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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Nicolas Lampert, A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements

Welcome Nicolas Lampert (Peck School of the Arts) ( (Artwork of Nicolas Lampert) and Host Molly Crabapple ( (Twitter)

A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements

Can art change the world?

This is a question I ask myself whenever I see Dave Gibbons’ drawing of a Guy Fawkes mask repurposed on the streets as an official face covering of global unrest. It’s a question gallerists ask themselves about how to keep their spaces relevant, and one that Pussy Riot fought with when they shoved their way onto that altar and spat pure punk into Putin’s face.

It’s a question I thought about when my May Day poster was wheat-pasted on streets around the world, And again, when it was collected, like a dead butterfly under glass, by MoMA.

How can art serve radical aims when it’s so often product or spectacle?

Nicolas Lampert’s A People’s History of Art in the United States chronicles several dozen attempts to solve this problem.

From the lavish illustrations of The Masses, to Henry “Box” Brown reenacting his own escape from slavery as a moving-picture spectacle in England, to the erasure of people of color in the prints that goaded America into revolution, A People’s History is a catalog of political art less known, and what it says about its society.

Political art does not always succeed. John Reed directed The Paterson Strike Pageant, in which a thousand silk workers reenacted their struggle at Madison Square Garden. It was a financial failure that delivered no money to actual strikers. Worse, according to IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, it took workers off the picket lines, allowing scabs to break the strike. While Lampert defends the pageant as an all-too-rare example of worker/artist solidarity, it also points to the dangers of putting the aesthetic over the practical. Artists are often Fabergé Egg makers with the sentiments of revolutionaries.

Among the book’s best works are Mine Okubo’s drawings of her imprisonment in America’s Japanese Internment Camps. Their politics are implicit. Every apt line is a testament to Okubo’s humanity – a humanity that those in power would deny.

Can art change the world?

A People’s Art History of the United States documents three hundred years of trying.

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