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April 17, 2004

Documenting the Creative Side of Peace


A Review of Peace Signs: The Anti-War Movement Illustrated

by Michael Austin

The US Government’s 2003 invasion of Iraq spawned one of the most vocal, productive, and visible military protest movements in history, and inspired peace-minded artists the world over to create powerful images expressing and communicating their outrage. The new book Peace Signs: The Anti-War Movement Illustrated, from Swiss publisher Edition Olms and American distributor Trafalgar Square Publishing, seeks to document the work of these artists by collecting and loosely categorizing more than 200 of the most vivid pieces of protest art from 2003.


Title: B52-State Sponsored Terrorism
Artist: Adam Nieman, UK

Since art is generally an international language, and most of the works in the book speak for themselves loudly and clearly, the editor made the wise decision of providing only minimal analytical commentary (in English, German, and French). Unfortunately, most of the commentary that does remain is superflous, as it mainly serves only to justify the categories into which the editor chose to divide the work, and provide unnecessary summations of what one will see as soon as they turn the page.

Famed writer Howard Zinn's forward is also a minor disappointment. Doubtless, attaching his name to the book will lend the project some academic credibility among anti-war and anti-state scholars, but his short, simple summary of the book’s contents and purpose seems little more than a glorified dust jacket paragraph.

These minor missteps are more than made up for by Nicholas Lampert’s succinct but informative introduction, however, which reviews the history of Anti-War Art, from Picasso’s Guernica through the illustrations contained in this volume. Lampert discusses government sponsorship of pro-war art (artists on both sides were paid big money to create pro-war propaganda for their countries during World War I and II) and heavy government suppression of protest art in Fascist and democratic countries alike. The reader will recognize with a grimace that President Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 bears depressing similarities to George W. Bush’s Patriot Act.


Title: Kill It!
Artist: Winston Smith, US

Thankfully, no one person or government yet owns and controls the World Wide Web, and free speech there is still alive and well (at least for now). Costs of distributing materials via the internet are also relatively low, and these are the major reasons the internet is where most of the images contained in the book first appeared, copyright free. Lampert is quick to point out the irony in the fact the internet, first developed as a tool for the US Military (DARPA – Defense Advanced Research Project Agency), has now proved to be the most powerful medium thus far in history for the communication, publishing and protest of the Anti-War Movement, allowing for the unprecedented proliferation of anti-war art throughout the world. Peace Signs also includes a fairly insightful interview with the founder of miniaturegigantic.com, one of the major new internet venues for antiwar art, discussing the internet activism phenomenon.


Title: Wrong Bombs
Artist: Zeb, UK

These prose portions, along with several fact sheets listing countries the US has bombed in recent years, Iraq War casualties, and comparative military spending of various countries (the United States budget being about eleven times that of the next-highest spender on the list, the UK), are certainly educational, and serve to provide a solid foundation for the existence of images in the book.

But of course it is the images themselves that make this book a vivid and relevant document. The large-size, full-color format chosen by the editors, and their wise choice to only reproduce one or two2 works per page brings the full power of each image to life. Every image reaches its full potential here, because each print is clear, crisp, and clean, with all details and captioning distinct, and each unique message screaming from the page. Truly, one would be hard-pressed to design a book which displayed these works better.

Trying to do these works of art justice in written form, even trying simply to describe them, would be an exercise in futility. Their great power, after all, is in their artistry, and reducing them to mere prose would be to rob them of that power. Suffice it to say, most of them really are worth at least a thousand words. Whether through clever iconography and phrasing (a plane drops missiles that become grave markers as they hit the ground), hilarious parody and satire (Osama Bin Laden as Uncle Sam, asking us to invade Iraq and increase terrorist hatred for us), or emotionally provocative representations of cruelty, death and destruction (a simple drawing of a woman holding her dead child), each piece demands an instantaneous, visceral response from the reader.

To experience this book as a whole is almost too much – the thoughts and emotions with which the reader is confronted upon viewing such a large collection of protest art are overwhelming. Remarkably, the pieces selected do not often feature actual photographs of gore and violence, but manage to convey the tragedy of these things nonetheless.


Title: Brilliant
Artist: Yuto Peyan, US

Photos of ruthless destruction and decimated victims, while they can be powerful icons of protest, are often too disturbing for people to face and reconcile in their minds as reality. These artists understand that change is achieved not by shocking and disgusting people, but by offering images which can be easily understood, communicating something people didn’t think of, or leading them to look at things in a different way. It is often the simplest, sparest works featured in the book which are most poignant. In this body of images, all of war’s hidden motives and horrible consequences are laid bare, and the reasons to avoid it at all costs are made abundantly clear.

All too often, the horrors of war and reckless imperialism are relegated to statistics and dry, small print news articles, which, purposely or not, render them all too painless, innocuous and easy to ignore for those of us sheltered on the other side of the world. We tell ourselves we don’t have time to read and research these articles, these facts; that they are not real, they do not affect us, or we are powerless to stop them. But art has the power to bring the pain, suffering, destruction and moral depravity of war home to everyone in a way they can understand, and must face, whether they want to or not. In an instant, one of these pictures can catch your eye and be understood. Art has the power distill war to its cold, awful essence, communicating the immediacy and necessity of stopping war, in a way words cannot. Ironically, the artistic representation of the tragedies of war makes them feel more real.


Title: Bitter Pill
Artist: THINK AGAIN, US

Artists from the US, Canada, The United Kingdom and all of Western Europe make up the vast majority of the talent pool represented in Peace Signs. This is hardly surprising, given the American nationality of the editors and given that it was actions taken mainly by The US and UK that were being protested, but one is left a bit curious upon finishing this book what the rest of the world was thinking about the war and the occupation. In particular, one wishes the editors had managed to find at least one worthy piece originating in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East. It seems a particularly glaring omission, as Lampert himself states in his Introduction to the book, "To form a broader understanding, one would be wise to learn of the work created by the artists, writers, poets and musicians living in Iraq today. For it is the Iraqi people, and those who have traveled and fought in Iraq that have faced the bitter realities that many of us have only commented on from afar." Still, Lampert goes on to say that "it is the sum of our voices that is vital," and the many diverse images that are included in Peace Signs do add up to a powerful and inspiring book.

Peace Signs: The Anti-War Movement Illustrated
Edited by James Mann
Foreword by Howard Zinn
Historical Introduction by Nicolas Lampert
Published by Edition Olms Ag Zurich
Distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing • 208 pp • 9 x 13 • more than 230 illustrations in full color

Selected Links to Antiwar Art on the Web:

http://www.miniaturegigantic.com/

http://www.peaceposters.org/

http://www.anotherposterforpeace.org/

http://www.anti-war.us/

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Michael Austin is the Outreach Coordinator for Antiwar.com.

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