war zone–like images of Oakland and the horrifying police response to an initially peaceful protest.
The metaphor of an idea being disseminated through its intended destruction is perfectly exemplified by a dandelion, though it carries connotations of wishes, dreams, resilience, nature, and being thought of as a weed to some. Flowers and the thought of growth are hardly a unique metaphor for social phenomena. At the height of the Occupy movement, much propaganda referring to spring in association with rebirth, transitions, and fertile conditions for social growth was floating around. The Pablo Neruda quote, “They can cut all the flowers, but they can never stop the spring,” was wheat-pasted to walls, in response to the past and yet to come direct actions and the police retaliation to them. Some “Arab Spring” movements in the Middle East had declared solidarity with Oakland’s occupation. Both were fighting an oppressive regime and harsh living conditions, and both were spreading the foundations for a new path with the hope for a better future. The term Arab Spring was appropriated to give reference to the 1968 Prague Spring, the 1978 Beijing Spring, the Croatian Spring, and other instances of political liberalization that spread the seeds of change for a better path, often a path leading to some form of democracy and away from oppressive dictatorship.
The transitive and constantly renewed cycle of nature and spring often leads to its use as a metaphor for change. It is also incredibly recognizable as a metaphor, since nature is probably the most referenced thing in the history of language in nearly every culture. Its beauty and qualities of life make it understandable to nearly every human on the planet and make it easily accessible to almost everyone involved in social action.
Hundreds of iconic images have emerged from the Occupy movement, from the socially critical print images of renowned artists like Eric Drooker to hand-drawn signs with simple messages meant to influence change to personified martyrs representing the horrors of having a viewpoint other than that of a police force’s. These are the remnants of social change left by the Occupy movement. Though the mass excitement and hysteria of general assemblies, strikes, and marches has faded over time, the ideas and problems brought into the scope of general attention, along with the icons left behind, will stand to shape our future. Even if they have temporarily cut the flowers; our minds will remain fertile, the seeds of change have been planted and disseminated, the notions of renewal have been implanted, and the spring will come again!
In the spring of 2011 Occupy Wall Street demanded change. The Occupy movement can be conceived of as a call for Radical Renewal. While the word radical has frequently been applied to the movement, its use often implies a destructive energy toward established systems. This is true in part, though the Occupy movement cannot be labeled as purely destructive, as evidence exists in favor of reform of existing social structure rather than the establishment of new social and economic systems.
The word radical has applications in many different fields of study, and comes from the Latin root radicalis, meaning “from the root.” In its most literal form, the botanical use of the word radical refers to an offshoot arising from the root or base of the stem. Grammatically speaking, the radical is the source of a word (often referred to as the root), and a radical surgery is one in which the objective is to cut out the root of the disease. The dictionary definition of radical as an adjective consists of “of or going to the root or origin; fundamental.” In this sense, to be politically radical exceeds our everyday understanding of the word to mean extreme in a forward-thinking sense, but rather indicates a strong alliance with the original intention and fundamental essence of a political system. Likewise, the word radical applies to the fundamentals in a religious context, such as looking to the original religious doctrines, texts, and religious figures.
The word renewal can be broken down into re, or “again,” and newen, or “resume or revive.” The dictionary definition of renew is “to make like new, to restore” or “to take up again.” The word renew could be used to describe the restoration of a building or a park, or the continuation of a conversation after a period of silence.
The words together indicate a restoration of the fundamental — making new what is at the core or base. The process of radical renewal implies a relearning of that which is taken for granted on an individual scale. This reevaluation of dogmas correlates to Fredric Nietzsche’s belief that the moral code of the West could not stand alone as laws governing social behavior, but had to be experienced and internalized on a personal level by individuals rather than accepted and followed blindly by the masses. The phrase is used in a political context to indicate concern with the original intention of a political structure: to root oneself in the fundamental essence of a political/social organization and instigate reform from that position. In order for radical renewal to occur, there must be a preexisting structure to which revolution may refer.
Occupy protests have culminated in a social movement that demands radical political and social renewal. The unchecked trajectory of capitalism, resulting in the amassing of wealth by the so-called one percent, has pushed the lower and middle classes across America and Europe to demand a reevaluation of political and social structures that claim some level of distribution of wealth. Many issues labored over by protesters have been of a social nature, such as the devastating number of foreclosures on homes and outrage over corporate greed unregulated by the government.
A social movement may be understood in part by the imagery that represents it. Many of the posters developed for the Occupy movement speak the established language of protest. “Outgrow the Status Quo” is no exception.
The call to strike on May 1, 2011, took many visual forms, depicting strength in unification and visions of spring as a reflection of the energy behind the Occupy movement. Nature and plant life is often juxtaposed with images of objects and concepts that reflect human life in an urban environment. In many posters, this contrast suggests the struggle of individuals from the middle and lower classes to live and grow in an environment of an out-of-balance capitalist economy that has become oppressive to the majority of people living and working within its parameters. Plant life is often used to represent the individual who requires space and nourishment in order to live, regardless of occupation or social status.
Outgrow the Status Quo is an example of a poster that contrasts flourishing life with industry. Three large daisies with bright green leaves and stems grow around and through a series of connecting cogs and wheels. The word outgrow at the top of the poster above the flowers appears in cursive in the green of the vines and dons leaves as serif-like components. The phrase the status quo appears in black, angular, capital letters below the daisies and resides atop the sight line of the cogs. The cogs, like the letters, are black and angular, interlocking with one another but not actually touching. A strip at the bottom of the page contains text in the same font as that of the status quo that reads, “Strike!” (in green) “May Day” (in white) on a black background. The background for the rest of the poster is a greenish gray. The graphics are clear, flat, and somewhat playful.
Daisies are a loaded symbol of social and political movements, especially in the Bay Area. Daisies represent purity, patience, and simplicity in floral symbology, and in the 1960s the flower became a symbol of peaceful resistance. The planting of flowers became the chosen mode of resistance during the building of People’s Park (born out of the free-speech movement) and throughout its history as a site of political protest. Daisies and flowers also played a role in New York during the Viet Nam war when protesters placed flowers in the gun barrels of police monitoring the protest.
The symbol of the machine has negative connotations in cultures such as ours that glorify the individual. An online slang dictionary defined cog as “an unimportant person in a larger organization.” The term the machine is often used to signify a social or political system that individuals must resist in order to retain their autonomy. In The Handbook of Machine Design, published in 1849, Franz Reuleaux defined the simple machine as “a combination of resistant bodies so arranged that, by their means, the mechanical forces of nature can be compelled to do work accompanied by certain determinate motions.” This definition acts almost interchangeably with the definition of capitalism. In his critique of capitalism, Karl Marx speaks of literal machines as a means to create surplus commodities without the labor of workers, and thus surplus value is placed on the object — value that the worker is not working to create, and value for which the worker is not paid. Lewis Mumford critiqued the machine as “a counterfeit of nature, nature analyzed, regulated, narrowed, controlled by the mind of man.” Like Marx, Mumford extended the machine into a metaphor for systematized society — a system, as Sigmund Freud points out, that our existence as humans depends on. Freud closes the circle of the myth of individual versus machine by showing true individuality to be impossible in organized society.
I believe that this Occupy poster represents the true conflict between the Enlightenment glorification of the individual — all individuals — and capitalism. We cannot hate the machine because we are the machine. We see ourselves as flowers based on not only what the machine of society leads us to believe, but also through merchandise available to us through the capitalist system — merchandise that enables us to create ourselves as “individuals.” I am not saying that flowers are overvalued, but that as a society, we fail to see the beauty in being a cog. Ironically, the flowers in the poster correlate visually with the cogs in shape, size, and space. This speaks to a concept that could be read into the Occupy movement, which intends not to transform cogs into flowers, but to recognize the cogs for their value and importance.
The Occupy movement calls for radical renewal of the governmental system in its supervision of capitalism as a financial system to ensure that it benefits citizens as individuals and greater communities. Outgrow the Status Quo calls attention to capitalism as a system that cannot exist unchecked or unaccompanied by human compassion, feeling, and charity. The Occupy movement challenges greed and calls for the reinstitution of human agency into systems that have run rampant and have been permitted to cause considerable damage to individuals, who act as important components in the machine of our society. Radical renewal requires a good, hard look at the blueprints and manual, and some careful oiling of the squeaky bits. It’s time to cut down the construction of hierarchy that favors flowers over cogs, and time for the government and society to take responsibility for every citizen as a vital component to this machine. Don’t step on the cogs.
These days, it goes without saying that images of women are a key visual element in promoting capitalist consumption. Perhaps less acknowledged, however, is the role of female imagery in protest art. Sex sells, and in case of protests like Occupy Wall Street, sex also sells the resistance against capitalism.
Stepping back for a minute, I must acknowledge that the Occupy movement has produced a wealth of visual material, from the iconic cardboard protest signage to the posters promoting Occupy actions and ideals. While it is still too early to tell which particular images and artists will be canonized by art and social historians as representative or memorable elements of the Occupy movement, Eric Drooker’s work stands out in terms of recognizability, spread, and mainstream attention. His stark imagery and striking use of color present a contemporary reimagining of historical left-leaning and socialist imagery, which is especially apparent in his common color palette of black, white, and red. However, perhaps the most apparent tie to earlier leftist and socialist art is Drooker’s use of allegorical women as the central icon in much of his Occupy-related media.
The motif of the “allegorical woman” is one that stretches back essentially to the beginning of recorded Western art history, as women have been consistently used to represent and personify Western ideals — freedom, equality, justice, purity. An iconic use of the allegorical woman is Eugene Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People. In this work, “Liberty” is a conventionally attractive white woman, her breasts bared, holding a flag aloft and leading “the People,” who are all men. Like in Liberty Leading the People, the allegorical woman icon shows up again and again in revolutionary imagery, and this woman is almost universally white, and conforming to Western standards of beauty.
Seven decades after Delacroix’s Liberty, Walter Crane drew the iconic A Garland for May-Day. Crane — well-known for his children’s book illustrations — turned to political illustrations later in his career in an attempt to advance the socialist cause. Many of Crane’s political illustrations feature women as allegorical figures standing in for socialist ideals — in the case of A Garland for May-Day, the woman stands front and center, holding aloft a giant wreath interwoven with banners proclaiming, “England should feed her own people,” “No people can be free while dependent for their bread,” “Production for use, not for profit,” and other slogans. Tanya Agathocleous writes that Crane’s history as a children’s book illustrator, combined with his politics, served him well when creating this iconic imagery:
“The allegorical figure of the woman in A Garland for May-Day, for example, stands in delicate contraposto, offering the beauty of nature to, ostensibly, the down-and-out factory laborers from whose lives nature has been forcibly taken. It is an image meant to incite political action, but also to evoke a peaceful, playful, motherly figure — not unlike a benign fairy or guardian in a children’s tale or classical story.”
This peaceful, “motherly” image, then, is standing in for the idea of nurturing and caring for workers — but these workers to be cared for are almost certainly male. Thus, the image perpetuates the self-sacrificing ideal of womanhood: women are present for the benefit of men, it is our duty to benefit men, and only when women put men’s needs above our own are we considered good, ideal women.
Images like those produced by Crane take women and use them to advance their own goals. Whether or not these goals end up benefiting women is inconsequential, as the primary act of men using women — or, in this case, the idea of women as noble, free, connected to nature and the Earth — contributes to the perpetuation of women as a commodity, an object to be used by men as they please. Women in these images — predominantly produced by men — are reduced to aesthetically pleasing (under conventional Western aesthetics) bodies to promote ideas. In practice, this bears a striking resemblance to capitalism, where women’s “sex appeal” is used to sell anything from cars to laundry detergent.
Indeed, one must ask whom a particular movement is benefiting, if the predominant imagery from the movement is produced by and for men. In the case of the early labor rights movement, it is easy to write off the commodification of women in imagery as one symptom of a sexist society, and that the labor rights movement was not responsible for both workers’ rights and women’s rights. (Of course, this is a fallacious argument, in that workers’ rights are women’s rights.) Since sexism still permeates society (albeit in different ways than when Crane was producing work), what is the role of feminist consciousness in Occupy, another class-based movement?
It has now been a century since Crane’s work was produced, but artists on the political left continue to use the icon of the allegorical woman. Returning to my original examination, we are left with Eric Drooker as one prominent artist of the Occupy movement. Is Drooker’s use of allegorical women any less problematic than Crane’s? In Drooker’s May Day Skater, a woman is depicted leaping into the air while riding a skateboard: an image of feminist power and women reclaiming the streets? Unfortunately, no; this image of Drooker’s exhibits the same problematic aspects present in historical examples: the woman is once again conventionally attractive, and her body is posed in such a way that aspects of her body that are highly sexualized in Western culture are oriented toward the camera. Her face is in shadows and turned away, and her skirt is billowing up to reveal the entirety of her leg. This objectification and sexualization of women perpetuates patriarchy in supposedly-leftist movements that ostensibly seek to shatter the status quo.
The fact that Drooker has received critical public acclaim indicates that his work is well-respected, and that many people (including many occupiers) see his work as partially representative of the movement. If this is indeed the case, Occupy itself is reproducing sexist cultural norms, male dominance, and the commodification of women for the benefit of men, and prominent visual examples of Occupy-related media place Occupy as yet another movement where the needs and interests of men take precedence over the rights and interests of women.
Of course, the key word in the above postulation is partially, in that Drooker only partially represents the Occupy movement. Given that the movement is inherently leaderless, and formed under the idea that everyone among the “99 percent” deserves a voice, it might be unfair to classify the movement as sexist based on a single “representative.” While Drooker is far from the only person to use female imagery in exploitative ways in his work, there are examples of people who manage to use images of women that can be seen as empowering, rather than appropriative and sexist. A prime example of this can be seen in the protest posters by Melanie Cervantes.
Almost the entirety of Cervantes’s protest imagery prominently features representations of women. Unlike Drooker, Cervantes features a variety of body types, and most of the women Cervantes depicts are women of color. However, the biggest difference between Drooker and Cervantes is that Drooker uses women to stand in for an idea (or ideas), while Cervantes uses women as women. A woman in a Cervantes poster is not there to represent truth, justice, or fairness; she’s there because she’s an actual person who is facing the real, concrete repercussions of the inequality and greed of capitalism. In The Richest 1% Should Pay Their Fair Share, a woman is shown facing the viewer, wearing a protest T-shirt with a fist, standing in front of a grayed-out line of protesters in the background. Not only is she shown as an active participant (rather than a passive vessel to hold an idea), this woman is given a voice: “We are the 99%. We came here for the ‘American Dream,’ but I work 60 hours a week and still can’t afford to send my kids to a public university.” She is shown as a woman with specific needs, a specific narrative, and the agency to improve her own life. The poster comes in two languages — English and Chinese — which furthers the spread of the message.
It is also important to note that there is a strong difference between a man producing images of women, and a woman producing images of women. This is not to say that men can never use images of women in their work, but for an artist to use female imagery without an understanding of the power dynamics and history of male dominance in the art world leads to furthering exploitative images like those of Drooker.
I would argue that the defining difference between Drooker’s and Cervantes’s work is the issue of the allegorical woman. Drooker’s women are allegorical women, passively present to be looked at and stand in for ideas, while Cervantes’s women are active, given agency and a voice. Perhaps if there were “allegorical men” in the same numbers (or used in the same way) as allegorical women, this would not be a problem, but in our current society these images continue to perpetuate patriarchy in protest imagery. It is my hope that in the future, the Melanie Cervanteses of the world will far outweigh the Eric Drookers.