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Agitprop for Every Era

By Mike Newton Feb 2, 2016

Brooklyn Museum
Through August 7

Let’s start with some basics: the term “agitprop” means “agitation and propaganda,” and generally refers to art and media promoting leftist ideas. The concept of “agitprop” is most strongly associated with the robust, colorful graphics produced in the USSR, but it can refer to pretty much any artwork with a strongly politicized stance. 

The title of the exhibition “Agitprop!,” now on view at the Brooklyn Museum, is intentionally open-ended and imprecise. “Sure,” one might ask, “but what kind of agitprop?” The answer is all of it, sort of. “Agitprop!” is a show that feels at once both small and sprawling, with World War I-era Suffragist magazines, revolutionary Soviet cinema, 1980s AIDS awareness posters, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s anti-Vietnam War “Bed-In for Peace,” mid-1970s anti-Pinochet protest clothing, the Yes Men’s 2008 homemade “special” edition of the New York Times (“IRAQ WAR ENDS” is the front-page headline), recent performance art and more. And this is just the first third: the show will include two other “waves” of work, to go on view February 17 and April 6, respectively. 

To its credit, the show has found some refreshing takes on well-worn cultural touchstones. Early Soviet propaganda posters, for example, relate specifically to the role of women in Communist society. The show also includes an excerpt of Misery and Fortune of Woman, a 1929 public health film by legendary Soviet filmmakers Eduard Tisse and Sergei Eisenstein, made as an appeal for European countries to adopt Russia’s model of safe, legal abortion.

Around the same time, the United States was struggling with an epidemic of racist murders. Two artworks on view — E. Simm’s Campbell’s drawing I Passed Along This Way (1935) and Julius Bloch’s painting The Lynching (1932) — both boldly portray lynched Black men as Christ-like figures, bearing crosses and suffering for the sins of the world. These works were included in “An Art Commentary on Lynching,” a 1935 New York art exhibition put on by the NAACP to help promote anti-lynching legislation. A 1936 photo, published in the NAACP journal The Crisis, shows a flag that hung, when necessary, from the NAACP’s 5th Avenue headquarters: in heavy, angular type, it reads, “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.” Naturally, looking at this photo now, it’s easy to see parallels with the street-level tactics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. 

Similarly, a photograph of a 2014 piece by Black American performance artist Dread Scott shows the artist plaintively raising his hands while caught in the jet of a powerful water cannon. The water cannon recalls the aggressive U.S. police suppression of Black protest, and Scott’s outstretched gesture evokes Christ and the actions of #BlackLivesMatter protestors raising their hands and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot.” This was, of course, a response to the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: an unarmed Black man, shot by a white police officer after Brown had already put his hands in the air. Not one to pull any punches, Scott’s piece is called On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide.


Other noteworthy elements in this show include Tina Modotti’s somber 1920s photos of Mexican revolutionary artifacts, and a simultaneously lively and mournful piece by the Futurefarmers collective — Soil Procession (2015) — in which Norwegian farmers carried buckets of their own soil through the streets of Oslo. The avant-garde performance collective Chto Delat?’s Angry Sandwich People or In Praise of Dialectics (2006) includes protestors in sandwich boards printed with Brechtian poetry, bringing classic Marxist intellectualism to the former site of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. There’s also one of my all-time favorite artworks, American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays (1979-82). 

To some, “Agitprop!” may feel frustratingly superficial, with its brief, scattered glances at major social movements and a curatorial aesthetic ping-ponging from time to time and place to place. But then, a more in-depth show probably wouldn’t be as exciting in the moment. When I went on a recent weekend, the crowd’s energy felt youthful and animated, with teenagers avidly taking notes and snapping pictures of their friends among the art.

The semi-hidden mission of “Agitprop!,” it seems, is to introduce a younger generation to the heady, fiery realm of progressive, politicized artworks. Rather than giving older, more experienced types a full-field view of any particular movement, “Agitprop!” gives to novice viewers a bright, exhilarating burst of handpicked favorites; the show is skinny-dipping rather than scuba diving. 

So, to go back to our initial definition, what is agitprop? As a sort of guide to the concept, “Agitprop!” the exhibition gives an historically disjointed but thematically consonant overview. Across these works, there’s an impulse toward justice and freedom, a concern for the individual lives unfairly pitted against oppressive systems. The point here is that such concerns reappear from age to age, constituting an amorphous but powerful social force that readily welcomes newcomers. People have been making agitprop for at least 100 years and we’ll continue to make it well into the future; we are, right now, in the thick of it.

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