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Issue No. 16 - Chaos

“Agitprop!” at the Brooklyn Museum

Image above: On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, performance still, 2014. Photo: Mark Von Holden Photography. © Dread Scott

Agitprop!, The Brooklyn Museum’s newest exhibition, is a stunning showcase of agitprop, a genre that uses art as a vehicle for social and political change. Named for its combination of the words “agitation” and “propaganda,” agitprop stretches back to the 1917 Russian Revolution, where it worked to educate and empower the masses. Women’s equality as well as other causes of the likes, were rallied with posters, uncensored newspapers, and literacy campaigns. This exhibit chronicles agitprop’s development through the decades and throughout the world, and includes a range of issues from racism and food injustice to religious intolerance.

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Image above: International Working Women's Day is the fight day of the Proletariat, 1931. Lithograoph on paper, 38 x 28 in. (96.5 x71.1 cm). Merrill C. Berman Collection. © 2015 Estate of Valentina Kulagina / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Photo: Joelle Jensen)

Promotional posters and production stills of performances organized under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Theater Project act as symbols of the American agitprop movement during the Great Depression. Inspired by Russian agitprop, these Living Newspaper Productions—dramatizations of current events—helped not only to inform the illiterate about current social and political issues, but also helped to create jobs for struggling Americans. One poster advertises the 1939 production of “…One-Third of a Nation,” a performance that dealt with housing issues. Another reads “Sing for Your Supper,” promoting the 1939 musical with an illustration of Uncle Sam as a soup-ladling chef.

Perhaps the most powerful pieces in the exhibit are those found in the NAACP’s series: “An Art Commentary on Lynching”. “The Lynching” by Julius Bloch depicts a dramatic oil-painted scene of a man hoisted up onto a beam with a large crowd surrounding him, imitating religious images of the crucifixion of Christ. Agitprop’s infamous use of banners can also be seen among this series in a 1936 photograph of a banner hanging out of a window of New York’s NAACP headquarters on 5th Avenue that simply reads, “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY,” forcing passersby to think about the horrific events that were still commonplace in the United States even decades after the abolishment of slavery.

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Image above: International Working Women's Day is the fight day of the Proletariat, 1931. Lithograoph on paper, 38 x 28 in. (96.5 x71.1 cm). Merrill C. Berman Collection. © 2015 Estate of Valentina Kulagina / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Photo: Joelle Jensen)

A more recent commentary on racism in can be found in Dread Scott’s series entitled “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a country Founded on Slavery and Genocide,” which shows the artist fighting against a high pressure fire hose, mirroring photographs of civil rights protesters of the 1960s.

War is also a prominent part of the exhibition. Martha Rosler’s incredible series “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful” takes the sterile and staged home interiors of architectural and interior design magazines, and superimposes images of the Vietnam war into the house’s windows, making a statement that when a war is fought, no matter how far away, it is closer than we think—even right outside our doors. Though Rosler’s series was created from 1967-1972, the artist made a recent addition to it, with “The Gray Drape.” In it, an elegant woman holds up a large gray drape, revealing scenes of the Iraq War in the house’s oversized windows.

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Image above: Poster from Inflammatory Essays, (1979–82, 1983). Offset lithograph, 17 x 17 in. (43.2 x 43.2 cm). Installation: New York, 1983. © 2015 Jenny Holzer/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Other pieces included are footage from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Bed Peace,” photographs and banners from the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade, a full rickshaw promoting religious tolerance in India, and a wall wallpapered with Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays”.

Agitprop! is a powerful exhibition that helps us to not only better understand history, it also challenges us to rethink the way we view our societies and the way that we view the world.

Agitprop! will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum until August 7, 2016.

By Stephanie Kotsikonas
MUSTANG (2015) DIRECTED BY DENIZ ERGUVEN

MUSTANG (2015) DIRECTED BY DENIZ ERGUVEN

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