The Underground Press: Graphics of Outrage, Protest, and Provocation

Way back in the 20th Century, back before one small, viral meme could have more impact and influence than tons of Times op-eds, newspapers still mattered. But it was also a time of severely limited access to communication outlets. As A.J. Liebling noted: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Yet, during the youth counterculture movement from a half-century ago, presses were a pivotal part of bestowing power to the people. And as a reminder of that bygone era, “What’s the Alternative? Art and Outrage of the 1960s Underground Press” is currently at the University of Connecticut’s Benton Museum of Art.

To Stir Us from Apathy

“What’s the Alternative?” is confrontational, as exemplified by the Chicago Seed‘s 1968 Democratic Convention cover story – a caricature of Mayor Daley and the police as pigs – and The Realist‘s star-and-striped, hammer-and-sickled “Fuck Communism” graphic that greets viewers at the entrance. Fittingly, these works have been curated by one of our country’s fiercest, most challenging political cartoonists, Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth. I’ve discussed Booth’s extensive familiarity with the history of graphic provocation in my Print feature here. For the exhibition, he drew from UConn’s extensive Alternative Press Collection, with recurring themes of war, racism, sexism, homophobia, evil Presidents, and all the other issues that we’re still struggling with 50 years later. Booth hopes the art stirs people out of their apathy and energizes them into activism. In fact, that is his alternative.

Featured Works

Images of political protest and radical resistance – from The East Village OtherThe Great Speckled Bird, and other late-1960s underground papers – provide inspiration and encouragement in these troubled times. However, the quality of art on display is uneven. On the one hand, another Seed cover – Lady Liberty as a skull head, set against a psychedelic split-fountain backdrop – evokes the visual and political spirit of its time. On the other, the best that can be said for an ineptly amateurish “people’s picture” cartoon cover for Boston’s Old Mole is that it vaguely recalls the classic 1911 Industrial Worker illustration, “Pyramid of Capitalist System.” In contrast, Georgia Straight ‘s “Wanted: Jesus” cover holds up well enough in comparison to its 1913 source by The Masses’ Art Young.

The Realist – a newsprint magazine that began publishing a couple of years before the 1960s – is also represented in the show, and appropriately so. Not only was this publication the direct precursor to, and foundation for, the underground press revolution, it was also aggressively courageous and cleverly outrageous throughout the decade. For a sampling of Realist cartoons, see my illustrated Print interview with editor Paul Krassner, here.

So if you’re in the New England area and haven’t yet seen “What’s the Alternative?” be aware that it closes this Sunday, October 14th. And even if you have, you might consider returning for a discussion of “Dangerous Art and Censorship” at the Benton this Friday evening, the 12th, with Mr. Fish as a featured speaker.

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