As Occupy Wall Street resumes operations on May Day, so will the art movement it has engendered. And no, it’s not just drum circles and cardboard signs. Think again.
Every great protest movement has its symbology – the icons, music, slogans, even the clothing that communicates the group’s purpose and inspiration. Imagine the AIDS movement without its red ribbon, or the civil rights marches without “We Shall Overcome.” They convey the message of the movement and rally its troops.
But Occupy Wall Street started as an enigma. Effectively leaderless and cryptic in its intentions, early images of protesters in bandanas and Guy Fawkes masks suggested a shadowy anarchistic movement. But as protestors began to coalesce around a common theme, the 99% not only developed a means for organizing and managing their burgeoning community, but quickly spawned a cultural revolution as well.
OWS has formed more than 70 “working groups,” each charged with a distinct role in furthering the movement. The “Arts & Culture” guild has collected, curated, disseminated and in some cases, funded Occupy’s artistic statements – from paintings to poetry, performance art to music, cinematography to puppetry. It’s a surprising, provocative, and often moving, collection – and has been a key part of translating the indigenous Occupy message into a global language. Beverly Sills once suggested that “Art is the signature of civilizations,” and Occupy has emerged as a rich, vital part of our cultural and political landscape.
Art with a purpose as opposed to art-for-art’s-sake (“the philosophy of the well-fed,” noted Frank Lloyd Wright, and undoubted enemy of the 99%) is breathing passion into creators of every stripe. And people across the globe are coming to understand the Occupy movement through its interpretation by the creative community. If art is, indeed, the signature of civilization, it appears Occupy is already experiencing its Renaissance.
Alcaraz, a Chicano artist, has spent two decades chronicling the political ascendancy of Latinos in America (and created the nationally-syndicated daily comic strip La Cucaracha). “So many artists were inspired to create art for the Occupy movement,” he says. “I was awed by the huge flood of imagery. Artists are on the media-making frontline for any movement, especially for people-powered movements like Occupy. I geek out when my pieces make it all over the world.”
A self-taught contemporary English painter, Denning has long been a part of the urban Bristol art scene and describes war as a major influence on his work. On his blog, “Guy Denning – a Drawing a Day,” he reinterpreted scenes from Occupy protests around the world, using press photos and news footage for reference, focusing on a single person among the masses. Says Denning, “I wanted to show that these protests were populated by ordinary people who are finding themselves in extraordinary times.”
A New York City multimedia artist, Zucker’s work often involves issues of politics, religion, mass media and culture. He writes: “In the 21st century, when both global and local civilizations are in their most dire times, a new artistic practice that is relevant to life is especially important for encouraging progressive ideas about socio-cultural reform on a large scale.”
The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology began as a notebook, (ironically) chained to the desk at the makeshift library in Zuccotti Park, and grew to a lengthy volume of original and inspirational verse. The collection has been published as a downloadable pdf and is introduced by award-winning journalist and filmmaker Danny Schechter with the unexpected thought: “Poems are the Ultimate Weapon of The 99%.”
Graphic artist Shepard Fairey even recycled his copyright-infringing “Hope” image for the cause. The stylized Guy Fawkes masks were the original creation of illustrator David Lloyd in the 1980s graphic novel series V for Vendetta, set in a dystopian future UK. After the 2006 release of the film by the same name, the masks were appropriated by the hacker collective Anonymous prior to the Occupy protestors adopting them. Said Lloyd in a conversation with BBC News after visiting Zuccotti Park: “The mask is a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny, and I’m happy with people using it.”
The comic book artist community also stepped up: Occupy Comics began as an anthology project on fundraising site KickStarter, collecting donations to support the protesters through the winter. Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the co-creators of V for Vendetta signed on as contributors, as did other notable visual artists like Molly Crabapple, Mike Allred and Douglas Rushkoff.
Site-specific art created during the protest received some unexpected attention from preservationists. The Department of Cultural Affairs in Los Angeles, a city long enamored of its graffiti, secured a major mural from the Occupy encampment, storing it in their archives. “It’s site specific to L.A.,” says Carol Wells, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. “It documents LA’s part in an international movement.” Occupy LA has recently demanded the mural’s return.
Artist and author Molly Crabapple, with John Leavitt, also created the “We Are All In This Together” illustration, inviting free download and distribution in support of Occupy. Gently rebuked by a commenter on her blog that her many commercial activities were perhaps more in line with “1%-ers,” (prints are available on Etsy for $20) she cheerfully conceded her capitalist leanings, responding: “I don’t think the point of OWS is to demonize rich people, but rather to point out things that are fundamentally unjust and unsustainable.”
Music for Occupy has collected artists from Yo La Tengo to Yoko Ono, and the album cover art for Occupy This Album came from political cartoonist Robert Grossman, whose illustrations have appeared on over 500 covers of national publications from TIME to Rolling Stone. His son Alex Emanuel was both a producer and contributor to the album, and coined the title as an homage to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. “It’s a soundtrack for the movement,” says Emanuel. “‘Protest songs’ may not be viable nowadays, but that doesn’t matter. Music still has undeniable power.”
May 1st marks an important date for the Occupy movement; for nearly 150 years it has served as a day to celebrate and defend the rights of the working class. Dave Loewenstein, a muralist, writer and printmaker based in Lawrence, Kansas, is an avowed activist. “I hope that my posters help to spread the spirit of the movement,” he says. “Visual art, like poetry and song, has great power to energize, condemn and question.”
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