Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a cover story about the death of dangerous art in the mainstream media. In the piece, a number of top illustrators complained about an undercurrent of fear, a new timidity, even censorship, when it came to publishing socially conscious art in mainstream newspapers and magazines.
Outside the mainstream, however, smart and rebellious art and design is flourishing. One brilliant example is Nozone's new book Empire (Princeton Architectural Press, April 2004).
A cross between a 'zine and a political pamphlet, Empire is an imaginative response to our imperial moment by a coalition of artists, designers, writers and photographers, including Michael Bierut, Seymour Chwast, Luba Lukova, Christoph Niemann, Paul Sahre, Ward Sutton, Robbie Conal, Edward Sorel, Robert Grossman, Peter Kuper and Scott Stowell/OPEN. (Full disclosure: Many of these artists have been featured in The Nation's pages, and I hope we'll run more of them in coming months.)
Published and edited by Nicholas Blechman, head of Knickerbocker Design, Empire is the ninth issue of Nozone--the alternative political graphic magazine, which has also published issues on "Destruction Dispatch," (inspired by Desert Storm), and "Extremism," in response to the rise of rightwing militias and other radical groups after the Oklahoma City bombing.)
Nozone's artistic crew follows in the grand and often subversive tradition of using illustrations, photographs, cartoons and design to skewer the mighty and expose the good, the bad and the ugly. As the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer explains, "For so many of us angry at so much of what goes on today with so little in print to represent our frustration, this is a book of graphic rage."
"I've always been attracted to protest art," Blechman says, " because of the urgency of the message and the implicit anger in rebel graphics. Furthermore, designers and artists are also citizens, and we have a responsibility to society to use our images in ways that benefit all of us. For some of us this means creating works of enduring beauty, for others it means fighting social injustices."
Empire was conceived soon after September 11, as the Bush Administration prepared to invade Afghanistan. Since then, the word "empire" has literally boomed. "Definitions of empire are everywhere," writes Blechman in the book's foreword. While acknowledging that the left, right and middle have their own definitions, "for us," he writes, " 'empire' doesn't refer to any one thing, but to a vast matrix of forces and counterforces. Billions drink its sodas, listen to its music, breathe its air, drive its cars, smoke its tobacco, practice its religions, watch its movies, ingest its pharmaceuticals, pay its debts, and benefit or suffer from its policies."
"We have no idea, for example," Blechman says, "that by wearing a certain sweatshirt we are contributing to labor abuse in North Korea (see graphic designer Knickerbocker's clever chart called 'Globalized'); that by using an ATM in Beirut, we are making a donation to the fortune of a banker in Boston (see Jesse Gordon's subversive photomontage, 'Altars to the Empire'); or that by starting our car we are tacitly endorsing a war in the oil fields of the Middle East (see CNN!). These connections exist, but, hidden, in the voluptuous vastness of the empire, they become invisible."
Definitions of empire--culled from an eclectic array of political thinkers, including Michael Parenti, Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, New Yorker writer William Finnegan, the late social critic Lewis Mumford and Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria--are provocatively intertwined with images and cartoons. Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham's interview on the theme of "American Oligarchy" is illustrated by Christoph Niemann. Wicked pencil portraits of Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld run with some of their choicest sayings set off in cartoon-style bubbles. There's even a film noir comic strip called "The Empire."
Comics, design and protest art, Blechman says, "can't change the world, or inform public policy, but they can plant a seed of questioning in people's mind and create an atmosphere in which change can happen. Moreover, I feel creating a space where alternative viewpoints can be expressed (or in this case drawn) has its own value, by injecting fresh blood into the body politic."
Long Live Political Art. And click here to check out Empire.