Printmaking as Resistance?
By Eric Triantafillou
Grace à Josh MacPhee. His latest book Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today (PM Press), is a treasure trove of prints expressing a wide range of social and political sentiments from do-it-yourself printmakers in the U.S. and abroad. It is also a window through which one can begin to see, from the standpoint of Left artists, some of the problems that arise when attempting to construct radical politics from everyday art practices.
Two things set Paper Politics apart from other collections of political graphics. First, as MacPhee states in the introduction, “Every print in this book was printed by human hands.” Many were also disseminated in public spaces by these same hands. Why is this significant? “We rarely see any evidence of the human hand in our visual landscape, just digitally produced dot patterns and flickering electronic images,” says MacPhee, “handmade prints [have] affective power…they jump out at us because of their failure to seamlessly fall in line with the rest of the environment.”
Second, MacPhee has asked many of the artists in the book why they continue to print by hand and included their answers alongside reproductions of their work. These short texts are illuminating. They offer the reader a glimpse into the desires, motivations, intentions, joys, frustrations, and self-understandings of Left printmakers. But more importantly, perhaps, they outline a conception of oppositional politics from the standpoint of “engaged” cultural producers. Although these texts were written by individuals with differing levels of investment in, and views about, the relationship between art and politics, several express the belief that the process of printing and disseminating by hand constitutes an act of political resistance.
This resistance takes the form of embracing what MacPhee calls “anachronistic” printing methods: e.g., screen, relief, and block printing, lino and woodcut, monotype, intaglio, lithography, etching, engraving, stenciling, and letterpress—all printing technologies that were developed before the 19th century. As relics in the twilight of analog reproducibility, these older methods are seen as running counter to ubiquitous digital technologies and logics of mass communication—billboards, bus ads, television, the internet. While the conceptions of printmaking as resistance vary, they arrive at similar conclusions. For example, Matthew Curran writes, “When I’m cutting out stencils I’m resisting the machine.” Dylan Minor substantiates this claim: “In a world of late capitalist consumption, where mass-produced commodities and highly designed products are naturalized, the creation of hand-made objects becomes an overt act of resistance.” In these and similar statements in the book, resistance is rooted in the idea that the processes of producing and disseminating handmade prints, and the social relations these activities engender, are somehow at odds with capitalist social relations and modes of production.
For many of the artists in Paper Politics, art is politics. “I see my art-making practice as the embodiment of my politics,” writes Dylan Minor. But there are clearly differing ideas about the relationship between art and politics and what constitutes resistance. Dan Wang hints at a conception of resistance that puts some distance between art-making and politics. “In a world in which capital dictates obsolescence,” he writes, “any practical grasp of that which has been shed by the industry of mass communication seems at least contrarian. And, depending on what one prints, of course, contrarianism can very quickly become resistance.” He seems to locate the resistant capacity of hand composition, printing, and dissemination, not in its aesthetic dimension (its form), or even in the different social relations these processes might engender, but in “what one prints” (its content). This suggests an art that is instrumentalized—propaganda—the means-ends dimension of art. This is a conception in which art-making is not the embodiment of politics, but rather, a means to an end, an instrument that is used to reach a particular goal or set of goals.
Whether it is in its form, content, or the tension between them that hand printing and dissemination are understood as resistant, for many of the artists in Paper Politics the horizon of this resistance begins in the field of cultural production. Referring to the money, greed, and materialism of the art world, Sam Sebren writes, “Artists themselves must take responsibility for breaking down this system.” And Dylan Minor refuses “to acquiesce to the dominant modes of contemporary art.” But resistance is not limited to the world of art. For example, Claude Moller says that his prints “act like guerilla PR generating publicity and power for low-income activist groups,” and “use readily available resources, audacity, and improvisation to flip the weight of the system against itself.” The intent here is clearly that the work can have broad implications across diverse social contexts.
In order to better understand some of the internal logics of printmaking as resistance, I think it would help to look at the ways hand printing and dissemination function in relation to three categories: quality, quantity, and accessibility. Think of these as conceptual tools. None of these categories function in isolation of one another—they are all interrelated.
Printmaking as resistance is understood as a qualitatively different activity that uses qualitatively different tools to intervene in the physical world. These activities and tools are used to create new objects and new meanings in order to establish new relationships that are qualitatively different than the relationships and products that result from working with digital processes. The physical qualities of hand composition are seen as being a more direct, less mediated, and thus more authentic expression of lived experience, particularly in their ability to express affective qualities. For example, Sam Kerson writes how the sensitivity of linoleum “takes an impression of our feelings, our emotional state, and our mood.” Elka Kazmierczak describes how the temporal dimension of hand processes can be therapeutic: “The time it takes to carve a meticulous design is my time for self-reflection, meditation, and healing. I enjoy thinking with my hands.” The tactile, visceral, and permanent qualities of hand printing, in which the medium is the message, are opposed to newer, mass-oriented, virtual forms of communication. “Why do I still etch when I could just use the Internet, Twitter, and YouTube?” asks Reynolds, “My rage is inscribed line by obsessive line in a matter that is as lasting as the history it depicts.” And Dylan Minor writes, “Unlike the ‘aura-less’ reproductions that Benjamin described…I turn to the hand-printed image to confront an ever-increasing digitized environment.” These last two statements suggest that the digital processes of mass-produced forms of communication efface the trace of the human touch. It is this trace—the ability of older, analog print media to register the artist’s temperament through direct handwork—that these printmakers inscribe with resistant qualities.
The category of quantity in printmaking as resistance functions in two related ways. First, it is related to the number of prints that are produced, and second, to the work’s intended or potential audience—the number of people the work reaches. Jesse Goldstein explains that because we live in a culture that privileges the “one” (the artist-as-genius) and the “many” (the market), printmaking is the art form that is best suited to the “few” (one’s friends or community). He goes on to say, “Making 30 or 40 or even a hundred prints for an event is a nice way of being part of a shared space. This is production at a human scale.” Dylan Minor echoes this: “Although the print has the potential to be either a reified fine art object or a mass-produced commodity, my own work is printed in small (often unnumbered) runs, creating a body of accessible, yet non-elitist images.” And Brandon Bauer, working against the elitism of the single art piece, experiments with various print media to explore the idea that “the use of multiples in art making is an egalitarian or democratic practice.” Because they rely on hand processes, analog printing methods are limited in their capacity to produce large quantities. These built-in limitations are seen as antithetical to the hegemonic logics of mass state or corporate communication. An advertising agency whose goal is to reach as many people as possible is unlikely to print an etching 500,000 times by hand when they could scan the original and offset print it in less time for less money. Conversely, printing small quantities by hand is understood as resisting art as mass-produced commodity and its logics of mass communication. Printing small quantities by hand is also understood as countering the cult of the lone artist producing a single, unique piece.
Hand-printing processes, small print runs, and local distribution are ostensibly more democratic because they are accessible on multiple levels. As Sam Sebren writes, “It is hands-on, real work. It is affordable to make anywhere, anytime, with few materials. You don’t need an expensive computer, printers, and inks.” And Claude Moller says, “It is a cheap, accessible, and participatory way to compete with corporate and government propaganda.” Most hand printing methods are fairly easy to learn, can be self-taught, and use inexpensive materials that don’t require a lot of space or machinery. For example, you can rub cooking oil on a paper drawing to get it transparent, expose it on a screen using sunlight, wash out the screen in a sink, and print on the floor. Because handmade prints can be fairly cheap to produce, many artists either give them away or sell them for very little. Accessible also means who gets to see them. A lot of the images in Paper Politics are, as Nathan Meltz says, “handmade papers adhered to walls, stencils spray painted on concrete, and flyers stapled to telephone poles.” That is, they’re publicly accessible, both physically and at the level of comprehension, in a way that galleries and gallery art are not. Resistance as printmaking is an attempt to create new conditions under which others can access art. It is also about breaking down the dominant logic of exchange that dictates the division between the producers and consumers of art, while increasing possibilities for expression, communication, and participation.
Concrete Labor vs. Abstract Society
Several artists in Paper Politics express the idea that processes of hand printing and dissemination constitute a potentially liberating form of labor. It is as a qualitatively, quantitatively, and accessibly different form of labor that these processes are understood to be resisting capitalist society. For example, Dylan Minor writes, “Through the creation of the artisanal craft of the relief print, I begin to escape this colonizing space via an act of emancipation.” Jesse Goldstein says, “When you operate at the human scale, other non-commodity logics become possible…instead of speaking to a market, you might choose to speak with/in a community.” And Claude Moller claims that, “With control of production in the hands of creators, the [screen printing and dissemination] process is also very empowering, a good example of unalienated labor.”
Statements like these clearly express a desire to overcome the dominating character of a commodity-producing society. They locate this potential in a transformation of the way value in a capitalist society is socially produced and consumed, and aim to redirect their own labor toward more “human” ends. This is done by opposing the abstract character of capitalist society with concrete counter-principles. When Jesse Goldstein writes that printmaking functions on “the level of community…friends…people you share some parts of your real life with. Not an abstract whole, but a more modest some,” the idea seems to be that the “abstract whole” is being resisted from the standpoint of the concrete “some.” The abstract qualities of capitalist society (digital processes, mediated relations) are opposed by concrete qualities (analog processes, immediate relations), while abstract quantities (the masses, the market) are opposed by concrete quantities (friends, community). The abstract is understood as false, unreal life, whereas the concrete is authentic, “real life.”
One way of understanding this attack on the abstract from the standpoint of the concrete is through the concept of commodity fetishism. First developed by Marx, commodity fetishism refers to forms of thought that remain bound to the forms of appearance of capitalist social relations.  When Dylan Minor writes, “The tactility and expediency of the [handmade] print is paramount to its capacity to circulate within wide audiences, without being contained by capitalist social relations,” we can see how the immediate (unmediated) thingness of hand printing is seen as being that which renders it non-capitalist. Hand printing is seen as a natural, purely material, creative process that is not socially and historically mediated. Because of this, hand printing (concrete labor) is understood as being separate from or outside abstract, artificial capitalist social relations. However, Marx showed how the commodity contains an abstract dimension in the form of objectified social relations. The commodity is both a thing and a form of social mediation. It is the concrete and the abstract dimension, which, in a constant state of tension, constitute the social dynamic of capitalist society. This means that when the artists in Paper Politics champion the concrete and identify capitalist social relations with the abstract alone they are seeking to overcome the existing social order from a standpoint which actually remains intrinsic to that order.
Paper and Politics
We can see how the concrete is understood as a counter-principle to the abstract in the images in Paper Politics. For example, Chris Rubino’s print “Old Ideas Happen in Old Buildings” at first appears to be inverting the logics of printmaking as resistance by locating the source of the problem (“old ideas”) in old forms (the Capitol building). The idea that politics can come from sites and sources other than the federal government is conflated with the idea that thought can be liberated simply by a change in one’s settings—in this case literally one’s concrete settings. Another example is the print “Direct Action” by Molly J. Fair. In it two birds transport a wrench with a piece of string. The wrench is a tool associated with human hands and manual labor. It is a consummate symbol of the concrete. It is used to fix a problem—immediately, spontaneously—free of any mediation that would abstract its value or purpose. Direct Action uses an object of analog labor to symbolize an activity—a politics—that is meant to be qualitatively and quantitatively different than an activity that is mediated and indirect (e.g., electoral, representational politics). These two images also suggest a concretely accessible politics. Whereas the Capitol building might symbolize the abstract inaccessibility of representational politics to all but the anointed (e.g., politicians, corporate lobbyists, etc.), the wrench is an infinitely accessible tool that requires little foreknowledge and can be used by just about anyone. It symbolizes a do-it-yourself politics.
Looking at the art in Paper Politics, it is clear that analog printing techniques are exceptionally good at expressing affective qualities. Reading the artists’ statements, it is also clear that these printmaking techniques and the social relations they ostensibly engender are understood as forms of self-liberation. If an artist chooses to compose and print a small number of pieces by hand, and then give them to friends and neighbors, there is no question that s/he is engaging in relations that are qualitatively, quantitatively and accessibly different than those of the dominant art market and the larger society. There is also no doubt that these do-it-yourself activities allow one to preserve some semblance of immediacy and connectedness in a society that is increasingly mediated and alienating.
Embracing “anachronistic” print media and dissemination while disavowing digital processes and mass dissemination may be a way of saying NO! to market logics. But beyond this negation, it is not entirely clear what effect these acts of disavowal have on capitalist production and social relations. If the concrete dimension is the standpoint from which do-it-yourself printmakers claim to resist capitalist social relations, and, as I have briefly outlined above, that standpoint, contrary to being outside them, is actually an integral part of constituting those relations, then what exactly is being resisted?
While it is difficult to imagine what a political art practice that was able to escape the fetishization of the concrete would look like, or if this is even possible—and while this problem may only be resolvable in theory—at the very least, some attempt could be made to explain, as opposed to simply valorizing, hand composition, printing, and dissemination. If the claims of printmaking as resistance in Paper Politics are to gesture beyond an individual’s feelings—if prints on paper are to express a politics of social liberation—it would help to better understand the limits of these artists’ claims by explaining how do-it-yourself printmaking functions as a form of value-producing labor in capitalist society.