The streets have always been where the masses bring their voices and grievances. It is a practice as old as Ancient Rome. It is when the city rises and a sense of social war penetrates the air that even art itself cannot help but be transformed. This year marks a half century since the great convulsions of 1968, when art itself became the vehicle of capturing and giving voice to the emerging, clashing ideals of that heroic generation. The tail-end of the sixties featured much of the imagery, cultural shifts and pop evolution that define the decade in the world consciousness. Acid rock was in, fashion was taking leaps so colorful and free that trends were established which have not gone out of style. But an aesthetic not readily discussed in the mainstream is the aesthetic of revolution.
In the mainstream–especially in the United States–the idea of a 60s aesthetic revolves around peace signs and the hippie look. The rugged, bohemian idea embodied in films like Easy Rider defines for many the spirit of the era. As McKenzie Wark writes in the essential book, The Beach Beneath the Street, “there is a sixties to suit every taste. It’s a truly versatile era.” But key to the culture of the time was politics. In 1968 the number of young people versus the old stood at a ratio of about five to one, as immortalized by The Doors in a famous song in that year.
The Doors “Five to One,” from Waiting for the Sun.
The baby boomers were college-age, yet they lived under the shadow of the century’s two key events, the Russian Revolution and World War II. The political forces unleashed by such events were now being debated and torn apart by the children of the initiators of said events. The Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Cultural Revolution in China, which Mao inaugurated in 1966, the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, and of course the U.S. war in Vietnam, all framed the mindsets of a generation. Marxism and art suddenly swirled in interesting combinations. Film buffs flocked to French New Wave cinema by directors like Jean-Luc Godard, master of the jump cut and for a time an avowed Maoist. Anarchic energies were let loose in movements like The Situationists, heirs to the Surrealists, whose guru Guy Debord wrote classic works on the “society of the spectacle,” making observations about the masses’ manipulation by mass culture still relevant, and perhaps even more so, today. Thinkers like Debord would espouse culture as revolt, art as war against the capitalist order. The whole, trembling age is captured beautifully in the experimental documentary A Grin Without a Cat by Chris Marker. Fittingly, it stands on its own as a work of visceral art as opposed to just a regular documentary.
Trailer for A Grin Without a Cat
The key political event of 1968 in which art and politics would come to a fever pitch in the western world was the student revolt and general strike of May ’68 in Paris. Student radicals at the University of Nanterre would provoke authorities to shut the campus down, this then provoked solidarity protests at the Sorbonne which resulted in clashes with the police. Workers supporting the students would call for strikes as rebels on the streets dug up stones to hurl at the cops. It would all spiral into a national wildcat general strike and the near paralysis of the government. President Charles de Gaulle was nearly toppled and the ruling class feared actual revolution in an industrialized western nation was suddenly a possibility. Imagine American students spontaneously revolting over tuition fees, we can only dream.
Marxist artists known as The Atelier Populaire occupied the École des Beaux-Arts during the uprising of May 1968. They were able to produce thousands of posters using the art school’s silk-screen printing press.
But here we will look at the artistic vision of May 68, which has interesting links to this renewed era of social protest, even if the protesters of today are unaware. As tear gas filled the streets of Paris, students at the École des Beaux Arts occupied its printing studios and began producing what stands as the movement’s most lasting element, the posters ablaze with imagery and slogans which capture that brief, incendiary moment yet have a universal and lasting force. Half a century later and the combination of posters and graffiti, written in an imaginary fervor, remain startlingly vibrant. This was not art produced out of commercialism. Not even the artists of these images are credited with their names. The work was seen as the expression of a collective. This is the era of the Cold War, and to be radical meant to follow actual radical doctrines, whether Marxist, Anarchist or Situationist. Produced en masse on silk-screen printing presses, the posters are a fierce yet elegant combination of artistic sensibility and politically radical proclamations. Single color schemes capture with clear precision the image. In one poster a woman throws a barricade stone as words announce, “La Beauté est dans la rue” (Beauty is in the street). In one of the movement’s most famous posters a raised fist rises from brick with the title “La Lutte Continue” (The Struggle Continues). These are simple images which survive outside of their own era. Revolutions are defined by their own time and place, yet human grievances, the struggle of the citizen against the oligarch, or the individual against the state and traditionalism, transcend the centuries.
In one of the most striking and menacing posters of May 68, a French riot police goon in a black helmet and shield, raises a baton to attack. The image is untitled and needs no explanation. In its almost dystopian power it would find itself at home today in Greece, Egypt, or Ferguson. It is artistic expression as a conjuring of what the overwhelming power of the state looks like when unleashed. If today we easily use the word “Fascism” to identify any number of reactionary politicians, for the generation of May 68 the word still held a profound, acidic cadence. The legacy of the Fascism that thrived in Europe before World War II was not too ancient in the 1960s, and the imagery of the state imposing violence against the students and working class held an explosive emotional force. In another, more crudely drawn image, a hand places a cloth over a bald head with the warning, “Reformes – Chloroforme” (Chloroform Reforms). For the artist of this piece, revolt means demanding a social transformation, not a mere quick fix to the old system.
Another chilling image would be suitable for our current moment where the young find themselves unsure of the trajectory of their world and themselves. A bandaged face, almost like a psych patient, with eyes in spirals, looks agonized as above the text states, “Une Jeunesse Que L’ Avenir Inquiète Trop Souvent…” (A Youth Disturbed Too Often by the Future). The revolutionaries of the period could not have foreseen how prescient such a statement would remain half a century later.
There is a youthful playfulness to other posters made during the heat of the revolt. In one poster rows of sheep are lined next to the line, “Retour A La Normale…” (Return to Normal). Another startling black and white poster again transcends its decade with a large tank and the lament, “Salaires Legers Chars Lourds” (Light Wages – Heavy Tanks). This poster would not be inappropriate near the office of our Defense Secretary.
Part of what makes these expressions continuously fascinating as revolutionary art is their place of origin. In the 1960s the political poster was highly impacted by the pop culture changes coloring the entire era. Traces of psychedelia can even be found in the stunning Cuban revolutionary art posters produced on the island during the period, which inspired essays by figures such as Susan Sontag. Sontag would write in her essay on Cuban posters, “posters and public notices address the person not as an individual, but as an unidentified member of the body politic.” The posters and graffiti of the May 68 revolt were unique in forming the aesthetic of a proto-socialist revolution taking place in Western Europe, not in the Third World. Revolution as an event had been largely relegated to names like China, Vietnam, Cuba and Africa, but in Paris there was a sudden reclaiming of history by the French youth and workers. Daniel Singer, in the best book on the event, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, proposes that if one took Marxism seriously in the 1960s, then the Paris events made total sense. For Marx had always theorized that socialist revolution would take place in advanced, industrialized societies before spreading to the less-developed corners of the globe.
But instead of diverting into political theory, let us celebrate the more primal energy of what the May 68 rebels were attempting in conquering the walls of the city with art and spontaneous expressions. The graffiti which graced Parisian corners in that intense summer surely stands among the most beautiful ever scribed. As riots ensued and red flags unfurled, graffiti became a spontaneous and energetic form of immediate expression. It is in the graffiti that we find the most clear links to modes of thought first championed by the Surrealists and The Situationists. Language and poetry become weapons in their hands. Rimbaud was quoted, as well as Bakunin (“The passion of destruction is a creative joy”). The surrealist director Luis Bunuel wrote in his memoirs about being stunned at his old age to see the young students issuing expressions such as “All Power to the Imagination” in their graffiti, which Bunuel immediately associated with the old Surrealist slogans of the 1920s. Indeed, Surrealist leader Andre Breton was quoted amongst the walls of rebellious streets (“Imagination is not a gift, it must be conquered”). One of the most enduring slogans of May 68 contains an appropriately dreamy tone, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”
Other graffiti featured similar poetic, yet visceral expressions such as “society is a carnivorous flower” or “The tears of philistines are the nectar of the gods.” Others wished to show a clear divide between the younger socialists and their ancestors in statements like “Stalinists, your children are with us!” or “Please leave the Communist Party as clean on leaving it as you would like to find it on entering.”
The graffiti is quite an experience to research and simply read. These expressions are a window into the revolt but also into the inner consciousness of the authors. One imagines some of the writings to be akin to those personal, at times lonely expressions we find today on Facebook and other social media. One May 68 graffiti reads:
“Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases.
My father before me fought for wage increases.
Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen.
Yet my whole life has been a drag.
Don’t negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them.”
Stunning to read expressions from a time we consider so much more “fun” or creative than our own overly-consumerist era where nearly everything is commodified, yet so many of these statements speak to us now. “We want structures that serve people, not people serving structures” would have been appropriate for the 2016 elections. “Desiring reality is great! Realizing your desires is even better!” Such graffiti would be absolutely at home among our wayward students, sweating to find placement in this fast-paced society after obtaining the degrees expected of them. “A thought that stagnates rots,” warned another expression.
To understand these passions one must understand the political context that breeds such art. In 1968 Charles De Gaulle remained head of state, and for the young of the time he represented the old generation, venerated for its resistance during World War II but by the 60s ossified into capitalist rigidity. One key difference with the world of today is that these students and artists were questioning the world as a generation along political and philosophical terms alien to us in a post-Cold War environment (or maybe not). The art of May 68 is both tinged with the anarcho-communist modes of thought popular with students, while still expressing universal feelings anyone at any time can relate to. Today radical struggles are defined by social questions about identity and one’s individual role in society.
In a sense we have begun probing even deeper than the rebels of the 60s because movements such as #MeToo, the Women’s March and similar movements are based on how we literally relate to each other as humans. How we treat each other, how we respect our autonomy and value our worth as people have become urgent issues. The newer slogans and art forms are defined by our cyber era, its digital identity (hashtags) and the power of our devices to capture and record every moment of our lives. The art of today’s revolts can be found in a video clip or selfie. We now inhabit a world where the poster takes a back seat to the digital image, which can move and frame a moment as it happened. Yet the tactic of conquering the walls with art will endure as long as civilization draws breath. This century has seen artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairy continue the tradition of capturing a political idea in an image, large or small, plastered on a wall or spread online.
The revolution of May 68 would eventually subdued. The Situationists would splinter, many of the student leaders would be consumed by the system they rebelled against and become bureaucrats once their days of study were over. The French Communist Party, following old Stalinist lines, did all it could to keep the May 68 upheaval from truly crossing the line of no return. For the world, the year would descend into darker impulses and abuses of power. In the United States, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated; in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union would invade Czechoslovakia and crush that country’s own attempt at a more open form of socialism. What endured are the images and slogans dangerous in their poetry, inspiring in their daring. In this sense, May 68 is a testament to that very lasting power of art itself. Visions rooted in authenticity will speak long after the tear gas has receded and the illusion of normality returns.
A selection of posters made by The Atelier Populaire during the infernal summer of ’68.
Paris, May, 1968: The Student Revolt.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.