It’s not typical for artists to go out and see the world. Most prefer to sit politely in their studios and make increasingly refined versions of the same piece until they die. Once, artists had a monopoly on image making. If a newspaper wanted a war covered, they sent an illustrator along with a reporter. But once photography became sufficiently advanced, visual art turned to the inner world.
I grew up thinking art was frivolous. Artists are court jesters, Fabergé egg makers — we’re Boucher and Damien Hirst, making exquisite objects for the elite, whatever their bohemianism, deeply felt convictions, couldn’t wipe that away.
As a broke art school dropout, I worked as a model. Not the fancy fashion kind — I’m a foot too short. I was a naked model for amateur photographers. Nothing will make you think about money and power like smearing yourself with jam and posing for dentists with expensive cameras.
I wasn’t great at making money off my looks. But beautiful girls were an addiction. Never have I seen a stripper without thinking she was a philosopher queen. Burlesque was blowing up in New York. I started drawing the dancers.
Burlesque girls are alchemists. They’re steel-tough performers who are willing to use kitchens as dressing rooms, haul their costume bags through the snow, go into debt for Swarovski crystals, all for five the minutes on stage that they’re goddesses.
I grew up with a Toulouse Lautrec fetish. Toulouse Lautrec was the poster artist for the Moulin Rouge. He was an alcoholic dwarf with syphilis whose posters captured all the ambition and darkness behind a can-can girl’s ruffles. I wanted to be Toulouse Lautrec! We liked the same drinks! We were the same height!
When I got the job as a staff artist at a nightclub, the dream came true. It was the sort of impossibly swank joint where Saudi princelings blew $20,000 a night on champagne. Meanwhile, onstage, the world’s best vaudeville performers would do acrobatic, carefully choreographed acts about cutting off banker’s heads. My boss had the depravity of a Borgia prince, but goddamn, he understood my art. I drew my beloved performers as gods. Customers were coke snorting pigs.
It got me thinking that all it takes to get political is a sharp eye, a mocking disposition, a discomfort with your place.
Artists are in an odd space. On one hand, we’re the most fancy of the fancy. People don’t know art, but know what they like –– implying that art is a rarified space, requiring advanced education, where they couldn’t presume to judge. Average people are told over and over again that their instincts on art are stupid and wrong.
My one brush with proletarian labor was doing murals on a construction site. Unlike the other workers, I was allowed to drink on the job and come in whenever I wanted. I was the artist. I was fancy. I could be trusted.
On the other hand? I’m an artist. My job is to apply colored mud onto a surface. Just like the construction workers on the mural job, I’d be covered in toxic dust, freezing and wobbling on a rickety platform. I have dirty nails and rough hands. When famous artists pay young people ten bucks an hour to do their work for them, they’re reproducing the worst excesses of the financial world. Art is carpentry as much as metaphysics. We’re blue collar workers with pretenses at the sublime.
I thought a lot about all these things, but I never let them bleed into my work. I’d marched against the Iraq War. The failure of those million lefty marches made organized political resistance in America feel like theater. To do a poster around an issue felt like a preachy lie. I also felt that because I was a pretty-girl illustrator with a sex industry past, activism was above me. So I’d sell my work and donate the money to abortion funds.
Then In 2011, the world exploded. In one country after another, people sat down in their cities’ main squares — Tahrir, Syntagma, Puerta del Sol, Zuccotti — and said the old world’s machine was dead. All the police charges in the world convince them otherwise.
Singer Paul Robeson said, “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” He was speaking during the Spanish Civil War, but he might have been speaking to me when Occupy Wall Street set up tents outside my window.
An artist can engage with politics as a documentarian or propagandist, or just as a searching human, trying to puzzle out where the world broke. I first went down to Zuccotti Park to draw the protesters. The media said they were dirty hippie scumbags. I knew they weren’t. They were veterans and construction guys and old ladies doing knitting. Someone held up a sign saying “Give a damn.”
Zuccotti Park itself was a mini city, with a library, a free clinic, a gourmet soup kitchen, and even a table giving out free cigarettes. In the middle of New York City, where every usage of public space is regimented, here was a space that was free. It was also a space where the Left, often an ineffectual snakepit, came together. Union guys stood shoulder to shoulder with Brooklyn party promoters.
The police arrested 700 people at a time, and barricaded half of downtown Manhattan. Power was afraid.
I wanted to help however I could. I donated money and clothes and tarps. I turned my apartment into a press room. Journalists from around the world charged their laptops on my power outlets and drank my booze. I also began to draw protest posters. When the police raided Occupy Oakland, they put a veteran in a coma by shooting him in the head with a tear gas canister. As a response, I drew “Can You See the New World Through the Tear Gas.”
I’d put the posters for download online, or give the files to Occupier friends. Hours later, they’d be on the streets as protest signs. My May Day poster was my most widely distributed image. I reenvisioned the classic worker: a muscular, square jawed proletarian whose job has been outsourced to China, as a Latina woman. It was wheat-pasted on walls across the world.
When I made art for OWS, I was trying to win over skeptics like myself. We all know what activist art looks like. It’s red and black, Soviet-influenced, with lots of hard angles. This is gorgeous design. But saying the revolution has an aesthetic is like saying the revolution has a shoe brand. I wanted art for people who had never considered themselves activists, but who cared deeply for their friends and the world. I kept my Rococo aesthetic. I drew women. I drew animals. I drew protest art that looked like a fairy tale.
Artists are individualists. My favorite muralist, Diego Rivera, was repeatedly expelled from the Communist Party for being too idiosyncratic for the powers of the time. Orwell showed writers their responsibility to look as unflinchingly at their friends as their enemies, even when it is hardest. Artists must do the same. If you’re an activist, there’s a constant, evil temptation to airbrush your own best side. But the best political art is the product not of movements but of the flawed, searching individual mind.
During Occupy, I became friends with the young British journalist named Laurie Penny. In November, the police cleared the camps. They cracked skulls, sealed off lower Manhattan, and threw the mini-city into dump trucks. Laurie climbed down my rusty old fire escape at 3am to get behind police lines. In the days that followed, we’d drink and smoke and try to figure out what would happen next. Occupy was just one of the movements rattling the world in 2011. We decided to do work together about another one.
Right now, Greece is an EU country sliding into fascism, racked with debt and austerity. A third of the population is unemployed. The Nazi Golden Dawn is the third most popular party. Its logo is a broken swastika. It murders immigrants. Its parliamentary representatives post photographs to social media of themselves taking part in pogroms and punch female politicians on TV.
But Greece is also the stage for leftist resistance. On TV, you can see footage of street demonstrations blanketed with fire and tear gas. What you don’t see are places like Navarino Park, a parking lot torn up by anarchists with jackhammers and made into a kids’ playground. You don’t see the people who are feeding and clothing each other when their society has failed.
Laurie and I decided to go to Athens, and record what we saw. We spent a week interviewing activists and immigrants, getting dead drunk at parties, and watching bloody street demonstrations. Out of the experience, we made Discordia.
This was the first time I had used art as reportage. We live in the most image saturated age in history. A thousand Twitpics mark the occasion whenever a cop cracks a protesters skull. I wanted to prove that artists had a reason to leave the studio. To prove old-fashioned illustration had something to say.
I found that drawings, like photojournalism, distill the essential. They remove photo blur, accidents of lighting. Visual art, unlike photos or journalism, has no pretense of objectivity. It’s joyfully, defiantly subjective. It’s truth is individual. Picasso’s Guernica didn’t show what a body looks like after a carpet-bombing. It showed the hideousness of war.
Laurie would interview and I would draw. Artists are the dorks in the corner, and drawing gives them an excuse to creepilly stare. I got images of places where photographs weren’t allowed — like anarchist cafes under threat by the police. I drew the police themselves, hulking comic-book caricatures of men, with shields and guns and tear gas canisters, who hung out on the street corners and hassled anyone young or brown. Laurie later called me out on making them look like things rather than humans. But maybe when you put on the uniform, that’s what you become.
We covered the leftist newspaper Eleftherotpoia, a newspaper that before the crisis had had the stature of the Guardian. But the owner embezzled and didn’t pay her workers. The reporters threw her out. Now they worked without pay, sustained by cigarettes, raki, and investigative journalism.
I drew the memorial of Alexandros Grigoropolos. Alexandros was a sixteen-year-old boy shot in the back of the head by police. His memorial is the angry, graffiti covered heart of the graffiti covered city. Behind it is a mural of gas-mask wearing protesters, and the tagline ACAB — All Cops Are Bastards.
I drew striking steelworkers. I worked from Laurie’s photos of an anti-fascist demonstration. The Golden Dawn was going around an immigrant neighborhood, demanding the Pakistani store owners close their businesses. The immigrants demonstrated to show that they were not afraid. At the start of the demonstration, the police announced they wouldn’t defend the protesters from fascist attacks. I drew a young Pakistani boy walking through that protest, through bloody sidewalks and Nazi graffiti, in an homage to Rockwell’s anti-segregation painting, “The Problem We All Live With.”
Back home, working from iPhone snaps and conversations with Laurie, I reconstructed the city on paper. I tied the art together with graffiti. Athens has more of it, and with more dark humor and poetry, than I’d ever seen. “Don’t rely on the police for everything. Hit yourself.” “Fuck heroes. Fight Now.” “Mom, I’ll be late. We’re at war.” When I drew people I tried to not only draw what they looked like, but who they were — the strength and worry and courage and pain. I tried to capture the electricity in the Athens air. Laurie’s words were fierce and powerful things. I wanted to make art that held up to them.
I got arrested within days of finishing Discordia. I’m “not the type who gets arrested” — meaning I’m a little middle-class white girl. Cops flirt with me instead. But at the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, a cop dragged me into the street. I was released from jail eleven hours later with the charge of blocking traffic. They arrested 150 people that day. We were locked in freezing cells so small we had to take turns sitting down. We lined up in front of each other so male officers couldn’t watch us go to the bathroom.
Occupy Wall Street taught middle-class kids what poor people and people of color have always known: the law is a cruel and arbitrary thing that turns against you in a second. I was furious and shaken for everyone, protester or not, thrown for no reason in that awful place. The next day I drew our jail cell for CNN. That protest turned out to be the last real gasp of Occupy Wall Street. After hurricane Sandy wrecked New York, Occupy turned to helping our powerless, waterless neighbors. But it was never the same.
2011 is over. The ecstatic rebellions have faded away under police batons and their own mismanagement. But the year changed us. It changed my art. It changed me. And we will see another 2011. Images have power. There’s a reason Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat’s hands were broken by the regime. In New Delhi, caricaturist Aseem Trivedi is charged with sedition. Thomas Nast’s illustrations helped bring down Tammany Hall. Images get under the skin, past compassion fatigue, to the raw edges of your heart.
I drew to relate to people. I drew the popular kids in school so they wouldn’t hit me. I drew my way into nightclubs who wouldn’t let me past the doorman. I drew to show Moroccan street kids I was more than a dumb tourist. I’m not much at conversation, but I could get some pretty lines on a piece of paper. Drawing was a way to take the world, make it comprehensible, put it on a sketchbook, make it mine. My political art started in the same way. I drew protest art because the world was changing. I wanted to be a full human, and to do that, I had to let my work change with it. I couldn’t look away.