Creative stamp arrangements. Cross-stitched fallopian tubes. Knitted uteri. This summer’s social media circulation gave witness to all manner of artsy protests surrounding reproductive rights. Practitioners of this sort often call themselves “craftivists,” a portmanteau that makes clear the use of craft for activist ends. (“Lactivism” indicates a similar word blend, regarding activists who mobilize around issues of lactation.) Guerrilla knitting, yarn bombing, yarn storming, and granny graffiti are all terms in the craftivist lingo (some lovely examples of which can be seen here). To get their message out, craftivists often work in public spaces – sometimes in a guerrilla, dead-of-night manner – and their colorful, even fanciful creations can provide a non-threatening point of entry for public discussion of serious issues. In July and August this year, craftivists made sneaky appearances at Hobby Lobby stores around the U.S. to leave art-based messages for the retail giant as well as for their fellow crafters.
The context for this, of course, was the SCOTUS decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and other for-profit companies who sought to reject the Affordable Health Care Act’s reproductive health care coverage based on their religious beliefs. (The decision was covered by a variety of regular and guest bloggers for Nursing Clio back in July.) Opposing voices were loud and abundant – in opinion pages, on talk shows, and around the blogosphere. Along with this, women and men who might never claim the label of artist turned to visual means to make their voices heard.
There is a long history of fine artists using their work as a means to advocate for or against particular social or political causes. This history is especially strong when we look at the history of prints. Usually, multiple prints are made from an original block or plate or screen, thus printmaking has been a frequent medium for protest art as the prints can be widely disseminated. In addition, because printed multiples are not unique originals, like paintings, they are far less expensive. So, if an artist can produce a large number of prints and sell them at a price affordable to the general population, then the prints have the potential to become an effective vehicle for imparting widespread political or cultural critiques.
Early-twentieth-century German artist Käthe Kollwitz may be the most well-known example of a printmaker who used her work in the service of protest. Popularly known for her anti-war imagery around the First and Second World Wars, Kollwitz often centered on the protective and/or grieving female body left behind (which may have had something to do with her loss of both a son and a grandson to war). Kollwitz also produced a sizable, though lesser known, body of prints on behalf of women’s reproductive rights in 1920s Germany. In 1927, she collaborated with physician and playwright Carl Credé, making a series of lithographs to illustrate his book Volk in Not (People in Need), a screed against German laws prohibiting contraception and abortion and emphasizing their disastrous implications for the working class. In fact, during the last several years of the Weimar Republic, Kollwitz, Credé, and a host of fellow artists and writers campaigned for reproductive health care on behalf of proletarian women who could not afford to feed another mouth in a time of economic crisis.
Similarly, American artist Barbara Kruger has been a vocal advocate of reproductive rights. Her now-famous photomontage, Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), advertised a pro-choice march on Washington in 1989 and has reappeared frequently in debates around women’s health care in the decades since. Known for her strong use of pronouns and sometimes ambiguous messages, like “Your comfort is my silence,” in this case Kruger uses “your” seemingly to encompass all women. She stops short of including herself, however; rather than saying “Our bodies,” she chooses, like Kollwitz, to work on behalf of others as an outside agent. By distancing themselves, perhaps both Kollwitz and Kruger set themselves up as impartial observers. Or, they offer their words and images as clear pronouncements, suggesting that common sense will lead us to the obvious conclusions.
More recent examples of protest art reframe the discussion through communal language and actions. The worldwide Occupy movement of the last few years promoted the idea that nearly all of us are in the same boat, economically speaking. Their slogan, “We are the 99%,” points to a clear demarcation between the über-rich and the rest of us. In the Occuprint Portfolio, a collection of 31 screenprinted posters, artists took on all manner of “Occupy” topics, not only economic equality, but issues of gender and race as well. In one poster, California artist Favianna Rodriguez used the Occupy theme to address the rapidly increasing legislation around reproductive rights, making the point that this is not just a “women’s issue” but that, as she states at the bottom, “the war on women is a war on everyone.”
Rodriguez’s inclusion of “everyone,” and the Occupy movement’s focus on “We” as a pronoun, both introduce an element of bipartisanship into the heated environment of protest language. Rather than tearing the other half down, these protesters accentuate how much we have in common (even if it’s a common enemy) and aspire to work together for a greater good.
With such attempts to create a deeper sense of community, and even to level the playing field in different ways, perhaps these Hobby Lobby protests make perfect sense. There is, after all, a wonderful synergy in the idea that Hobby Lobby, purveyor of crafty goodness and democratizer of art supplies, is now a playground for protesters who might not call themselves artists but are nonetheless making powerful visual statements. Audre Lorde once said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[i] She also said, however, “They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game.” Craftivists may not be able to take down a huge corporation, but they can at least make their voices heard in subversive ways in a public forum, by infiltrating the scrapbooking section and leaving political messages.
[i] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 110-14.
Maria Elena Buszek (ed.), Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Duke University Press, 2011).
Betsy Greer (ed.), Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014).
Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques (University of California Press, 1996).
Martha Kearns, Kaethe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993).
Barbara Kruger, Remote Control: Power, Culture, and the World of Appearances (The MIT Press, 1994).
Helen Langa, Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York (University of California Press, 2004).
Josh MacPhee, Paper Politics: Social Engaged Printmaking Today (PM Press, 2009).
Featured image source: Instagram @smartinetti
All images used according to Fair Use Doctrine.