Art / Revolution

The Art of the Revolutions: May ’68 and the Arab Spring

In May of next year, we will commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of the protests that erupted across the world in 1968. Perhaps the most well known of these movements was the one that took place in Paris, in which the Left Bank, for a month, was turned into something of a war zone—barricades, Molotov cocktails, and all. Students, and later workers, took to the streets to protest rampant consumerism, capitalism, and growing American imperialism, most notably in Vietnam. Saturated with the youthful energy of a new, postwar generation, the ’68 movement is so well remembered today because of the extraordinary influence it had on subsequent art and culture, both in France and beyond its borders. Most notably, the protests gave rise to the Atelier Populaire, an artists’ collective made up of Marxist fine arts students who had occupied the École des Beaux-Arts. Atelier Populaire produced a vast amount of street art and posters meant to rally students and works to the causes of ’68, working tirelessly to flood the revolution with art as the rest of the country went on strike. With simply-colored graphic images and text like “Under the Pavement, the Beach” and “For the Struggle of All the Workers” Atelier Populaire created easily reproducible and invigorating works that provided the world with one of the first modern instances of political street art.

This artistic legacy is incredibly important to the increasingly visual world we live in today. Aided by social media, political protest art has proven immensely powerful. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arab Spring, where political art helped to rally swaths of people against oppressive governments and reflected a surging fervor for liberation. “In all of the Arab Spring revolutions,” Salwa Mikdadi writes in the Guggenheim Perspectives, “art engaged and empowered the public and played a significant role in shaping public consciousness.” Political street art in the Arab world went from something entirely uncommon to something so prevalent that it served as a veritable mouthpiece for the people. Thus, despite being separated by nearly four decades, these two movements still bear striking resemblances to one another. Both rallied a new generation against antiquated rulers and used art to do so, in the face of government-controlled media, and both achieved more in the field of cultural revolution than true political revolution.

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An integral part the artistic phenomenon that emerged in Paris in May of 1968 was the Situationist International, a revolutionary artistic and intellectual group created in 1957 that espoused an updated version of Marxism meant to combat the advanced capitalism that had been developing in the postwar period. One of the group’s basic tenets was to “break down the division between artists and consumers and make cultural production a part of everyday life.” Atelier Populaire took up this call to action by bringing art back to the streets, working as a collective, and deciding on works by committee vote. Individual artists remained anonymous, and each work was accredited to the collective.

The work of Atelier Populaire was highly influenced by Situationist writings, most notably Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle, in which he writes that “the affirmation of [art’s] independence is the beginning of its disintegration.”1 Thus, the members of Atelier Populaire took it upon themselves to create art not for the museum—a bourgeois arm of capitalism—but instead to reintegrate art back into everyday life, by bringing it to the street. This ideology translated quite literally on the pair of posters that hung at the entrance of the workshop, one that read “Atelier Populaire Oui” and the other “Atelier Bourgeois Non”. As Peter Wollen writes in The New Left Review, the Situationist International’s “contribution to the revolutionary uprising was…through the diffusion and spontaneous expression of situationist ideas and slogans, in graffiti and in posters… as well as in serried assaults on the routines of everyday life.” While art was always an important part of politics well before ’68, most prominently during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and by governments during both World Wars, ’68 marked a new age of protest, in which art, through the use of graffiti and posters, became an important tool for collective resistance in the streets.

via The Tate Museum

And yet, despite this vehement leftist ideology and anti-capitalist stance, as well as an ideological opposition to American imperialism, many of the posters created by the Atelier Populaire also borrowed much from American pop art, revealing a larger schizophrenic attitude in the French consciousness towards growing American cultural influences. Liam Considine writes in the Tate Papers that “many of the artists and students who established the Atelier Populaire in the occupied lithography studios of the École des beaux-arts resorted to pop pictorial techniques such as the silkscreen and the opaque projector to incorporate photographic images in a moment of political crisis.” By adopting pop art techniques, artists were engaging unadulterated primary colors, bold typography, and a mechanized method of production often used in advertising. It is not unthinkable that artists who wanted to mobilize the public might turn to methods already proven so successful in influencing people, but there is a resounding irony in the fact that these were the methods used by capitalists to perpetuate the consumer society that the protestors of ’68 were marching against. Debord, in Society of Spectacle, had decried capitalism’s dissolving of the real world into simple, palatable images that create “effective motivations of hypnotic behavior,” but as Atelier Populaire soon realized, simple imagery could motivate people in a productive way as well. Their use of American pop art and advertising techniques has continued to influence protest art well into the twenty-first century.

In fact, it is difficult to find protest art today that does not employ pop art’s use of symbolism, clean lines, and bold typography. The influences of Atelier Populaire’s fusion of American pop art techniques with leftist avant-garde theory is highly evident in the protest art of the Arab Spring. Part of the reason that the art of these two movements is so related is that both movements followed a similar trajectory that made art necessary.

via Art Territories

Notably, the art of both movements became consequential because of government suppression and control of the national media. The paternalistic DeGaulle government of 1968 France was intensely careful about what was broadcast on the nation’s single television channel, and required government approval for everything that played. DeGaulle maintained a monopoly on national radio as well, believing that these forms of media were meant to educate the public on government policies—but purely from the government’s point of view. The New York Times reported on September of 1968 that in France, “censorship of the radio and television monopoly goes on despite a recent reorganization and official announcements of reform.” Thus, emerging forms of media proved difficult to mobilize in service of the budding revolution. Consequently, it fell to art to motivate an increasingly visually-oriented public to the causes of ’68.  A few French filmmakers, most notably Jean-Luc Godard, created a series of cinétracts, visual essays of one hundred feet of 16mm black-and-white silent film shot at twenty-four frames per second. The series captured the experience of the protests and were independently distributed, but most of the work of spreading the messages of revolution fell to the pictorial art of the Atelier Populaire.

A similar situation arose during the Arab Spring, in which government control of media tightened as murmurs of an uprising began to surface. The Arab Spring is best known for its use of social media to unite people against the oppressive governments of the Middle East. However, it is important to note that the governments of these countries maintained tight control of the media and began restricting access to the internet. The Mubarak regime in Egypt was able to effectively reduce the amount of internet traffic in the country by 90 percent. Twitter and Facebook were blocked. By January 27, 2011, the Egyptian government had brought the internet of the country to a screeching halt. By February 18 of the same year, the Libyan government, employing similar tactics, had done the very same thing. The Syrian government, too, was tightly controlling the flow of information to its citizens and employing hacking technology to scour the internet for political dissidents. In Tunisia, a lack of internet freedom became one of the primary reasons for revolution.

Though the internet proved an effective tool in spreading the word of revolution at first, increasing restrictions placed on it by Middle Eastern governments meant that organizers needed to find other ways of igniting a political fervor in people. Waleed Rashed, an Egyptian activist, explained his experience with discovering art as an effective tool, writing in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2013 that, “When I co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement to promote peaceful political activism, I believed that the most effective tools for documenting our struggle were social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter…Yet, I’ve come to learn that there will always be new tools—graffiti is one of them.” Like Rashed, an increasing number of activists in the Arab world turned to art to spread their word, just as their predecessors in ’68 had. As NPR reported in November of 2013, “during the Arab Spring, artists [said] city walls were often the only places where they could talk back to tyrants.”

Another prominent similarity between the art of ’68 and the art of the Arab Spring was the use of anonymity. Instead of creating art under their own name, most artists chose to work as part of a collective. For Atelier Populaire, the ideology of a collective was important. This art was not meant to elevate the status of the artist. The fundamental idea of the revolution was that everyone was equal—no students, no teachers, no authorities. The artists fundamentally “denied the uniqueness and individuality of a work of art by asserting that it merely mirrored sociological and historical reality” Atelier Populaire cofounder Phillipe Vermès explained that “The idea was to keep the effort collective to avoid bourgeois values.”

Much of the art of the Arab Spring, like that of ’68 and the art of many revolutions in history, was also made in this collective, anonymous fashion. Jacob Sarabia notes in the Pangea Journal that, “a vast majority of street murals, chants and other ad-hoc artistic demonstrations in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and other countries in the region were created by anonymous demonstrators and resistance fighters. Art collectives like Masasit Mati serve to provide an outlet for artists performing dangerous acts of dissent in the midst of a government-sanctioned embargo on freedom of expression.” Collectives established for the creation of art during the Arab Spring, though they believed in the same value of anonymity, also involved a greater element of self-preservation in their reasons for keeping artists’ names secret. While student artists of Atelier Populaire certainly made attempts to avoid the inquisitive arm of the DeGaulle government, Arab governments were fare more pernicious in their efforts to root out dissidents. And since much of the art of the Arab spring was directed specifically at the rulers, as Sarabia explains, “with posters of former Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak being deposed, ignored, or defamed…decorating street walls” it was of great importance that artists’ identities were kept secret. While there was some defamation of DeGaulle in Atelier Populaire work, most notably a poster of DeGaulle removing a mask of his own face to reveal the face of Hitler beneath it, the level of fear of retaliation was not near to those of the Arab nations, living under authoritarian dictatorships that made daily arrests.

via The Huffington Post

via Victoria and Albert Museum

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The similarities in circumstances that brought together parts of these uprisings led to some remarkable similarities in the resulting artwork. Prominently featured in both movements was the image of the fist. The symbol of the fist has long been associated with the sentiment of revolt, and is most often accredited to the French artist Honoré Daumier, who in his 1860 painting The Uprising, painted a peasant with his fist in the air as a symbol of resistance in the Revolutions of 1848. Long before its political implications were established in art, however, the fist was “in ancient times…associated with the manifestation of sheer physical strength.” Most importantly for the Atelier Populaire, the fist was the salute that Karl Marx and his followers used at the First International in 1864. By 1919, when the Third International was established, it was the official salute of the Communist Party. Though the artists of ’68 did not believe in Soviet communism, they retained this part of communist imagery which predated the Soviets. The fist was a common symbol in the posters of the Atelier Populaire, and its implications proved powerful as more and more posters were distributed.

via National Library of France

via Docs Populi

via International Institute of Social History

Given the implications that the fist carries today, in part because of its use in ’68, it is not unsurprising that artists of the Arab Spring also used it to aid calls for power and solidarity amongst their own oppressed peoples. Though the fists in these new posters do not carry the same Marxist weight as they did in the ’68 posters, where the student artists were energized by reemerging Marxist theory, the more decontextualized fist of the Arab Spring posters still relies on the history of the symbol to connote the revolutionary sentiments. Many posters display raised fists in almost the exact same fashion as ’68, borrowing pop art’s use of hard-edge composition, in which starkly contrasting colors are paired next to each other, to grab the eyes of viewers. Other art, like graffiti, also used the fist. The art collective Zoo Project, in Tunis, Tunisia, painted a mural of a man planting seeds from which raised fists burst forth from the ground. The message is clear: the actions of the protests are sowing the seeds of a long-term solidarity that will bring about change.

via Popsicles and Grenades

via Mona Abaza and KLCC

Michael Thompson via flickr.com

Another pictorial symbol that both movements share is that of Che Guevara. Since his death in October of 1967, Guevara has stood as symbol for oppressed peoples across the world fighting for liberation. Guevara’s commitment to international revolution, as well as his ultimate sacrifice that transformed him into a martyr, created a sort of “cult of Che,” whose effects can be seen to this day. Aided by French writers, most notably François Maspero, who translated and published Guevara’s writings, and Régis Debray, who wrote about his experiences with Guevara, the French public of 1968 was fully aware and engaged with Guevara’s life and works. When they took to the streets of the Latin Quarter in the month of May, the students brought images of Che with them. The art of ’68 relied heavily on the use of images such as Guevara’s, pictorial symbols that were easily recognizable to the public—a tenant of pop art—so that the art would accessible to the everyday people who needed to be inspired by it. Guevara was so relevant to French public consciousness at this time that carrying his image in the street was a rallying cry of its own.

Since ’68, Guevara’s portrait has cropped up in countless revolutions and uprisings across the world. The Arab Spring saw its own share of Guevara imagery, from reimaginings of Guevara wearing the Arab-Palestinian scarf, the kaffiyeh, by political cartoonist Carlos Latuff, or a melding of his face with that of King Tut of Egypt, to images of the Guerrillero Heroico, Guevara’s most famous portrait, printed on red backgrounds. However, the use of Guevara during the Arab Spring is not so decontextualized as it may first appear. Far from just being another symbol of revolution in the Middle East, Guevara’s image means more in the region, where he actually had deep personal ties. Maria-Carolina Cambre writes in The Semiotics of Che Guevara: Affective Gateways, that “Guevara as a figure is recalled often in Palestine, and at times even referred to as Palestinian.” A 1959 picture of Guevara visiting Gaza began to circulate around social media during the Arab Spring, and as Cambre writes, images online “continue to visually link Guevara and Palestine.” Guevara had roots in other Arab countries as well, from his 1959 tour of the Middle East to his 1965 visit to Egypt, in which he not only visited with President Nasser but also with common Egyptian farmers. As Cambre concludes, “the May 1968 protests of Paris and uprisings of the Arab Spring actually share a very prominent image, the Guerrillero Heroico, linking them across time and space.”

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As the anniversary of May 1968 approaches, the world has another opportunity to grapple with the legacy of that fateful month in which it seemed that the fabric of French society was going to be utterly ripped apart. While ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy looked down upon the events, promising to “liquidate the heritage of May ’68,” current President Emmanuel Macron has announced plans to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary event. Whether or not one agrees with the political implications of the movement, however, it is impossible to deny the effect that ’68 had on French art and culture, in poetry, in film, and in visual art. The year of ’68 took modern political art to the streets, made it a prominent form of protest, and, by synthesizing techniques of pop art and advertising, gave new tools to activists of an increasingly visual age.

Without the Atelier Populaire’s work in 1968, the art of the Arab Spring might have looked very different. The movements, however, share a remarkable amount of similarities, and the influences of ’68 are evident in the techniques, colors, symbolism, and imagery of protest art in the Middle East. As we find ourselves in the midst of increasingly turbulent political times, it is important that we look back to these movements to learn which tools are effective promulgators of change. Both movements were varied in their political success, but both used visual imagery to generate previously unfathomable amounts of awareness and cultural fervor around their causes.

Ultimately, they both prove that there can be no revolution without art.

  1. Society of Spectacle thesis