Teaching the Experimental Arts of American Protest

Article excerpt

While there is no inopportune time to teach protest art, the present moment, marked by a perpetual "war on terror" and the contraction of civil liberties, dramatic and growing economic inequality, and a remarkably narrow mainstream political spectrum, offers an especially compelling context in which to explore with students the tradition of artworks that seek to challenge injustice, promote oppositional thinking, and spark counter-hegemonic political activism. That is what I set out to do in an undergraduate course called "Art and Protest in Twentieth-Century America," which I taught at Brooklyn College in 2004 and 2005. As the syllabus on page 7 indicates, students and I examined fiction, poetry, drama, photography, and film created in association with a range of progressive subcultures and social movements, including the Greenwich Village bohemians, the 1930s Left, the Beats, Civil Rights and Black Power, Feminism, Chicano/a Rights, and ACTUP. I am especially interested in art's capacity to challenge and even change our habits of perception, and I designed the course to feature protest art that is aesthetically experimental. While I did assign some art that falls within a recognizably realist tradition, most of the works we analyzed tend to combine subversive ideas--such as the power of collective action, the pervasiveness of racial and gender oppression, the centrality of the working class to American culture--with avant-garde formal devices, such as defamiliarization, montage, and unorthodox narration.

If this course had a working hypothesis that I wanted to explore with students, it was this: experimental protest art uses formal techniques of fragmentation, interruption, and open-endedness not only to insist that readers and viewers take an active role in constructing the meaning of these works, but also to suggest that the culture we inhabit is a product of struggle and open to democratic transformation. In other words, the emphasis on dialogue, contradiction, and lack of closure in these works asks us to see the world itself as dynamic, fluid, and in need of radical change. While modernist aesthetic strategies are not by nature politically progressive, they always call attention to the audiences' role as active participants in the production of meaning. When used by artists whose aim is to protest injustice they can be powerful tools for dismantling and challenging official ideologies.

Before turning to some of the art and our class discussions, let me say a bit more about the institutional context in which the course was taught. Brooklyn College is one of the campuses of the City University of New York, a large and pitifully under-funded public university; the college enrolls about 10,000 undergraduates, all of whom commute, mostly from various parts of Brooklyn, a borough of two-and-a-half million people. Half of the college's students work more than twenty hours per week to support themselves and one quarter of the students (whose median age is twenty-six) have at least one dependent. The majority of students are non-white and roughly twenty percent are foreign-born, hailing from the former Russian republics, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and a host of other places. My "Art and Protest" course was an upper-level class that attracted English and American Studies majors. A handful of the students elect ed to take the class because of the subject matter, but most, I discovered, registered because they wanted or needed a class in American literature or American Studies. A few had very finely tuned political stances, but others did not. The students were aware that they live hard-pressed lives, and tended to be quite savvy about race, gender, and economic inequality, but the classes were by no means full of student radicals. What distinguished these students--and what distinguishes most Brooklyn College students--is a willingness to engage earnestly with the material, to take what is placed before them and respond openly, honestly, and with insight. …


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