Graphic Uprising

Mary Patten 
Revolution as an Eternal Dream: The Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective
(Half Letter Press, 2011)

In this brief but penetrating account, Mary Patten, a long-time artist, activist, and teacher, reflects on her involvement in the rise and fall of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective (M.B.G.C.), an all-women’s poster, printmaking, and street art collective active in New York City from the mid-1970s through early 1980s. Named after Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, a founding member of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the M.B.G.C. functioned as the propaganda wing for the May 19th Communist Organization, an all-white group of Marxist-Leninist anti-imperialists that supported third world national liberation struggles in the U.S. and abroad.

Figure A: Free the Republic of New Afrika: The Struggle is for Land, Madame Binh Graphics Collective, NYC, circa 1979 – 1980.

May 19th aligned itself with the “bring the war home” platform of the Weather Underground Organization that emerged in the dissolution of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969. Eschewing all forms of political party building, May 19 members believed that multi-national/racial organizations were inevitably white-dominated and thus reproduced racist hierarchy and patriarchy. In 1981 their doctrine of “war on amerikkka” turned violent when a Brinks truck robbery in Nyack, New York resulted in the death of a guard and two policemen. Like the state-branded “terrorists” of the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany, or the Red Brigades in Italy, the members of May 19 operated at the ideological periphery of the ultra-left.

Just a month before the robbery, four key members of M.B.G.C. were arrested at an anti-apartheid protest at J.F.K. Airport. One of them was indirectly linked to the Brinks truck robbery. In order to avoid implicating themselves in the state’s ensuing witch-hunt, they spent the next two years imprisoned on Rikers Island. As Patten observes, “We had now become political prisoners, formerly the idealized subjects of so much of our artwork.” The members of M.B.G.C. tenaciously maintained their collective art practice while in prison, making everything from portraits of fellow inmates to propaganda for their legal defense. By 1983 it was over. The collective never formally dissolved, it “just withered away.”

Revolution as an Eternal Dream traces M.B.G.C.’s ideological and aesthetic influences to various sources—Paris 1968, the women’s liberation movement, the Black Panthers, Chinese peasant paintings. But it was the Cuban Revolution, and in particular the idea of the revolutionary guerrilla as the trigger for a broader mass movement, that had the most profound impact on M.B.G.C.’s art and politics. Several of M.B.G.C.’s posters that are reproduced in the book borrow the graphical elements, compositions, and color palettes of Cuban posters from the 1960s and 1970s. In my opinion, the best posters M.B.G.C. produced are the ones that incorporate images and elements from other sources. Orwell was right, “All art is propaganda,” but “not all propaganda is art.”

One of the least derivative and most graphically compelling posters is “The Struggle is for Land” (see Figure A). It depicts the Republic of New Afrika, a social movement, influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X, to which the members of May 19 had pledged solidarity. The primary goal of the Republic of New Afrika was the creation of an independent African-American-majority nation located in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—a pretty lofty goal, even for those heady times.

What separates this book from other memoirs of militant days gone by is its focus on M.B.G.C.’s artistic practices and the relationship between visual representation, social agency, and politics. Although Patten’s account is of a small and deeply self-marginalized group, many of her reflections will resonate with social movement artists today. Patten would likely agree that there is a productive tension between art and politics; that, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “The conflict between art and politics … cannot and must not be solved.”

But it is the “negative lessons” of the M.B.G.C.—its “exemplary failure”—that Patten most wants to share with her readers. These lessons could be summarized as:

• Self-idealization: there was an over-abundance of revolutionary will and bravado, but little understanding of the actual potential (material conditions) for large-scale social transformation.
• Self-erasure: the idea that power, privilege, and the imperialist system were intrinsically connected to whiteness, therefore the only revolutionary course for white people was to disappear into the masses of the Black Liberation Struggle.

• Absolutism: the belief that an art practice outside, or independent of, an all-consuming and demanding politics was impossible.

• Loss of autonomy: aesthetic decisions were increasingly legislated by the entire collective, creating a form of authoritarianism which led to insipid and lifeless propaganda.

• Self-marginalization: politically, M.B.G.C. became so isolated they were only talking to themselves.

In many ways Revolution as an Eternal Dream is a warning against the dangers of a fully instrumentalized art practice. Patten laments that M.B.G.C.’s “role eventually became that of simple propagandists.” Given these lessons, it seems odd to issue this warning at a time when left artists are so infinitely removed from sectarian politics, constantly in pursuit of increased autonomy, and hyper-vigilant to forms of authoritarianism and vertical power relations. In fact, many of the political artists I know see their own thought and practices as post-ideological. Clearly, one of Patten’s motivations for writing this book was to give the M.B.G.C., whose work has been shunned by the art world as “mere propaganda,” a place alongside the histories of more visible political struggles. This is laudable.
But this begs the question of whether the history of the M.B.G.C. has anything to teach contemporary left artists. The most vital social movement of late, Occupy Wall Street, doesn’t appear to have these kinds of problems. For example, you’d be hard pressed to find anything even remotely sectarian, let alone Marxist-Leninist on the Occuprint website (http://occuprint.org), a collection of posters from the worldwide Occupy movement.

Patten briefly addresses politically motivated art in the present, but it’s not entirely clear to what extent she has assimilated or renounced the Maoist-tinted, Marxist-Leninist politics of her past. She embraces art interventions that are “friendlier,” like the mud stencil murals of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which, unlike spray paint, can be easily washed away, “allowing more time for dialogue and persuasion with people thinking of enlisting.” Such an effort, like other politically motivated art today, “insists on complicating representational fictions.” The emphatically in-your-face forms of the past have given way to “an aesthetic of duration, stillness, and slowing-down” that “prod us to get beyond actuarial notions of effectiveness, to embrace a surrealist and imaginative politics—one that is unafraid of ambivalence, indeterminacy, and doubt.”

Revolution as an Eternal Dream makes an important contribution to an ongoing conversation between left artists. Bringing it to fruition was a labor of love that involved many artists and cultural workers across the U.S. It was published by Half Letter Press, an imprint of the collaborative art group Temporary Services, the preface was written by Lucy Lippard, and the afterword by Greg Sholette. For Patten, the “tiny ‘art world left’ seems to provide the only nexus of spaces, ideas, and projects that can invigorate possibility, point to unmet needs, and sustain hope.” If revolution is an eternal dream, as the Zapatista-inspired title suggests, maybe waking up won’t help us. Dream on tiny art world left!

Contributor

Eric Triantafillou

ERIC TRIANTAFILLOU is a Chicago-based artist and writer.

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