The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
MICHAL BONCZA finds lasting relevance in the poster art of the past.
BE realistic, demand the impossible. First attributed to Che Guevara, this aphorism, which is graffitied across the walls of the London Print Studio in Harrow, defined the intentions of the May 1968 student rebellion in Paris.
Paris exploded as frustration with the government of General de Gaulle and an outmoded, elitist education system inspired a massive civil unrest and the demands for a comprehensive overhaul of society.
The bourgeois democracy's spurious claim to political legitimacy from a flawed electoral consensus was questioned and found wanting.
By May 18 1968, 10 million workers were on strike and most factories and universities were occupied. The government responded, as governments do, with brutal repression.
The students and lecturers of the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) went on strike immediately and produced the first in a series of memorable posters "Factories, Universities, United."
"The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories," they proclaimed.
And, as a warning, they added: "Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle itself is of such primary importance that the position of an 'outside' observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class."
Risking a stretch in the revolution's doghouse, the London Print Studio's current exhibition boldly reassesses the significance of those momentous events.
The Atelier Populaire production is supplemented by work of the British Poster Collective, posters of the Cuban revolution and others.
Most significantly, the Atelier images have lost none of their striking and succinct visual and verbal political literacy.
Not altogether unsurprisingly, many of the slogans retain a painful topicality, such as: "Reformes=Chloroforme," "Stop the expulsion of the foreign comrades," "Return to normality" or "Ballot paper (a brick) for the under 21."
The 1968 upheaval, like a typhoon, circumnavigated the globe, sweeping aside established political wisdoms, reinvigorating political activism and focusing it on resisting the imperial war in Vietnam, democratising education and securing union rights and living wages for all.
These are demands that would not look out of place today if Afghanistan or Iraq was substituted for Vietnam.
The Black Panther movement of black consciousness and resistance emerged. Its defiant and emblematic clenched fist salute given by John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the Mexico Olympics was transmitted around the world.
In Britain, the 230-year old Licensing Act giving the Lord Chancellor's Office the right to censor willy-nilly all cultural productions for public performance and affecting playwrights from Genet to Bond was finally abolished.
Karol Modzelewski, one of the socialist founders of Solidarnosc, put his finger on it when reflecting recently on the nature of rebellion, "Revolutionaries do not know that not all is possible - that is why they are revolutionaries."
The potency and radicalism of 1968 would not be repeated for another 30-odd years until similar highly motivated street protests brought down corrupt governments in Argentina and Bolivia and saved Hugo Chavez's presidency in a way that they were unable to for Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.
In February 2003, the "Mai '68" spirit was rekindled as approximately 30 million people marched in over 800 cities around the world against the imminent war in Iraq. The Rome march, numbering 3 million, was the largest political demonstration ever held.
Many carried home-made, highly inventive personal placards. Most used ridicule as a way of entertaining fellow protesters and deflate the political egos of their adversaries.
One in particular, "Blair is a Cunt," brought to mind Atelier's deliberately insulting "La chienlit c'est lui!" (He's the Shit) with de Gaulle's characteristic profile, dismissing the general's infamous remark, "Reforms yes! Shit no!"
Damon Taylor, in an essay accompanying the exhibition, recognises that, in cases like the anti-war marches, "technology can be harnessed to the organisation of mass protest," adding that "the playful phenomenon of flash-mob is about learning to wield the power we have in our hands.
"It will be interesting to see what comes when we can turn the tools we have to visually imagining the world we are about to make," he concludes.
We would be well advised keep in mind Dennis the Menace's perceptive intimation on one of the posters, that "the prison of respectability has been designed for you and me."
On another, Brecht's In praise of communism spells out where the inspiration may be found and why.
And, as Brecht said elsewhere, "because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are."
Exhibition runs until this Saturday March 29. Open 10.30am-6pm entry free.
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