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Art is a Hammer

It can be a challenge to describe in words a book devoted to photos and artwork. The reviewer is tasked with bringing alive the emotions stirred up by the images between the covers of said book. After all, even the most pedestrian of images evokes an emotional response of some kind among the majority of those who look at it. As for those images that go well beyond the pedestrian, even when they are just representations of the everyday, the words of an observer can well fall short. Despite these shortcomings of language, I will still attempt to describe the images found in two recently published books. In writing these descriptions, I hope some of their effect on human emotions comes across in a manner that moves the reader of this review to engage with the texts mentioned.

The two texts being discussed are of a political nature. Indeed, the images inside each book were created with the intention to spur the viewer/reader to take some kind of political action. I’ve worked on my share of political posters and leaflets. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time doing layout for various underground/radical newspapers. Before computers all of this work was fairly labor intensive. It also was much more tangible and tactile. Instead of cutting and pasting text boxes and JPEG images on a screen, one actually used a layout board, glue stick and scissors to move that text and graphics around on sheets of paper. Leaflets were typed and drawn up on specially treated paper that would then be mimeographed off by the hundreds. Posters were usually silkscreened and newspapers were created in long nights of standing over a paste-up board. There was less room for error since a mistake was not erased with the simple manipulation of a keyboard or a mouse. The nature of this work makes the images in two of these books even more impressive.

The first book discussed here is titled Finally Got the News: The Printed Legacy of the U.S. Radical Left, 1970-1979. Edited and designed by Brad Duncan and the Interference Archive, this book combines essays from people who worked and wrote for the various radical newspapers and organizations represented in the book. Almost every page has a photo of a leaflet or newspaper page from one of the dozens of revolutionary left and leftist Black and Latino organizations of the 1970s. Names like the Revolutionary Union and Revolutionary Student Brigades to the League of Revolutionary Struggle and the October League remind the reader that there once was a vibrant, active and at times very sectarian revolutionary left in the United States. Posters for African Liberation Day and supporting the anti-colonialist struggle in Zimbabwe mingle with calls and solidarity with the fighters of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Palestine Liberation Organization. There are also graphics from radical feminist and LBGT organizations. The text that accompanies these graphic representations from the 1970s discusses the individual writer’s own experiences working with the radical press and in different radical groups. Some briefly and honestly acknowledge the failures of the period. Reading the book as someone who took part as a group member and as an independent, the aspect of this book that sticks with me most is the sincerity and radical hope the images represent.

It is these two aspects that are represented even more so in the book Visions of Peace and Justice: San Francisco Bay Area: 1974-2007. Over 30 Years Of Political Posters From The Archives Of Inkworks Press. This colorful collection of posters and leaflets is lifted straight from the walls and Morris columns of the San Francisco Bay Area. When I lived in the Bay Area from 1977 to 1985, the political artwork put out by Inkworks was everywhere. Always incredibly colorful and attractive, their posters were often sold as fundraisers at events. Some of the images designed and printed by Inkworks artists are known throughout the world. The posters announce rallies and marches against imperial wars, racist laws, brutal cops and sexual repression. They celebrate art and theater, freedom and the earth. The plays written and performed by the San Francisco Mime Troupe are advertised and so are celebrations of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party. Several pages in this book show posters demanding justice for farmworkers and solidarity with numerous other struggles. Likewise, environmental causes are given colorful and inspiring poster art. Edited by Inkworks and sprinkled with essays from various cultural workers and political activists, this book does justice to the ongoing work of the worker-run Inkworks collective. It is a thing of radically sublime beauty.

These books are about more than a past that no longer exists. They are also more than just a collection of photos and artwork. In a world such as the one we live in—where the forces of greed and brutality intentionally and unintentionally ruin lives by the millions every year—we cannot afford to sit idly by. The work that appears in these books must serve as an inspiration for those of us fighting not just to maintain a future but to forge one like the one the artists and writers in these texts were also hoping to forge. One of the posters included in the book about Inkworks memorializes the words of Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” These texts and the material reproduced in their pages reflect this in a striking and bold manner.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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