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125 CHAPTER FOUR The Art Workers Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group: Politicizing the Art World Arts and cultural groups of the sixties used performance in public spaces to dramatize a vision of social transformation. Public performances such as the freedom singers’ accompaniment of civil rights demonstrations, the Living Theatre’s procession to the streets at the end of Paradise Now, and the Diggers’ “Death of Money” and “Death of Hippie” street parades, emerged as the groups’ political and creative sensibilities converged. It was especially appropriate for the freedom singers to be singing in public, as desegregating public accommodations was one of the fundamental goals of the early civil rights movement. Though the Living Theatre existed for almost twenty years before street theater became their preferred form, certain events in the company’s history anticipated this development, such as Julian Beck’s and Judith Malina ’s participation in the protests of civil defense drills, the “Theater in the Room” experiments, and the trial following the closing of the 14th Street theater during The Brig. Finally, leading the audience into the street at the end of Paradise Now in the context of late-sixties political activism committed the company to follow the logic of its own development and begin to create politically oriented street theater in the seventies. The Diggers incorporated public performance from the outset of their formation as a community group. For these groups, mixing performance and politics in a public setting did not constitute a “stretch” in their creative development. The path of the Art Workers Coalition to politicized art and protest in public spaces on the other hand, 126 Chapter Four followed a more tortuous route. For the AWC, and the Guerrilla Art Action Group, a related but separate group, politicized performances developed only when the political and social crises of the late sixties intersected with a decade of art world trends that deployed everyday life as subject matter. The Art Workers Coalition, a New York City–based group active in the visual arts, formed in 1969 as an umbrella organization to lobby and protest on behalf of the artistic rights of visual artists. Eventually its concerns broadened to include the politics of race, class, and gender in the art world, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Whereas the Living Theatre and the Diggers cultivated a collective identity, the AWC tellingly adopted the word “coalition ” in its name, implying a more tentative alliance than “collective” or “union.” AWC members could thus coalesce in small groups on discrete issues rather than creating a more formal, traditional organization. Though “everyone was poor and did a lot of sharing,” at no point did AWC artists live together communally as did the Living Theatre and the Diggers.1 A variety of factors inhibited visual artists from undertaking collective political activity. First and foremost, the nature of artistic creation itself tended to be more individual than group-oriented; visual artists were less likely to engage in collaborative artistic enterprises than, for example, theater artists. According to the art critic and AWC member Lucy Lippard, the artist, “is by nature unequipped for group thinking or action.”2 Moreover, the midtwentieth -century art world venerated individual artists, most notably the abstract expressionists, and such veneration works against impulses toward collective action, even as it encourages innovation. Unlike theater artists, visual artists were not represented by an organized labor union such as the Actors’ Equity Association. Thus, a constellation of circumstances discouraged collective political activity by visual artists, a set of cultural and institutional barriers that made the careers of the AWC and the GAAG all the more remarkable , and accounts for the groups’ relatively late emergence. The cultural conservatism of the postwar era held sway over the content of American art well into the sixties. In the late forties and the fifties, abstract expressionist painting emerged as the dominant artistic form and became the leading edge of innovation in contemporary art. Jackson Pollock’s paint splatterings , Willem de Kooning’s jagged forms, and Mark Rothko’s blurred abstractions were visual arts parallels of the Living Theatre’s poetic dramas, revolutions in form rather than content. Many of the most important individual artists within the New York school of abstract expressionism possessed political sentiments that aligned them with the Left, as evidenced by their sponsorship of the socialist journal Dissent.3 Despite personal status as engagés, The Art Workers Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group 127 the abstract expressionists refrained from introducing...


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