It is a work whose form bears a resemblance to many documentary photos that artists of that era tended to pair with lines of text, well aware of Barthes’s observation in Mythologies (1957) that the meaning of an image is entrusted to the seemingly secondary addendum of a caption. But this array of images combined with words, generally assigned to the sphere of conceptual art, fills the pages of anthologies and specialized texts with an unmistakeable black and white, a mixture of photographic grays alongside the deep black of mimeographed print. And babies, in contrast, is a brutal color photo showing a dozen bodies of women and children, sprawled side-by-side in the middle of a narrow dirt path between two fields of weeds. The framing of the figures rules out any contact with the sky, and thus any breathing space. The text itself is not black on white, nor does it follow the photo or run alongside it in the standard way. Large red letters, superimposed at the top of the picture, ask: “Q. And babies?” At the bottom is the reply: “A. And babies”. The red ink does not have the shrill tone of advertising graphics. It is transparent, but dark and tinged with brown, like oxidized blood. The group of bodies portrayed is one of the many that American soldiers in Vietnam left behind during the My Lai massacre of March 1968. The use of color was significant not just as the sign of an aggressive need for realism, but as a challenge – in my opinion, a very conscious one – to a complex set of habits ingrained in languages such as art. The photographer, Ronald L. Haeberle, was an American army reporter who documented the theatre of war. But the photos he shot in his official role were black and white, taken with his military-issue camera. The photo later used by the AWC was in color, taken with his personal camera. It appeared in Life only in December 1969, and just 20 days later, the AWC was hard at work circulating the poster, printed in different sizes to appear in New York City advertising spaces and in magazines.
The colors in the picture were not just a reaction against the historicizing bent of official war photos; they seemed to cry out against the “grayness” of museums and against the prime symbol of the international museum system, New York’s MoMA, which at first had agreed to fund production of the poster, but soon refused all involvement, due to an obvious ideological conflict between the beliefs of some trustees – firm supporters of the Vietnam war – and what the poster was denouncing. The reason the museum gave to avoid funding And babies spoke volumes: the poster was outside the museum’s “function”. I think no statement could have sparked greater indignation in an artistic community that was striving to work by any means within the sphere of life and reality.
The AWC’s network of volunteers managed to find alternative funding, and after the image had appeared in newspapers and at antiwar demonstrations, AWC artists brought And babies into the MoMA gallery where Picasso’s Guernica was on exhibit at the time. This painting about the Spanish Civil War, so close in spirit to what the poster decried, could also be reduced to a symbol opposing the change the AWC was demanding from contemporary art museums. Guernica was the historical version, cleansed and defused, of a historicized tragedy. In aesthetic terms, its severe black and white was in perfect harmony with the dapper gray composure that, to the eyes of contemporary artists, gave a uniform veneer to the works on display at MoMA. Well before hostilities broke out between New York artists and MoMA, in January 1969, Alex Gross, a journalist and AWC member, writing in the East Village Other, had repeatedly analyzed the religious climate that prevailed at the museum, characterized in part by the chromatic aplomb of works that invariably tended to gray, and more generally, a ceremonious impermeability aimed at inspiring awe, especially in certain spheres of the public.
All it took was one marginal event, which in retrospect sounds purely anecdotal, to bring about the first revolt of artists and critics against the museum system since the historic movements of the ‘30s: sculptor Vassilakis Takis, with the help of Willoughby Sharp, the poet Farman, and other artist friends, moved one of his sculptures, which was being displayed against his wishes in the show “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age”, curated by Pontus Hultén, into the museum’s garden, which drew the attention of the new director, Bates Lowry, and got the work transferred to storage.
What led to the birth of a widespread movement – one that art history now tends to ignore or gloss over – was the total absence of dialogue between living artists and art museums, and the artists’ conviction that there was no way for institutional machines like MoMA to represent contemporary experimentation, or for the interests of their trustees to have anything in common with the ideas and beliefs of the American and international art movement. MoMA was necessarily the first institution that the AWC addressed, because since its foundation, it had responded in a spirited, intelligent way to developments in the art of the present, and had been the first to single out and present the most innovative, interesting language; starting in the ‘50s, however, it had gradually lost all desire for real dialogue with the contemporary scene and with New York’s artistic community.
The initial group, Hans Haacke, Tom Lloyd, Willoughby Sharp, Takis, Tsai, John Perrault, and Gregory Battcock, presented a list of thirteen demands that revealed the ideological and political interests of the community. Nevertheless, though the list clearly showed to what degree the art of that period intersected with social and overtly political issues, it also betrayed a conflicted desire to make demands that fell into the sphere of labor relations, to the point of proposing daily fees for the display of artwork, even when it belonged to the museum’s permanent collection.
What is most interesting, from a historical perspective, is that the artists of the AWC considered every action by the community to be a work of art. This claim laid the explicit or implied groundwork for every later artistic practice focused on institutional critique. Equally significant was the number of prominent artists and critics who generously contributed their efforts to the movement. In the end, their number and prominence proved crucial in achieving several goals that are still important today, such as free admission once a week, a gradual increase in the representation of African-American art, and a more respectful dialogue with living artists, whenever their work was exhibited at the museum.
Courtesy: Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles. Photo: Ron L. Haeberle.
The silence and stalling of Bates Lowry – who would soon resign from his position at MoMA, in May ‘69, due to his inability to manage the situation – led the AWC to call a public hearing on April 10 at the School of Visual Arts, which was attended by several hundred artists and art workers, with the active participation of Hans Haacke, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Michael Snow, Lucy Lippard, Gregory Battcock, and the blessing of no less an authority than Barnett Newman. Carl Andre and Robert Barry urged the movement to rid itself completely of the institutional problem by creating alternatives to museums, galleries, and the specialized press, and completely abandoning the notion of an art “scene”. They hoped that from then on, everything would take place not in a theater of overexposure governed by power relationships, but through direct contact with the public, in artist-run spaces.
On that occasion, the most lucid analysis of the reasons behind the evolution of MoMA’s policies was offered by Hans Haacke, who called the AWC’s attention to what had occurred in 1953. The museum’s Board of Trustees had reneged on its deal with the Metropolitan and the Whitney, under which works acquired by MoMA in previous decades, as they gradually became “classic”, were to be transferred through acquisition to the collections of the other two museums; this was meant to provide MoMA with the space and energy needed to focus on the art of the present, and the preservation of works whose influence could still be directly linked to contemporary work. On February 15, 1953, under pressure from collectors on or associated with the Board of Trustees, the agreement was dissolved. No further steps were taken to hand over works already slated for transfer, and two paintings by Matisse that had already been relinquished were reacquired. That day, the president of the Board of Trustees, John Hay Whitney, announced that from then on, the museum would no longer be attempting to acquire works of a strictly contemporary nature, but rather to ensure that the collection – now permanent – would include as many “masterworks” as possible, chosen according to standards of absolute qualitative “excellence”. In reminding people of this, Haacke called attention to the irreparable dichotomy of goals to be found in any “museum of modern art”, which Gertrude Stein had noted, calling the term itself an oxymoron, but also emphasizing the most enduring structural contradiction in the art world: the marriage between a constant urge for rebellion and the most conservative economic interests.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the United States, with the mediation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, artists who had taken part in many demonstrations against Vietnam were working on projects in collaboration with companies that publicly supported the war effort in Southeast Asia and produced weapons and technology for its pursuit.
The achievements, but also the contradictions and naïveté of the AWC foreshadowed the history of the art system in the decades that followed: the growing and still current need of many artists to work in the field of institutional critique, and the relationship – embattled, when not completely lacking – of our modern and contemporary art museums with the concept of History.