by Matthew Israel. University of Texas Press, July 2013. 278 p. ill. ISBN 9780292748309 (pbk.), $29.95; ISBN 9780292745421 (cl.), $60.00.
Reviewed January 2014
Michael Dashkin, Independent Researcher, New York, NY, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kill for Peace: American Artists against the Vietnam War responds to the need for a survey history of politically- engaged art by American artists during the Vietnam War. Author Matthew Israel (art historian and director of the Art Genome Project, an online platform for viewing and collecting contemporary art) seeks to better-understand the strategies of 1960s-era antiwar art and related political activism. Although not a truly comprehensive survey -- it focuses on artists and activities primarily in Southern California and New York, with limited discussion of art and activism in other US cities – it succeeds very well as an overview of the topic.
The author seeks to redress a misperception that political art was of lesser aesthetic value than mainstream work. Israel’s discussion of innovative approaches artists used to persuade and foster debate, such as guerrilla theater, collage, and appropriation of advertising industry techniques is especially insightful. The author investigates in-depth the use of “direct evidence,” evidence directly related to facts in dispute about the conflict, such as photos of war casualties. Discussed, too, is a lesser-known approach the author terms “Extra-Aesthetic actions” (teach-ins, marches, demonstrations, petitions, advertisements, strikes, and the like). These activities often preceded the better-known efforts of making antiwar art works themselves.
The author chose to interweave discussion of the artists and art works with a narrative history of political and military developments. This provides an excellent introduction to the topic for readers who may not be familiar with the history. Because most of the art works and protest activities were in response to specific developments, this is helpful.
Notable is the author’s effort to introduce readers to art works that have fallen from view since the end of the war. Many of these were ephemeral by design, and as a result, were destroyed or disappeared soon after they were made. Other works were collected by foreign museums and are on-view only outside the United States, while others are rarely shown, although held by museums in America.
This is an accessible and informative book on a topic that has been less explored by art historians than it should be, relative to its importance, and that has escaped the attention of much of the art-going public, especially those who were not alive at the time. It would be an excellent text for courses on contemporary art, and the topic is presented in a way that makes it clear to general readers, not only art students or art historians.
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