Crisis Art

The following article was originally published as the lead essay in American Book Review in 2011; then it appeared in Revolutionary Brain (Guide Dog Books, 2012).

Crisis Art

This machine kills fascists

–Woody Guthrie

On September 5, 1981, the Welsh group that called itself “Women for Life on Earth” arrived on Greenham Common, in Berkshire, England. They had marched from Cardiff, Wales, with the intention of challenging the decision to site 96 US Cruise nuclear missiles on Greenham Common. On arrival they delivered a letter to the Base Commander which said “We fear for the future of all our children and for the future of the living world.”

    When their request for a debate was ignored they set up a “Peace Camp” just outside the fence surrounding the Royal Air Force Greenham Common Airbase. This surprised the authorities and set the tone for an audacious, lengthy protest that was to last 19 years.

    The protesters refused to allow authorities to enter the camp, which became known as the Women’s Peace Camp and gained international recognition with imaginative images such as eggs, spiders webs and children’s toys with which they decorated the chain link fences and contested area. In the end the UK and US withdrew their attempt to site the cruise missiles in Greenham Common.


During the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, a number of Chilean working-class women created complex tapestries depicting the harsh conditions of life and the pain resulting from the disappeared victims of Pinochet’s repression. These tapestries, or arpilleras, get their name from the Spanish word for the burlap backing they used.

    Working quietly and using traditional methods, the women’s arpilleras came to have a wide influence within Chile and internationally. The tapestries preserved the memory of los desaparecidos and the dictatorship’s brutality, as well as the unemployment, food shortages, housing shortages, and other hardships of daily life attributed to Pinochet’s rule. Preserving this collective memory was itself an act of art-as-protest, but creating the arpilleras also empowered the women, many of whom experienced a liberation through their work and became involved in further protests against Pinochet’s regime.


Krzysztof Wodiczko, born in Poland, emigrated to Canada, and currently lives in the US. He is particularly well-known for his guerrilla projections on official buildings purported to embody public values. Guerrilla, because his images were subversive and often projected without official permission. He sought, he explained, to unmask the buildings’ existing rhetoric.

    One of his first projections was a swastika on the façade of the South African embassy in London during Apartheid to implicate the British government and align them with the white Apartheid regime in South Africa. And to implicate the public building itself, which presented itself as an architectural emblem of moral value.

    Later, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Wodiczko created a two-part projection in San Diego and Tijuana addressing the links between illegal immigration into the US and California’s economy, in which migrant labor plays a crucial role.

    One projection is on the façade of a Spanish style building in San Diego’s Balboa Park, called the Museum of Man, which professes to be an anthropologically egalitarian repository of art and artisanry, but which Wodiczko sees as a muted celebration of western colonialism.

    His projected image aligns a pair of white, male, well-groomed hands impatiently clasped, as if waiting for his meal. Above and to the right are two coarse outstretched hands—manacled at the wrists—but holding an ample basket of fruit, and, imprisoned as they are, ready to serve their colonialist master.


Rirkrit Tirivanija is a Thai artist. One of his installations consisted of the following: He bicycled around looking for space: empty warehouse or aircraft hangar, deserted K-Mart, abandoned Rite-Aid, haunted Burger King.

    He rented the space and furnished it with stoves, cooking gas, freezers, fridges, microwaves, counters, bowls, cups, glasses, plastic cutlery, chopsticks, Tupperware, folding tables, chairs.

    He purchased food: noodles, rice, potatoes, bread, soup, salad, tofu, fruit, green tea, bottled water, cocoa, curry spices. Comfort food.

    He engaged the homeless as helpers.

    Food prepared, he invited the homeless helpers along with the lined-up homeless to eat.

    Continued through the day, into the night. Clean up, close for the night. Sleep on the premises.

    Do the same thing for 60 days.

    After 60 days he closed the space, got on his bicycle and looked for another empty warehouse or aircraft hangar, terrorized Rite-Aid, spooked McDonald’s, gutted Gap, bombed-out Home Depot.

    Select the space, rent it.

    Feed the homeless for 60 days.

    Close up, move on, find another space, repeat.


The preceding represents four examples of creating art in times of conflict. In every instance the art is problematic; not esthetic, as such; not even palpable in the instance of Tirivanija feeding the homeless.

    What is the difference between art as it is usually constructed and what might be called crisis art, or cultural activism: the use of cultural means to effect social change or a wider social awareness?

    Art that responds to a crisis is situational, hence created rapidly rather than painstakingly revised and refined.
    Crisis art is directed rather than disinterested; more closely related to art as process than product.
    Crisis art is keenly aware of text and context. Crisis art often works best collaboratively.

    Collaboration contests the auratic view of the artist? “Auratic,” coined by Walter Benjamin, refers to the artificial elevation of the artist to a position above his or her fellows.

    Crisis art is “immoral.”

    Georges Bataille insisted that the strongest art must function as an “immoral subversion of the existing order”; because “morality” is in the possession of the existing order, and as such is never what it professes to be.

    Crisis art is (to quote a still fashionable term coined by the Russian critic Bakhtin), “dialogic”.

    The idea is not that the artist stands above the fray paring his fingernails, bemu-sedly observing his creations. Dialogic articulates the more humbling notion that the artist interacts, even integrates, with the community, on a largely equal basis, each affecting and affected.

    Crisis artists must swallow the poison in order to reconstitute it. Expel it as art.

    The poison, currently, includes our crazily spinning, electronic-obsessed, war-making culture and its profit-mad institutions; along with the rapidly worsening environmental crisis. The image of swallowing the poison and expelling it as art is shamanic.

    But can art actually have any appreciable impact on the lives of humans who are oppressed, disenfranchised, struggling merely to survive? Can art affect cynical politicians and their corporate brethren?

    There are precedents that were successful against great odds: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; anti-slavery writings during the abolitionist period; French writers and artists helping to end the colonial war in Algeria; Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of Stalinism and the Gulags; Act-Up’s culturally activist response to the demonizing of gay men during the AIDS crisis in the 80s and early 90s.

    Do the kinds of strategies and calculations necessary for making and employing crisis art stand in opposition to the notion of the artist as dreamer, as creating from the deepest levels of consciousness?

    Consider Goya, Blake and the French Revolution, the Mexican muralists, Grosz and Heartfield, Brecht, Picasso’s Guernica, B Traven, John Berger, Elsa Morante, Victor Serge, Clarice Lispector . Surely these artists continued to imagine complexly, to—as it were—dream, even as they fought through their art against injustice?

    Might socially activist art also be created for its own sake, its seeming ethical rightness, without calculating its effect?

    If art of a certain strain is committed to process rather than product, it is especially difficult to sum up its final success. Was the art in the aftermath of Hiroshima successful? Was the art that characterized the takeover of Greenham Common successful?

Were the arpilleras made by disenfranchised Chilean women successful?

    Crisis art, dissident art, social activist art (largely synonymous) are perennial; one can’t anticipate when an injustice or string of injustices, will invoke an art to register it.

    But how will this art be appraised 40 years from now when the crisis that evoked it is no longer a factor?

    Paradoxically, art produced rapidly under crisis conditions will sometimes have more lasting power and even esthetic appeal than the painstakingly created seemingly disinterested art that most people identify as quintessential. Crisis art has an energy and focus which more than compensate for its relative lack of refinement.

    In the US there have been historical “moments”—the Quakers, the Abolitionists, and Transcendentalists, the Thirties Marxists, the Sixties counter-culture, Act-Up in the late Eighties and early Nineties—but overall American writers have been contemptuous of socially-activist writing. It doesn’t sell, it is more didactic than “esthetic.” Moreover, why should artists be in a special position to address political crises?

    Writers cultivate consciousness, contemplation, and in many instances learning. They view through a broader lens. If they have a reputation they can find a platform to make themselves heard and express their opinions precisely.

    What good will it do? Wars, oppression, colonialism, profit-mania have been with us since human hegemony? And now authoritarian power is decentered, much less visible. Serious art of any kind has been rendered negligible in the market place, which in the US epitomizes the country’s ethos.

    With effort and intelligence, decentered power modules can be identified, as young dissidents and hackers have located and attempted to disable deliberately elusive nexuses of power and control.

    Human history, however bloody and unjust, has not ceased; and, crucially, the planet we inhabit and have debauched is dying. Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries, with its people crammed into a delta of rivers that empties into the Bay of Bengal, which because of the Antarctic ice melt is behaving like an ocean, flooding ice paddies and entire villages. Animals and plants throughout the globe are becoming extinct rapidly. The sun, lacking sufficient protection from its ozone layer, has become toxic. Lethal bacterial agents set loose from leveled rain forests or industrialized seas migrate into the general population.

    Possibly the hardest factor for concerned younger artists to accept is that there will always be an incommensurateness between their imaginative efforts and the result. The primary obligation is to not avert your eyes; to bear witness.


Interview with Harold Jaffe, Forthcoming in Rampike, September 2013.

Harold Jaffe was recently interviewed by Joe Haske of Rampike Magazine. The following is to be published in September 2013:

Joe Haske:  You refer to the texts in Revolutionary Brain as “essays and quasi-essays.” I’ve read some of these texts previously in various journals where you have referred to them as “docufiction.” Could you describe your take on genre distinctions? Why do you classify these texts as “essays and quasi-essays,” as opposed to fiction? How does genre and the mixing of genre inform the structure and style of the texts in this “essay” collection?

Harold Jaffe:  Official culture is seemingly comprised of multiple discourses: news, sports talk, tech talk, political rhetoric, prayer breakfast talk, health talk, art talk, etc. In fact these are all blandishments, versions of entertainment for profit, intended to further insulate Americans from what remains of problematic real time.

Mimesis does not strictly mean photographing the time and place you inhabit. Nonetheless, we’re all fastened to our dying culture, and some of us at least feel compelled to inscribe it. In Revolutionary Brain I am aping official culture to plunder it. Hence, I interface ostensible genres, so that there is no hard and fast distinction between prose, verse, fiction, non-fiction, theory, everyday bullshitting; and I am montaging these seemingly different genres to tease out their ideological subtexts.

By montage I mean that I pile sometimes incongruous seeming images and tropes one upon the other as, say, Eisenstein does in Battleship Potemkin, or October, to mimic the hugger-mugger information overload in the culture; but like Eisenstein, my intention is dialectical, namely to dramatize the cultural transformation of so-called information and manifold discourse into entertainment for profit.

Readers and reviewers have asked questions about the lengthy porn site list which I title “Revolution Post-Mill.” With the triumph of technology, lists (or catalogs) are among our principal discourses. To verify, just scan any MSN site. The most obscure data are now recoverable, and with all of that condensed “information” the appearance is of substantiality. Of course it is just another version of entertainment-consumerism. You will observe a list on ESPN, such as how many Dominican baseball infielders younger than 26 eat a carne burrito between the seventh inning stretch and the top of the ninth. The list, appearing more than it is, takes 90 seconds, then comes a seven minute commercial break.

Revolutionary Brain is filled with lists and partial lists and catalogs. Note Animals, Weep, Iso, Crisis Art.

But the porn site list, much of which I “treat”, works especially in contrast to the opening “list” of humans on death row in Texas permitted 3 minutes to recite their last words then be executed. Each of these lists is officially prohibited, except that the porn list is prohibited deliberately to be trespassed. With young people sexing (then “sexting”) they are in effect insulated from doing much else, which is what official culture wants, even as it condemns the enormous multi-billion dollar pornography industry.

JH: You begin Revolutionary Brain with one of those lists, “Death in Texas” and conclude with the other, the pornography list, “Revolution Post Mill.” You have frequently explored the concept of eros/thanatos or thanatos/eros in your work, so one might infer that something similar is at play with the placement of these two texts in Revolutionary Brain. By ending with “Revolutionary Post Mill,” an eros of sorts, are you conveying ironic optimism? A sincere optimism? Is our society/culture worth salvaging? What is the revolution you propose through the juxtaposition of the various types of discourse you assemble in Revolutionary Brain?

HJ: The literal ending of the volume is not “Revolution Post-Mill” but the third brief “Things to Do,” this one featuring Joseph Roth’s enunciation” The world worth living in is doomed. The world that will follow deserves no decent inhabitants.”

The contrast between “Death in Texas” and “Revolution Post-Mill” is meant to exemplify the degradation of ethical dissent. Online pornography, like sex-selling commercials, is alleged to be taboo, but is actually there for our delectation. As I write above: With young people having bionic sex they are in effect insulated from doing much else; this is what official culture wants, even as it nominally condemns pornography, which is sponsored in good part by the corporate sector. Like Nazis, sharks, crocodiles, and serial killers, online porn sites are condemned even as they are consumed.

On the other hand, the dissent of the poor is nipped at the bud, with the three minutes the Mexican-American and African-American inmates are given to utter their last words on death row in Texas. What the inmates end up saying is anything but trivial, but naturally they will be unheard. I’ve given them the right to become visible and speak.

The culture-consumption porn sites also function as another venue to smuggle racism and sexism into the public forum, disguised as erotic ecstasies. I’ve “treated” the porn site listings so that they are manically rhythmic, exhibiting a kind of lurid elegance.

I am attempting to represent revolution’s public misrepresentations. With the world perishing from global warming a new and improved institutional ruthlessness has been loosed. We see it in the genocidal wars, one after another, and in the “extraordinary rendition” (torture) camps spread throughout the globe. We see it in the unapologetic avarice and cruelty of “public servants.” We see it in the scapegoating of Muslims. We see it in the militarization of urban space, so that peaceful protesters are pushed far away from their righteous target, then ignored or lied about in the corporate media.

It could be that a somewhat different approach to ethical dissent and revolution are necessary. What the lineaments of this response will be is not yet clear; though the online interventions by Anonymous and other dissident groups that employ advanced technology have made some impact. Anony-mous has devised an up-to-the-nanosecond tactic to expropriate the expropriators, but one imagines that most of the Anonymous infidels are young, even very young, so it is difficult to predict its outcome.

JH: Given the historically significant role of literature in prompting social change, do you believe that contemporary literature will ultimately yield progress in a “culture of ten-year-olds,” as one voice refers to our society in your text, “Animals?” What is the potential of literature for inciting revolution in a time when the masses are primarily influenced by visual effect and digital media? Is art itself in crisis, in danger of extinction, when official culture is trending toward the “practical” in mainstream culture and in our educational system?

HJ: The distinction between serious and frivolous art has been eroded. Read aloud a passage from Yeats then a passage from some contemporary versifier and many Americans will prefer the versifier. A similar erosion has taken place in visual art, music, and film. Art, where it is considered at all, is defined otherwise than it was. “Intellectual” to many people signifies adroitness in technology, with little or nothing to do with art, philosophy, history, language, etc.

Serious art, which has always existed at the margins of American culture, has lost its charge. Disheartening but inevitable given the devolution we are living through. I prefer to think of art-making in the Buddhist sense of “right occupation.” If you are an artist, you create. What happens to your art is almost entirely out of your hands. Social activist art wants at the very least to bear witness. Like secreting a poetic message into a bottle during a tsunami on a used-up planet.

JH: In your essay, “Crisis Art,” someone remarks that “crisis art has an energy and focus which more than compensate for its relative lack of refinement.” Do you agree with this sentiment? Does activism always trump esthetics? If so, to what extent? Your work is certainly layered: philosophically complex, linguistically nuanced and ripe with figurative possibilities, despite the relative accessibility of its diction. The texts in this collection go beyond a mere journalistic approach to your activism, wouldn’t you say?

HJ:. In “Crisis Art” I was anticipating the usual interrogation of socially activist art, namely that it is dependent on a proximate cause, without which it will cease to vibrate. My response is that the vibration may continue even as the proximate cause fades because of the urgency, passion and in certain instances collective energy of the art in question. Think of Act Up’s response to the AIDS crisis in which institutional culture was cruelly and ignorantly demonizing all homosexual men in the mid 80s and early 90s. Act Up and its artistic wing, Gran Fury, fought back with posters, flyers, installations, physical interventions, and art folios such as the remarkable Quilt Project. Fifty years after, this is art-making that will be looked at differently but will still retain its charge to a considerable degree. The same applies to other socially active responses, such as the posters (affiches) created by French students during May’ 68. I have a collection of them which I occasionally display to friends. They were created mostly by youthful amateurs, but the collective urgency and empowered esthetics remain alive and vibrant.

JH: One aspect of your work that proves consistently impressive is your transition between texts. How does one subject lead to another in this book? And can you tell us more about the volume design of Revolutionary Brain and explain the thought process behind the book’s general organization?

HJ: As I mention, I mean to ape culture’s hugger-mugger info excess designed to insulate humans from bleak real time while reducing virtually every datum to yet another profit-particle of the entertainment industry. The texts in Revolutionary Brain are fluid and here and there repetitive so that the reader isn’t always quite sure what s/he is reading or why, except that it is part of the volume.

The six very brief texts I set between the 13 primary texts are sometimes only obliquely related so that the interested reader is compelled to stretch. The epigraph to the volume from Julia Kristeva is “as abject—so the sacred,” and through one stratagem or another I attempt to give voice to the objectified, the vilified, the made-invisible, both in the primary and brief texts. That is, my montages (as I call them) ape culture’s manic blandishments-for-profit but turn it on its head. I write above that my intention is dialectical, namely to dramatize the cultural transformation of endless “information” and reputedly serious discourse into entertainment-consumerism. Elsewhere I’ve written that I swallow the poison to expel it as interrogation, interrogative art.

As I mention re my pornographic “discourse,” there is always in Revolutionary Brain an esthetic component which attempts to structure the chaos, even if the esthetic is deliberately manic or dissonant or, what I like to think of (after GM Hopkins) as a kind of sprung rhythm

My single-sentence paragraphs work similarly. Sometimes they read like prose narrative, other times like interrogation, still other times like a species of verse or drama or cultural theory. The single sentences give me the leverage to veer widely and zap the reader with a counter-official culture discourse. The ideal of course is to shock the reader into recognition, or, if not that, just to shock. Anything to get past the sheepish numbness that characterizes our “global village” at this watershed in planet earth’s history.

And when the indentured creature finally emits its baaa, I want it to be loud and listened to, even heard.

Paris 60 Reissued

My novel Paris 60 has been reissued by the Journal of Experimental Fiction (JEF), with a new cover by artist Norman Conquest.  It’s now available on Amazon and at SPD Books.
cover by Norman Conquest
cover by Norman Conquest
Paris 60 Blurb:
The 60 entries that constitute Paris 60 were recorded during Harold Jaffe’s Spring 2008 Paris visit to greet the translation into French of one of his earlier volumes. Based loosely on Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, 1869, Paris 60 is both factual and fictionalized. Baudelaire was Parisian. Although a frequent visitor, usually for professional reasons, Jaffe is a self-acknowledged outsider, and his texts are written from that position.