For two years now, workers around the world have been walking off the job in protest of a capitalist order that would rather see them perish than miss a day’s labor. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the ruling classes influencing government policy, are prompting wage workers, migrants, and students to strike against poor living conditions, unequal pay, and racial oppression. Artists, too, are protesting colonial practices of Western cultural institutions as their labor recedes further than ever from the control of production. Within this context, contemporary art is shifting from bourgeois keepsake to active participant in proletarian struggle.
By 1970, African decolonization had produced anti-colonial artworks ranging in style from realism to abstract expressionism, while Third Worldism inspired new cultural fronts in the form of poster art and newsprint. Artists under colonial domination fought back by withdrawing from imperial biennials abroad and organizing with liberation movements at home. In Europe, student and labor unions took to the streets against government and media corruption, as antiwar and civil rights movements in the United States unearthed broader Cold War contradictions. With each instance, the general strike pushed contemporary artists to embrace new aesthetics in utilitarian forms.
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In May 1968, Parisians organized one of the largest general strikes of the 20th century, bringing together more than 11 million workers and students against economic and social inequality. At the École des Beaux Arts, students fed up with conservative academic standards developed agitprop for demonstrations and plastered them on city walls. The Atelier Populaire (Popular Workshop) brought minimalist design to protest art, blending Pop Art’s simplicity with the incisiveness of Berlin Dada. One poster marks an attacking policeman with an SS logo. Another simply bears the message, “What are you doing against hunger? I am fighting against imperialism!!”
At the same time, the Black Power movement mobilized US artists against imperial oppression and art-world bureaucracy. The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition formed in 1969 to protest the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial exhibition Harlem on My Mind, organized entirely by white curators and staff. That same year, students at the University of California, Berkeley, planned a walkout strike that pressured the administration into creating an ethnic studies department. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, collectives like ACT UP and the Art Workers Coalition used flyers and poster art to critique government silence around the AIDS pandemic and express support for the Attica uprising as well as socialist movements in Latin America. Artists were as involved in organizing then as during the Great Depression, despite liberal depictions of modern artists as examples of individual genius.
Protest art has served a very real function more recently, as mass surveillance technology necessitates new means of protecting personal identity. Kruttika Susarla’s miniature painting of the 2020-21 farmers protest in India shows abstracted workers standing together with red flags. For nearly two years, Indian agricultural workers and the Communist Party organized general strikes against taxes imposed by the far right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leading 250 million workers into the streets until the laws were repealed. Susarla painted on the pale-blue pages of a notebook and photographed it beside striking workers, who appear out of focus in the distance. The photo is thus a reflection of the art itself, showing the artist and organizers without revealing personal details — all while highlighting an important victory for organized labor.
For migrant workers, strikes occur across the liminal space between nations and nationalities. At borders around the world, detention centers strip their subjects of identity to an extreme degree. As Harsha Walia argues, national border regimes enforce limits on immigration to ensure a surplus of cheap, precarious labor. Tings Chak, graphic designer for the Tricontinental: Institute for Research, critiques the latent violence in the centers’ labyrinthian architecture, which serves to facilitate division and isolation. In her book Undocumented: Architecture of Migrant Detention, she details how migrant workers organized a hunger strike at an Ontario correctional center in 2013 — the largest recorded collective action against immigrant detention. Sketches of architectural blueprints show blank-faced individuals wandering between flattened landscapes and white walls. “In these spaces where those without status or identity are caged, the struggle is against the disappearance of one’s self,” Chak writes.
Prisons similarly isolate inmates to prevent them from organizing, particularly through solitary confinement; however, art allows them to maintain a semblance of political identity. Black revolutionary artist Ojore Lutalo, who served 28 years in a New Jersey maximum control center, produced a series of collages in the 1990s and early 2000s that were his method of striking against the forces of depoliticization. As the pandemic leads to an increase in prison strikes, most recently on Rikers Island, Lutalo’s work reveals a fundamental contradiction of a prison system meant to “correct” or “rehabilitate” someone so they consent to the constraints of capitalist society.
Since Occupy Wall Street, hyper-awareness of economic inequality has sparked a cultural reckoning around the political agency of everyday people. Labor historian Kim Moody argues that specialized labor divisions of late industrialization rendered capitalists incapable of remedying work stoppages without violence, as supply chains rely on timeliness. Even then, however, a widespread national or international strike would pose difficulty to highly centralized military and police forces. “This may be even truer today with the just-in-time nature of production and the integrated logistics on which so much production and distribution depends,” Moody wrote in 2012.
Today, cultural institutions leech onto revolutionary movements while making grand public statements about social justice, particularly after the largest anti-police uprising in a decade. Compare this to Occupy, when museums were silent on their affiliations with white-collar criminals like the Koch and Sackler families. Rather than make any material change, they sought to absorb protest art, just as in summer 2020. But artists are now hyper-aware of the contradictions pervading the nonprofit-industrial complex, leading to mass withdrawals from corporate biennials and a resurgent culture of exposing institutional decadence. The art that has propelled political unrest at every stage, as it has since the dawn of civilization, loses its edge the moment it enters a vitrine. As COVID-19 withers away the veneer of capitalist society, artists are once again embracing the power of refusal.