The following article on Peter Schumann and the 'Bread and Puppet Theater' was copied from

Z magazine

The New Wave of Activist Art 

By Mimi Yahn 

In 1962 Peter Schumann, a German-born sculptor, dancer, and musician living in New York City, opened the doors to the Bread & Puppet Theater, a low-budget, politically progressive theater arts project featuring gigantic, stunningly emotive puppets. These stark ten-to-fifteen-foot puppets were used at marches and rallies to personify the horrors of war. They were also performed in storefronts, churches, and on the streets to tell people about the inhumanity of war, racism, poverty, and a range of other injustices. 


Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theater was more than just big puppets and “educating the masses” through dramatic storytelling, it was a new kind of theater, different from the other people’s political theater of the time, Ronnie Davis’s San Francisco Mime Troupe. It was Davis who first called it guerrilla theater, a term that later changed to street theater as it evolved into the broader concept of incorporating a wide range of artistic disciplines into the concept of using art to convey political ideas. 
Probably the most revolutionary aspect of the Bread & Puppet Theater was its dedication to public accessibility, its fundamental belief that art belonged to the people. It was this concept that planted the seeds for a revolutionary new wave of activist art. 
Art in the service of social change is certainly nothing new. Throughout history political art has generally been created by professional artists who were inspired by events to get involved through their work or to lend their art to the cause. Two notable periods of activist art in the past century were the 1930s and the Civil Rights, anti-war, and free speech movements of the 1950s and 1960s. 
The 1930s produced an exceptional wave of political graphic art, inspired in part by Soviet Realism, in part by the gritty Ashcan School, and in part by the German Bauhaus movement, which believed that art should be mass-marketed. At the same time, the politics of the times—the Depression, the disillusionment with war, the growing socialist movements around the world, and the homegrown uprisings like the Bonus Army March and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union strike—inspired a generation to use their art to spread radical ideas. From novels to newspaper exposés, from Broadway theater to Hollywood movies, progressive writers created a body of work that has endured and even become a staple of American literature. 
Our government actually helped broaden this process by hiring artists by the thousands through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Along with the writers, the actors, playwrights, and artists, the WPA hired photographers to document the lives of the poor, thereby giving birth to a new, activist photojournalism. 
But all of this innovative, dynamic activist art was created by professionals—by those who did art for art’s sake as a living and as a way of life. The activist art of the 1930s was not, for the most part, created by amateurs. 
The political movements of the 1950s and 1960s galvanized people in all the arts—from painters and playwrights to dancers and musicians, from sculptors and filmmakers to poets and photographers. But, once again, the world of activist art adhered to the notion that though art should certainly be created for the people, it was not created by the people. 
In 1962 the Bread & Puppet Theater was not so much a revolution in who creates the art, but a revolution in the purpose, aesthetic, and accessibility of art. The dominant paradigm that guerrilla/street theater sought to overturn was the notion that art was only for a select few—professional “artists” and those who could afford the luxury of appreciating it. As the Bread & Puppet’s “cheap art manifesto” proclaimed, “Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you. Art has to be cheap and available to everybody.” 
Because of this notion that art belongs to the people, Schumann revived traditions of folk arts that were either dead or dying: pageantry, puppetry, and broad-stroke allegorical storytelling. As a result, his new/old theater style wasn’t meant to be polished, it wasn’t meant to conform to a rigid aesthetic. Guerrilla/street theater was as grassroots, down and dirty, funky, and undisciplined as any art could be. It showed the world that art was relevant to people’s lives. 
Meanwhile, the 1960s devolved into the 1970s, the decade that ground up art and reprocessed it for mass commercial consumption. A key component of that commercialization was the notion that art could only be produced by professional, paid artists. Even singing was handed over to the “professionals” and their commercial sponsors. 
Through all that commercialization and reconstruction of elitist doctrine, guerrilla/street theater continued to spread in urban neighborhood community groups, in rural caravan-type AIDS awareness campaigns, as tools in teaching women how to escape domestic violence or showing workers how to organize and win. Like the traveling theater and circus troupes of the past, these grassroots, amateur street theater productions have become a staple of community organizing, education campaigns, and public health initiatives throughout the world. The participants in this revolution have overcome the fear of art, they’ve discovered that art is fluid, art is alive, art is meant to cross-breed, hybridize, and mutate into greater art. 
The revolution of guerrilla/street theater has influenced progressive movements across the globe and has resulted in a democratization of art that is exciting and potentially liberating. The list of individuals, groups and campaigns participating in the new wave of activist art is growing nearly as long as the list of activists themselves. I’m elated to see huge numbers of satirical, witty, and truly comic posters and billboards. Admittedly, our current Administration pretty much writes its own material—however, a sense of humor is essential to survival and a movement of people who come up with phrases like “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” and “A Village In Texas is Missing Their Idiot” is not only surviving, but is also thriving and using critical thinking skills. 
Obviously, a good many of those creating activist art are, in fact, artists, but this new wave of activist art has allowed artists to thrive and create far beyond the confines of the old, rigid paradigm and far beyond the mind-numbing commerciality of today’s marketplace. One example of how activism inspired art was the mobile work created by a group of artists for the February 2003 peace demonstration in New York City. It consisted of a giant replica of Picasso’s stunning anti-war mural, “Guernica,” which the artists recreated as separate sections to be held up like signs. Periodically on the march, they’d come together to hold the sections in their original form, thereby turning a work of art with a powerful anti-war message into an even more powerful performance piece. 
Such collaborative “street theater” pieces are becoming more and more common, particularly among non-artists. The massive procession of coffins at the 2004 Democratic Convention in New York; the December 2002 Oakland, California display of coffins mourning Iraqi children; the elaborate, gigantic peace doves with moving wings; the individuals who made activist art with duct tape on their clothes and faces; the sidewalk theater pieces of Lady Liberty chained and gagged by Uncle Sam or Uncle Sam trying to wash the blood from the flag—these are just a tiny fraction of the activist art being created and displayed by non-artists in recent years. 
The new wave of activist art doesn’t just include visual and street theater art. Over the last decade, thanks in great part to the anarchist bloc, music and dance have become an integral part of every demonstration. The raucous drumming of the anarchists’ Bucket Brigades provide communal, danceable music while the Radical Cheerleaders lead the crowd in dance steps and subversive chants. 
Many activists who also play all kinds of instrument have taken to bringing them to demonstrations because, invariably, they’ll find other musicians and form impromptu bands or hook up with an existing band. At the larger demonstrations in DC or New York, if you get tired of marching alongside the Bucket Brigade, just hang back till the marching jazz band comes along or wait a while longer for the samba players and in between you’ll likely find a group of Raging Grannies leading the crowd in the “Granny Iko-Iko” or “This Land Is Your Land.” 
The Raging Grannies are an excellent example of how the democratization of art has brought about a transformation on both the political and the personal levels. Though the group was started nearly 20 years ago in Canada by a group of women who used their age and gender to get past guards into a military installation and begin singing satirical songs from the illegal side of the fence, it wasn’t until five years ago that momentum really began building and Raging Granny “chapters” popped up all over the map. Though the majority of them had no past experience as singers or songwriters, the combining of art with activism has emboldened them to get up and sing in front of strangers and sit down in front of recruiting stations. 
In addition to the proliferation of theatrical die-ins, spy-ins, and other political actions, the spirit of street theater has inspired a number of activists to form groups utilizing a single, bold visual statement to symbolize their message. 
In 1988 a group of Palestinian and Israeli women began a weekly vigil to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Dressing only in black and mostly remaining silent, they called themselves Women In Black and held black placards in the shape of a hand with words written in white across the palm: “Stop” or “Stop the Occupation.” The women endured daily harassment and insults—they were called “whores” and “traitors”—but they refused to leave. As word of this vigil spread, other women around the world began their own Women in Black vigils in solidarity. The Women in Black vigil in Berkeley, California has been held without fail every week since 1988. 
In 1991 a group of feminists began a Women in Black vigil in Belgrade’s Republic Square to protest the nationalist aggression fueling the ethnic wars that were tearing Yugoslavia apart. They were also protesting violence against women and male violence in general. Like their sisters in Israel, they endured verbal as well as physical harassment, but refused to stop their silent vigil. 
The Serbian Women in Black extended the purpose of the group to stand in opposition to war and aggression everywhere and in opposition to violence perpetrated by men against women. Today, there are Women in Black chapters in dozens of countries, many of them in active war zones. While some continue the silent vigils, others conduct marches through busy areas, beating drums and using masks and giant puppets. 
In 2002 another group of women seized on the use of color as a piece of memorable street theater: CODEPINK. Led by long-time activists Medea Benjamin, Diane Wilson, and Starhawk, the selection of the color pink was a deliberate snub at the Bush regime’s heavy-handed fearmongering campaign. It’s the antidote to the color-coded terror alert system and it’s an image that’s intentionally satirical, celebratory, and subversive. 
Like all great street theater, CODEPINK actions are colorful, outrageous, and splashy, and humor is an integral part of their identity. Their recurring motif is the double entendre image of the pink slip—as clothing, banners, and slogans—while one of their standard slogans proclaims, “CODEPINK Women Say Pull Out.” And best of all, it’s always easy to find the CODEPINK bloc at any demonstration. 
The Radical Cheerleaders also use clothing as part of their street theater. Along with the tutus and batons juxtaposed with combat boots and jeans, the Radical Cheerleaders mix dance routines and rhythmic cheers in a theatrical, satiric subversion of women’s traditional role as passive cheerleader. Like the Raging Grannies, the Bucket Brigades, the Women in Black, CODEPINK, the satiric Billionaires for Bush, and all the other individuals coming together to make art while making peace, they don’t have official chapters or formal structures. They come together as autonomous groups to create, rehearse, and create some more, then come together with the rest of the world to display their activist art. 
Perhaps one of the most astonishing activist art phenomenons began in 2002 during the days and months of worldwide protest against Bush’s pending pre-emptive war, when a group of women calling themselves Baring Witness stripped naked and formed the word “Peace” with their bodies on a field in Point Reyes, California. Something about that action took hold and since then, tens of thousands of other people have participated in similar actions across the globe, some nude, some clothed. In Paris, people formed a nude peace sign in front of the Eiffel Tower. 
In New Orleans activists stripped atop the Mississippi River levee and formed the words, “Buck Fush” while in New York City’s Central Park, people lay down in the snow before the Bethesda Fountain to spell the words “No Bush.” In Antarctica at the McMurdo Station the full complement of international scientists formed a peace sign with their clothed bodies and when the U.S. government warned them against making political statements, they went back outside, stripped off their clothes and held up a white banner with an exclamation mark at the end of the censored political statement. 


Since that year, there’ve been hundreds, maybe thousands, of local and global actions involving art and politics, joining artists and non-artists in creating activist art. There was the night of the global readings of the Greek anti-war play, Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. There was the Pax Musicata that joined musicians around the world to come together and play music for peace for one day and night. There’ve been countless Poets for Peace readings and poetry has become as standard at rallies as music. Meanwhile, Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues continues to be performed every year on Valentine’s Day in theaters, college campuses, coffee shops, and countless other venues across the country. 
Locally, artists and non-artists join together in collaborative activist art events, like Pittsburgh’s PeaceBurgh project where families came together at a community center to drum, sing, and decorate large peace dove cut-outs. Pittsburgh university students also organized a Dance-A-Thon to publicize the University of Pittsburgh’s failure to adopt an anti-sweatshop policy. As they danced on a public walkway, they handed out leaflets to passersby and engaged them in dance and conversation. Last year’s 100th anniversary of the radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World, inspired musical events, poetry readings, and art exhibits by workers in cities across the country that hosted the traveling Wobbly Art exhibit. This year’s May Day—the workers’ holiday reinvigorated by immigrants—inspired activist art celebrations from San Francisco to New York. In Pittsburgh the event included poetry, a stand-up comedy routine, and the first workers’ skit to be performed in decades. 
Technology has also played a huge role in spreading the idea that art is created by the people for the people. It has turned the Internet into a massive people’s artspace, a place to post your own political photos, graphics, videos, articles, music, poems, etc. for all the world to see and share. The most extensive and well-known of these sites is the IndyMedia network that accepts articles, photos, videos, and audio recordings from progressives around the globe. 
This new wave of activist art is more than a revolution in art and how we relate to art, it’s a revolution in how we, as activists and human beings, respond to the dominant paradigm that teaches us to be passive viewers of art rather than active creators of art. The more democratized art becomes, the more people understand that art is for us to create, to nourish our humanity, the closer we come to understanding and achieving democracy in our everyday and national existence. 

Mimi Yahn is a writer, long-time activist and a singer/songwriter living in Western Pennsylvania. She is the former editor/publisher of the Feminist Broadcast Quarterly of Oregon. Yahn is also the musical director for the Pittsburgh Raging Grannies and publisher of the online political satire ‘zine, the Swiftian Report. 

(Source:  Z magazine online edition )

© by Z magazin and/or Mimi Yahn

Presented here only as a back copy added to the LINK TO THE ORIGINAL Z-MAG ARTICLE, this is not an integral part of this issue of Art in Society

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