Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today

Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today

by Josh MacPhee


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604860900
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 10/01/2009
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Josh MacPhee is a street artist and activist who runs, a radical art distribution project. He is the author of Realizing the Impossible, Reproduce and Revolt!, and Stencil Pirates. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Paper Politics

Socially Engaged Printmaking Today

By Josh MacPhee

PM Press

Copyright © 2009 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-288-1


Politics on Paper

Josh MacPhee

Every print in this book was printed by human hands: linoleum was carved, copper was scratched, cardstock was cut, photo paper was dipped in developing chemicals. These types of traditional printmaking are not the dominant form of communication today. They can't compete with billboards or bus ads, never mind television or the Internet. Yet these printmaking methods remain vital, maybe even because of their anachronistic existence. We rarely see any evidence of the human hand in our visual landscape, just digitally produced dot patterns and flickering electronic images. This gives handmade prints affective power — stenciled posters pasted on the street or woodcuts hanging in a window grab the eye; they jump out at us because of their failure to seamlessly fall in line with the rest of the environment.

There is a contradiction here. Our prints can stand out from the pack, but only if we print them in small batches by hand. If the goal of political printmaking is communicating ideas, and we want those ideas to reach as many people as possible, does it really make sense to be printing seventy handmade posters in the age of mass production? This is just one of the many questions and conundrums that continually bring me back to printing by hand. There is something in the act of spreading ink on a wood block or pulling ink through a screen with a squeegee that can create a powerful connection between printer and print and audience. What this connection can do I am unsure of. I've asked many of the artists in this book why they still continue to print by hand, and you'll find their answers throughout this book.

My own interest in printmaking began in the street. I became interested in street stenciling after seeing stenciled art in the political comic book World War 3 Illustrated, and quickly became obsessed with the art form. For fifteen years I regularly stenciled prints directly onto streets across the country. I've also tried my hand at linocuts, and am currently an active screen printer. At the core of my interest in all these printmaking forms is their simplicity, accessibility and inexpensive charm. You can make hundreds of copies of a print in a couple of hours, and then hand them out to friends, sell them for cheap, or paste them on the street. A quick look at main streets in most urban areas and it's clear I'm not the only one who feels there is power in public displays of printmaking.

Paper Politics started out as an exhibition of political prints, and has now taken the form of this book, but it has always also been a project of building communities. In early 2004, I organized the first Paper Politics art show in Chicago as a fund raiser for a small group of social movement-minded street artists I was a part of called the Street Art Workers ( It was an experiment. I had a loose network of contacts with fellow political print and poster makers — most of them, like me, young with little formal training in printmaking. I also had a hunch that there was a wide audience for this type of scrappy, socially-engaged printmaking. Paper Politics was an attempt to actualize both a community of printmakers and a more specific audience for our work than the existing "anyone that happens to see it on the street."

A half dozen artist friends from around the Midwest converged on Chicago and helped hang the show, not in an art gallery, but in the offices of the magazine In These Times. This project grew out of the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethic and community, and out of the idea that artists can create their own exhibitions without galleries, professional curators, or wealthy art collectors. Six of the artists that helped (Alec Icky Dunn, Nicolas Lampert, Colin Matthes, Erik Ruin, Shaun Slifer and Mary Tremonte) would go on to become members of the Justseeds Artists' Cooperative, an artist-owned and -run collective and online gallery in which I currently participate. (Sixteen of the fifty artists involved in the first show have ended up as members of Just seeds.) The response to the show was overwhelming. Hundreds of people came to the opening, and we sold over $2,000 worth of prints, all for $25 or less. People were literally fighting to get in line to buy political prints. I had never seen anything like it. I still get emails from people who came to that opening night, asking what's happening with Paper Politics and what's going on in this part of the political print world.

The staff at In These Times not only gave us free space to hang the show, they also ran a couple short features and images from the show in their magazine. Luckily, Joseph Pentheroudakis, then the President of Seattle Print Arts, saw one of the features and contacted me about recreating the show in Seattle. Together we put out an open call, and through our combined networks of punk rock poster makers and more professional and trained printers, we built a new collection of 174 works by 174 different artists. And unlike the Chicago show, which was almost exclusively made up of do-it-yourself stencils, screen prints and linocuts, Paper Politics now had raw and dirty spray painted stencils on old dumpstered blueprints hanging next to precise and fine art intaglios on Arches paper. The work collected in Seattle became the core of the exhibition and this book. Over the next four years the show has travelled to Brooklyn; Corpus Christi, Texas; Cortland, New York; Milwaukee; Montreal; Portland, Oregon; Syracuse, New York; Richmond, Virginia, and Whitewater, Wisconsin. At each stop it has collected new work. It has shown in community centers, artist-run spaces, university art galleries, and an empty warehouse. Artists have met each other and audiences, and built long-term, nurturing relationships.

Art exhibitions that express clear positions on social issues are rare. They may happen sporadically in major cities, but I've found that Paper Politics has received an outpouring of interest in smaller cities and non-urban centers. Many of the shows have been organized or hosted by printmakers with work in Paper Politics, and holding events in their locale has allowed them to reach out and connect with like-minded artists. In Milwaukee, the opening was one of the largest ever at the Walker's Point Center for the Arts, and in Richmond dozens of people expressed excitement that there was a show in their town that directly discussed labor issues, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, struggles around immigration and borders, and problems with the U.S. electoral system.

* * *

For most of my adult life I have been struggling with the tension between being an activist and being an artist. I have often found that most of the art world, including street artists, are dismissive of cultural work with explicitly political content. At the same time, political activists and organizers are just as likely to reject art and aesthetics in their campaigns, supposedly in the name of utility. For me, both art and politics are about communication and also about community. As much as a collection of individual art works, Paper Politics is an exercise in large scale social organization, the bringing together of the political insight and creative energy of almost 200 artists from over a dozen countries and over seventy-five cities, suburbs and small towns.

Positive social change comes to our world from protest movements, organized labor actions, mobilized communities, large-scale boycotts, and sometimes even voting, civil disobedience, and guerilla warfare. What connects all of these disparate actions is that they are immense, organized social activities made up of politicized individuals. Today's world atomizes us and boxes us up as little individual units, often crushing our ability to view ourselves as part of something larger than our own privatized consumer choices. Artists are doubly under the heel of this atomization, both from the larger society and also from modernist conceptions of the individual genius artist, locked in isolation, generating beauty and wonder for everyone else. This is why Paper Politics is practically overwhelming in scope and volume. I don't want to live as a singular artist; I want to participate in building a strong thriving community. Individually the works in this show range from stunningly beautiful art prints with subtle political implications, to bold, bulldozing pieces of printed propaganda.

That said, this is a project that has its origins squarely in the George W. Bush era. The year 2004 was a time of intense fear on the political left; we were still reeling from the double blows of September 11th and the failure of the anti-war movement to stop the U.S. from invading Iraq. I felt we needed a project to give voice to the multiplicity of our angers, frustrations, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and fears. But times change, and so do our political and cultural needs. In 2005, over a dozen of the prints included in Paper Politics referenced Bush directly, with double that amount referencing his policies and actions in office. I've cleaned out most of the Bush prints in hopes of keeping this book relevant and a little less dated.

But there are deeper changes at work. In the period from 2004 to 2008, I felt that we needed a united front, that all political expression was important, and that such expression needed to be aggregated in order to amplify each of our individual voices. I'm not so convinced of that today. Rather than seeing all of the work bound under these covers as different inflections of the same voice, I think it is now time to start to explore what our real differences are. Are all the pieces here really asking for the same thing? Does this amalgamation of ideas, none seen as more valuable or important than any other, have the power or force to convince people we need to change the world?

These are but a few of the difficult questions political printmakers need to ask themselves. This messy aggregate called Paper Politics is a starting point, the beginnings of an aesthetic conversation about what is wrong with the world we inhabit and what a new society we want to live in might look like. To that end, I've asked Deborah Caplow to write about the history of political printmaking, and Eric Triantafillou to write about the intersection of art and politics and the possibilities of a path forward. In addition, the images reproduced here are sprinkled with the words and ideas of those who printed them, giving voice to why we print by hand, what we hope to gain, and to whom we hope to speak.

exhibition history

2009 Ghostprint Gallery
Richmond, VA USA

2008 Dowd Gallery/SUNY-Cortland
Cortland, NY USA

K Space Contemporary
Corpus Christi, TX USA

Red House Gallery
Syracuse, NY USA

2007 L'Art + Anarchie Salon
Montréal, QC Canada

Crossman Gallery/University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Whitewater, WI USA

Walker's Point Center for the Arts
Milwaukee, WI USA 2006 5+5 Gallery
Brooklyn, NY USA

Food For Thought Gallery
Portland, OR USA

2005 Phinney Center Gallery (in association with Seattle Print Arts) Seattle, WA USA

2004 In These Times
Chicago, IL USA

Political Art and Printmaking: A Brief and Partial History

Deborah Caplow

All art has political implications, but socially conscious art actively protests against war, injustice and corruption. This kind of art is a recent phenomenon, appearing first in paintings and prints by Francisco Goya at the beginning of the nineteenth century. While many artists painted images with political intent, printmaking has a special advantage. Because of its reproducibility, low cost and potential for graphic expressiveness, the print is an ideal way to voice opposition. Prints are often a form of public art, as they are circulated widely outside the private sphere. Political prints have always been intended to engage the viewer, change opinion and inspire action. In the twentieth century, waves of printmaking throughout the world reflected the importance of communicating urgent messages to wide audiences; in Europe, the U.S., China, and Mexico, print-makers worked collectively to generate powerful images that reflected the social conditions of the times.

The printmaking medium is generally not accorded the status of painting or sculpture and does not traditionally have a high market value. Artists who are known for their printmaking, like Rembrandt and Goya, are included in the canon of art history primarily because of their paintings, while printmakers like Käthe Kollwitz are much less well known. In addition, prints often have an ephemeral quality and some of the best, pasted on walls or distributed as leaflets, are rare, while some, like those of Goya, Daumier and Manet, were banned because of their controversial nature. Posters and broadsides are timely and topical, and book illustrations are not intended as autonomous art objects. Political art has often been labeled as propaganda in efforts to defuse its power, and mainstream art criticism and art history in the U.S. have marginalized representational political art since the late 1940s. Very few exhibitions and books have been published on this subject, and only recently have critics and art historians taken political art as a serious topic for discussion.

Goya created both painted and printed images to protest the war and folly of his time. His epic, large-scale Executions of the Third of May, 1808, of 1814, is a grim reminder of the continuity of history. Goya painted a group of citizens of Madrid, insurgents against the forces of Napoleon's army, waiting their turns as the French invaders shoot them down in a hellish nocturnal scene, one man's white shirt and outstretched arms a cry of martyrdom that stands for all innocent victims throughout time. Goya's etchings in the series Los Caprichos (Caprices) and Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) also comment directly on issues of his time. He provided a brilliant and complex critique of human folly in his print The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, and he bitterly condemned the violence of the Napoleonic War in Spain in the first decade of the nineteenth century in such prints as I Saw It. Here Goya offers first-hand testimony and, by extension, involves the viewer as a fellow witness in acts of atrocity. He was the first to depict war without glory or purpose, instead focusing on the terror experienced by the civilian population — truly a disaster in human terms.

Two decades later, the French painter/printmaker Honoré Daumier made thousands of lithographs denouncing cruelty and corruption in France. Daumier's dramatic scene of police brutality in his accusatory Rue Transnonain, 15thApril, 1834 depicts three generations of a working-class family murdered in the bedroom of their Paris apartment by government forces. Like Goya in Executions of the Third of May, 1808, Daumier dated the image to anchor it in a specific time and place, but such an image could have been created in Mexico City in 1968 after the student massacre in the Plaza of Tlatelolco, during which innocent residents of surrounding buildings were also killed in their own homes. Daumier's 1831 lithograph Gargantua, portrays King Louis-Philippe devouring the food and money of the poor. This work earned him a six-month jail term for his audacity in opposing injustice and corruption.

Painter Edouard Manet also commented on current events in his Execution of Maximilian of 1867. Manet based this image directly on Goya's Executions of the Third of May, 1808, directing his criticism at the Emperor Napoleon III, who had helped Maximilian invade Mexico in the 1860s and then deserted him there. The French government prohibited the artist from exhibiting his painting and banned the engravings Manet made from the painting, not wishing the graphic images to make an already volatile situation worse for the government.

In the U.S., Thomas Nast attacked crooked politicians in New York. His series of caricatures, including the ingenious 1871 wood engraving A Group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to Blow Over — Let Us Prey, satirized Boss Tweed and his Tammany Ring, corrupt officials who stole millions of dollars from the city. Nast's campaign against them led to Tweed's arrest and imprisonment.

Political printmaking had an even more important role in the early twentieth century. Prints became a pragmatic medium of political communication during the brutal upheaval of World War I and the revolutions and class struggles that followed. In Germany, artists such as Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, and George Grosz used their prints to attack injustice, poverty and war. Kollwitz's wood-blocks and lithographs personalized and universalized human suffering in unprecedented ways. Kollwitz focused on the emotions of human faces and bodies in eloquent graphic works, images that are instantly recognizable as protests against injustice, poverty and war. She based her prints of starving and sick working-class Germans, especially women and children, on her first-hand observations in the slums of Berlin; they represent the wretched of any time and place. She also portrayed the sorrows of those who lost their fathers, husbands and children in war, as in her 1921 lithograph Killed in Action, which expresses the overwhelming grief of a mother and her children by using a few simple lines. Her lithographic poster No More War of 1924 became a cri de coeur for the pacifist movement that spread through Europe in the 1920s, the will of the people embodied in a single figure with raised arm.


Excerpted from Paper Politics by Josh MacPhee. Copyright © 2009 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Politics on Paper Josh MacPhee,
Paper Politics Exhibition History,
Political Art and Printmaking: A Brief and Partial History Deborah Caplow,
All the Instruments Agree Eric Triantafillou,
Artist Info,

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