PRINT October 1981


“It’s not a ‘tender love story’ as Time-Life has claimed. It’s a police story where the police can do what they want because they’re dealing with savages. It excuses their brutality at the same time it denies our humanity. Just as in the earlier western ‘Fort Apache’, the police are a thin blue line of civilization in a hostile territory.” (Committee Against Fort Apache—CAFA)

“By showing us as animals, the film provides ideological justification for the neglect of the South Bronx by the rest of society; at the same time it legitimizes the killings of our people by cops and validates slum housing, the closing of hospitals and schools and judicial inequality toward Black and Puerto Rican people. The film’s unstated message is that since we are animals, we deserve what we get.” (CAFA)

“My entire public and private life has been concerned with man’s inhumanity to man.” (David Susskind, the Village Voice, April 7, 1980)

“I have spent my whole life caring about the underprivileged.” (Paul Newman, the Star, May 6, 1980)

“Admittedly the film depicts the fact that there are youth gangs, hookers, junkies, winos, pimps, maniacs, cop-killers living in the Bronx. To say otherwise would distort the truth.” (director Dan Petrie, The New York Post, March 28, 1980)

“These people are getting shit on every day. A little more or less won’t make any difference.” (Paul Newman as Murphy in Fort Apache)

“But the script does not in any way imply that the beleaguered people of the Bronx are animals who deserve what they get.” (Dan Petrie)

“What the fuck is the matter with these animals? Even when you come to help them, they try to kill you.” (Retiring commander Dugan in Fort Apache)

“There is nothing in it that a Puerto Rican could take exception to.” (Paul Newman, the New York Post, March 28, 1980)

“So we let those two get away with murder. Another Puerto Rican is dead. Why worry about it?” (Paul Newman as Murphy in Fort Apache.)

“Hegemony is a ruling class’s (or alliance’s) domination of subordinate classes and groups through the elaboration and penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) into their common sense and everyday practice; it is the systematic (but not necessarily or even usually deliberate) engineering of mass consent to the established order. No hard and fast line can be drawn between the mechanisms of hegemony and the mechanisms of coercion, just as the force of coercion over the dominated both presupposes and reinforces elements of hegemony. In any given society, hegemony and coercion are interwoven.” (Todd Gitlin, describing Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in The Whole World is Watching, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, p.253)


One of the authors of the following article was a member of the Committee Against Fort Apache. In reading this article, it should be recognized that the authors are advocates of their deeply held beliefs. Artforum is printing this article as an opinion of the writers and as a matter of public interest affecting the arts.—Eds.

EARLY IN 1980, ARTICLES BEGAN to appear in the press announcing a new Paul Newman police movie to be shot in the South Bronx. It was about the notorious 41st Precinct—nicknamed “Fort Apache” (after the 1948 John Wayne movie) by the cops, who also saw themselves as a “thin blue line” between civilization and savage territory. (Since then the almost total demolition of this part of the South Bronx has led to the precinct’s new nickname—“The Little House on the Prairie.”) Community activists, forced to contrast the harsh realities of living in the 41st with the media’s persistently sensationalist image of it as a symbol of urban blight and voluntary decay, began almost immediately to organize against the filming. They formed the Committee Against Fort Apache (CAFA), which eventually grew into a citywide coalition of some 100 organizations. The very day in March, 1980, that they first met with the film’s representatives—to be told their fears were unjustified and the movie was neither racist nor destructive, but “a tender love story”—they saw an ad in Variety describing Fort Apache: The Bronx as something quite different (see page 64 center).

Among the members of CAFA were several artists. After all, such films provide an ideal target for analysis and sociocultural activism. CAFA was acting within a history of such protests against racist media going back to the “Greaser” films of the early 1900s and including Girl of the Rio of 1932—so prejudiced that it was the subject of international treaties. In the last few years a number of organizations have been formed to combat racist, sexist, and homophobic films like Cruising, Windows, Dressed to Kill, Charlie Chan, and Fu Manchu, TV shows like Beulah Land, and plays like Lolita. The convergence of art and activism around the issue of media exploitation has roots both in and out of the art world. For a decade now, fine artists have been confronting issues of representation and pictorial “truth” in photography, video, and public performance by analyzing the flow of information to which we are all subject. To name just a few: Leslie Labowitz, Suzanne Lacy, Martha Rosier, Allan Sekula, Jo Spence, Victor Burgin, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, Margia Kramer, Hans Haacke; and, more recently, Vanalyne Green, Doug Kahn, Lyn Hughes, Barbara Margolies, Micki McGee, and Mary Linn Hughes. In the process of developing oppositional strategies, they have arrived at positions that parallel those of academic theoreticians and of grassroots activists beginning to realize how central culture is to social control.

Such artists and activists tend to be around the same age, or at least to have been formed by the ’60s anti-establishment mood; their training grounds were the counterculture and the antiwar, racial liberation, and women’s movements. These artists learned then that all images affect how we see, that how we see affects how we act. Despite a diet of movies and TV, they developed a critical consciousness of what they were being fed, of the connection between real and reel life. Like most people in America they distrust the media’s “realisms,” but unlike most people they are also aware of how shrewdly and subtly manipulated we are (see opposite page for Todd Gitlin’s summary of hegemony).

The people who formed CAFA did not just “pick a cause” as some liberal artists might pick a controversial theme. They saw Fort Apache, like virtually all Hollywood films about Latinos, defining mainstream culture by exploiting for profit yet another distortion of their lives. This movie was to be made in their own community, in an atmosphere of growing frustration, and at a time when the neighborhood was fighting for its life. Opposition to Fort Apache dovetailed with current organizing activities; since 1977, Hispanic and Black activists in New York City have focused on the increased incidents of police brutality in their communities. Municipal neglect, redlining by the banks, arson by landlords, planned shrinkage, and gentrification had also been opposed for years, with little or no positive attention from the press or city officials. Now the community groups saw responsibility for the conditions in the South Bronx being laid yet again on the “savages”—on the street victims of the real villains.

Meanwhile the filmmakers publicly congratulated themselves on bringing money into the community and on hiring nonunion extras. Richie Perez has told us how CAFA leadership was approached by an intermediary saying he knew that the filmmakers would be willing to set up a writers’ workshop in the community. CAFA turned the offer down, but a representative of the mayor’s office, pushing for film industry money, still accused the demonstrators of “extortion” (the Village Voice, April 7, 1981), and rumors continued to circulate in the South Bronx that CAFA was on the film payroll. This sentiment was later echoed by a self-righteous Paul Newman, who said of the demonstrators “In the final analysis, they’re the whores. Maybe they’re looking for a political base or to call attention to themselves in their community” (the Los Angeles Times, February 1, 1981).

Another mysterious incident, widely reported in the press, occurred downtown at the State Supreme Courthouse where attorney William Kunstler was presenting the case for an injunction against making the film. CAFA was outside mounting a support demonstration. About 50 Black and Puerto Rican teenagers from the South Bronx appeared and began a counter demonstration. Soon afterward, the film’s publicist, Bobby Zarem, also press agent for the Governor’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, stepped out of a taxi and the teenagers shouted “there’s the guy with the money!” and began running in Zarem’s direction. He fled, and a wild chase began through the rotunda of the courthouse and back down the steps. Zarem made his escape in a taxi while several police officers held the angry youths back. The students then joined the CAFA demonstration and two of them later signed affidavits that they had been offered payment by the filmmakers to come down and to picket against CAFA. They had been given signs to carry; one of them read “Don’t Mix Our People’s Progress With Communist Political Advancement”—which all too neatly tied in with the image of community groups in the film itself. (An associate of Zarem’s was later reported to say that neither she nor he knew about any money being promised.)

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, don’t understand the community’s rage, or feel that screen portrayals are inconsequential, it might help simply to list several characters from the South Bronx community as portrayed in Fort Apache, in order of appearance:

● Pam Grier as a spaced-out Black whore/homicidal maniac who shoots two cops point blank in the movie’s opening scene.

● Young Puerto Rican and Black street jackals who creep out of abandoned buildings to rob corpses.

● A suicidal Puerto Rican transvestite.

● A knife-wielding Puerto Rican psycho.

● Grier again, slashing the throat of a white pickup with a razor held in her teeth.

● A pregnant Puerto Rican girl who has been wearing a coat indoors all winter to fool her family; when she’s in labor, no one knows what’s wrong and only the white cop can save the day.

● Two Puerto Rican dope pushers who eventually murder the Puerto Rican “heroine”—a nurse who’s also a junkie.

● Grier again, razor in teeth again.

And so it goes . . . there were no positive portrayals of Blacks and Puerto Ricans. “And what are the possible effects of such a simplistic and one-sided vision?” asked Joy Gould Boyum in the Wall Street Journal (February 6, 1981). “Only and sadly, I suspect, the hardening of preconceived notions and reinforcement of prejudice.”


1978: U.S. public spent $2.7 billion on theater admissions. Columbia, Paramount, 20th Century–Fox, United Artists, Universal, Warner Productions control the film industry worldwide: 27 films earned more than $10 million in 1978; these companies produced and distributed 25 of them. The top 10–12 films produced annually garner 50–70% of all film admissions in the U.S. These six companies always produce these films.

“That bunch of revolutionaries up there. The only thing they shoot is beaver” (cop in film). Ed Asner’s Connolly, who does everything by the rules, represents civilization—rationality, law and order, the status quo. He sees the killing of the two cops that begins the film as a political act, so his first decision is to go for the Left—the People’s Party—the only (fictional) community group named in the film: “They’re Disco Revolutionaries. They got federal money to open a storefront on Fox Street. And they make a lot of hate-cop noises. They preach armed revolt but they spend most of their time ballin’ white chicks from Scarsdale.” (cop in film)

When the young men from the People’s Party are arrested, their alibi is: “We were at a nuclear teach-in all day that day at Sarah Lawrence, man.” Thus the party is identified with white upper-middle-class college girls; the revolution is disparaged as the harmless pastime of women and children—as sex, not politics. Federal money is being “wasted” on such groups, so federal funds should be cut and the power restored to the states.

Connolly’s law and order fails. Murphy’s “liberalism” fails. The Left fails. Politicians are corrupt and fail: “It’s the neighborhood. It’s the world. It’s this. It’s that . . .” (cop in film). What’s left? More power to the police—valiant holdouts against barbarism with a law of their own: Street Justice. Hopelessness. Fascism.

(“No hard and fast line can be drawn between the mechanisms of hegemony and the mechanisms of coercion”—Gitlin.)

“Watch. The neighborhood’ll be full of stars with all these TV cameras around.” “Yeah. They’ll be blowing each own away just on the news . . . Fires. You’ll see a lot of fires.They look good on the tube.” “You ’re felling me, man. Cop killers are a media event.” (cops in film)

“‘It is not racist picture. It is tough on Puerto Ricans,blacks and the neighborhood, but the two villains are Irish cops who throw a Puerti Rican off a roof.’ [Newman] said that film was realistic, that the character could not be ‘Puerto Rican doctors and bankers’ because the police dealt with crime in the streets and the figures in the movie are involved in that” (the New York Times, April 8, 1981).

“Would you agree that there are inhuman creatures in the South Bronx?(Tom Appleby, TV host, Springfield, Mass.) ”Yeah. The redlining banks the runaway arsonist landlords who sucked the South Bronx dry and burned it down.(One report states that between 1970 and 1975 there were 68,456 fires in the Bronx.Most of these were the South Bronx burning.) That’s the reality."(CAFA)

Jimmy Carter came to Charlotte street in the summer of 1979 and made his promises. Ronnie Reagan came in the summer of 1980.But once in power he made an all-out attack on the economic base of the social programs of the last 20 years. Part of this attack was the destruction of the CETA program which provide 300,000 jobs, many of them for inner-city youth. The loss of these jobs deprives young people not only of employment and training but also of hope.It adds to the inner city’s burden of keeping calm during the long hot summer.


A MEDIA THAT BREEDS NATIONAL fascination with an apparently random or psychotic violence, while ignoring its systematic class roots, has deadly effects on American life. For example, the Taxi Driver/Jodie Foster connection in the Reagan assassination attempt; or an item in the New York Post (June 2, 1981) describing how a young mother, two days after seeing The Exorcist on CBS, cut her daughter’s heart out “because she believed the girl was possessed by a demon.” Or the fact that Bill Wilkinson, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, “‘couldn’t even get on TV programs like the Today show and the Tomorrow show before he started predicting that there’s going to be a race war soon. Now he’s doing national television shows all the time’” (as reported by Dean Calbreath, “Kovering the Klan,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April, 1981).

Racism and misogyny also exist in the high art world, usually taking relatively subtle forms through exclusion or ambiguity. In the last two years they have escalated to a new violence. For instance, we have seen a racist slur used as an exhibition title and a beautifully executed Photorealist canvas of a work-clothed man murdering a middle-class woman. (All of which recalls an earlier photography book of “murdered” nudes accompanied by a Do-It-Yourself kit.) Such works, whatever their pretenses, don’t analyze the role of violence but perpetuate and even reinforce it in the name of Art—where anything goes. The self-inflicted violence of early ’70s body art has given way to artists attacking the bodies of others—specifically those of women and racial minorities. (A California “artist” has done a “performance” about having sex with a dead woman.) These artists are reflecting an alienated and disenfranchised worldview, taking their cues from the reactionary mood of the circles that patronize them. A similarly deluded motive led Paul Newman and producer David Susskind to glorify images of decay and violence in the name of altruistic “realism,” and to proclaim their own good intentions in making a film like Fort Apache: The Bronx.

Culture in the U.S., where social control is largely maintained through the control of information, is on a sliding scale of form-and-content half-lives that range from the dominant mass and high cultures, through numerous ethnic and racial cultures of differing class origins, to counter and oppositional cultures. Left, liberal, conservative, and far right ideologies vie for attention and control of the various elements. The artist-as-social-advocate tries to transpose, juxtapose, and superimpose these half-lives and to develop a whole or synthesizing art form. For instance, covering the struggle around Fort Apache: The Bronx in this magazine is a way to show the interfaces between oppressed peoples (the Puerto Ricans and Blacks represented by CAFA) and ruling-class control of mass culture (the film industry) and high culture (Artforum).

The relationship of current activist art to mass culture is not that of previous art movements, which have mined pop culture for subject or style. Dada, for instance, incorporated unchanged fragments from advertisements and other “found” material to gain humor and harshness. Pop Art elevated images from mass culture to high culture (elevated in scale and medium, as well as in status). Punk and New Wave often imitate the style and uprooted content of the sleazier fringes of the mass media. These processes remain, for the most part, unaffected by criticism or commentary, reinforcing the profitable exchange between mass and high culture—between culture as commodity for the many and culture as commodity for the few.

Today’s activist artists are not interested in “raising low culture to high fashion” (camp) nor in “bringing high culture down to the masses” (charity). There is more to American culture than the homogenous coverup of class conflicts that prevails today, for all the talk of pluralism and new waves, good and bad taste. These artists are trying to restore a heterogeneous viewpoint that recognizes and builds from the contradictions of its multiple base. Ideally, such a cross-culture would be part of our lives through participation and exchange, and could hardly be so easily controlled as most of the arts are now. Culture made in the heart of a social movement takes a different course from that made in the self-reflective aura of studio production. The first phase of an activist art occurs in collaboration with the people whose cause gives it reason to exist. This is the phase the art world finds hard to see as “art” because it is different from the propaganda by which we are surrounded (which is not called propaganda at all simply because it does surround us).

The stage was set for the development of an activist art in the ’60s, when fine artists looking to their own backyards began to evolve new vehicles for increased participation in the general culture. First Pop and Minimal artists rejected the “hand-of-the-artist syndrome,” the personal touch and genius, the craft and relationism perhaps unfairly associated then with Europe. They sent their art out to be “fabricated” (executed by industrial workers) and some called themselves “artworkers” in a gesture of identification with the working class. They made forms that were generated by systems in an effort to reject the pretentiousness associated with artistic “inspiration.” Yet both Pop and Minimal artists, perhaps unwittingly, continued to propagate the brand-name “single image” which was at the core of the New York School they were reacting against.

The next wave of artists (sometimes the same people) responded with the “multiple image” which, like television, speeded everything up and emphasized process over end-product. This was the so-called TV generation coming of age, bringing with it an often uncritical gluttony for information. Most art students in the ’60s learned about art from “audio visuals” or reproductions of New York art, so that printed pictures often seemed more authentic than the real thing. The seamless flow of television, with its blurring of first-and secondhand experience, promoted the homogenization of American culture. The loss of regional accents and local news programming on radio and TV was paralleled by the fast and frozen food franchises replacing the corner diner and homecooking. Communal influence was replaced by someone else’s unverifiably “universal” fantasies. The gold of ethnic distinctions was tossed into the melting pot to produce one “happy,” sometimes multicolored, Father-Knows-Best alloy—less durable, more interchangeable with everything else.

High art’s embrace of the styles and methods of the media also paralleled a major transition in the U.S. economic base, when the manufacture of communications technology began to supplant heavy industry. This shift was immediately reflected in a rapid increase in consumption of these new technologies and a deluge of new “necessities” for Good Living. The media industry’s values and products flooded the art world as they did every distant farmhouse, bringing with them an insatiable hunger for merchandise, as disinformation became indistinguishable from fact or entertainment, paving the way for today’s “docudramas.”

Some artists rebelled. “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting,” wrote Douglas Huebler in 1969. “ I do not wish to add any more ” (in the catalogue of “January 5–31, 1969”, organized by Seth Siegelaub). But the conceptualists’ “dematerialization” strategy also played into the hands of the art-world branch of homogenizers who swiftly coopted just the right number (a “limited edition”) of snap-shots, Xerox sheets, empty rooms, and systems analyses. With little effort these too were transformed into decor for the steel-and-stone, black-leather-and-bulletproof-glass environments of the corporate world. Book art, video, performance, and conceptualism all constituted a brave but finally unsuccessful attempt to open up new and more democratic options. These initial steps failed because of an idealized, politically naive view of the needs of the much sought-after “broader audience.” New forms lacking new and more communicative content were not enough.

Yet despite the ease with which high culture’s official avant-garde was commodified, the art world did not go unaffected by the sense of great energy and possibilities for genuine progressive change that flourished in the political unrest of the late ’60s. A whole nation was questioning its institutions, and artists too began to scrutinize the structures within which their art was made, seen, and used. The Artworkers’ Coalition was founded in early 1969 and spent its brief but raucous life scaring the institutions to an unexpected extent, giving artists a lot of insights into systems previously considered none of their business. Taking cues from the counterculture, artists also founded their own small presses, spaces, magazines, did streetworks, video productions, mail art, and isolated works in newspapers, TV and radio, By the early ’70s, a critical consciousness of the media’s social and exploitative functions was developing in the U.S. Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Herbert Marcuse, John Berger, Hans Magnus Enzenberger, and others were being absorbed into American leftist media theory.

But at the same time that artists were optimistically opening things up, the state began closing it all down. The network media helped create the conditions for repression by hyping a few “media revolutionaries” and isolating leadership from the dissident masses. They covered bombings and senseless violence and conspiracy trials with great gusto. The message was “These are crazies and the war is over anyway, so go home and relax.” The decade of intense struggle had led to a cumulative burnout. In the art world, the energy for change was blocked by withdrawal of economic and social bases for artists who had begun to look critically at their contexts. Some of the better-known dissident artists were accepted into the mainstream, leaving the more obstreperous and unsalable with a weakened support system and fewer options. (The exception was those women artists who were working with the rising momentum of feminism.)

Intensity of involvement was replaced with cooled out cynicism and the objective stare. Analysis and self-criticism gave way to blandly decorative propaganda for the status quo. Photorealism offered pictures right off the TV screen, where white men fantasized all the shiny toys the American dream could drum up for them and the world was free of uppity women, free-speech students and troublesome Blacks. Vestiges of social commentary were weeded out as contact with progressive ideas diminished. This trend toward meaningless formalization was often called “distancing”—a perversion of the Brechtian concept.

The situation was mirrored in the schools. As the professional art world retreated to more conservative forms and messages, the word got through to the colleges. As a result, the more radical and adventurous graduates were effectively denied the teaching option and cut off from influence over the apolitical generation that followed them. The system worked, as the educational sphere hired teachers in response to the commercial sphere. Combined with budget cuts, this retrenching process also shut the door on the development of media alternatives, especially video, within university art programs. With few exceptions, media programs were forced to develop separately from the area of “fine arts,” cutting off art students from more integrated and radical concepts. Those who persisted with “dematerialized” media and socialized content found the art world indifferent at best, and often hostile. High-art video was isolated in the commercial art galleries where it proved hard to see and hard to sell. Some disillusioned young artists left the art world altogether, turning to the grassroots political movements that were regrouping throughout the laidback ’70s.

BY 1980 A GROUP OF artists/activists had emerged from around the periphery of the art world. They were armed with a more coherent political education than the previous generation and now they began to work collectively, in defiance of the “me decade,” to make an art that challenged the increasing attacks on 1960s social legislation.

CAFA organized in an atmosphere of emergency. Fort Apache: The Bronx is one example of the generally reactionary trend in contemporary mass culture. Across the country Puerto Rican and Black people were understandably outraged. We all should be. But our reactions must extend beyond sympathy for the people of the South Bronx to empathy. Racially motivated and murderous attacks on Black and Latino people are the handwriting on the wall for all of us.

CAFA’s organizers were in the unfortunate position of being Puerto Rican and Black, and therefore among the first targets of rightwing attack. But if we think we’re safe in our own little cultural nest, we’re grasping at straws. The ramifications of the current political situation are multiple. Increasing private-sector control over the arts and increased violations of civil rights, increased Ku Klux Klan and Nazi activity, increased murders of people of color by civilians and police are all parts of the same syndrome. The present degree of repression for most of us is obviously not so severe, but there’s no reason to wait till it gets that bad. “The time to resist is now,” said Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation and author of Naming Names, speaking at the “No More Witch Hunts” event on June 19, 1981 (part of a nationwide cultural/political campaign where over 1000 people gathered in New York City alone). He traced the stages of repression from the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ’50s to the illegal Cointelpro in the ’60s to the phase we face now—“the attempt to make legitimate that which was previously illegitimate, to do overground that which the FBI has done underground.”


"Liberals always do it. They say we shouldn’t do anything till we have all the answers. Our suffering is real, it’s now, and we’ve got to act in our interest before it’s too late.

"The corporations buy up everything. What they can’t buy, they destroy.

"Does freedom of speech mean that our right to live free of libelous and racist stereotypes takes a back seat to the corporations’ right to make money on films like Fort Apache?

“The First Amendment is there to protect our right to protest, to boycott. It guarantees our rights as private individuals to battle over our beliefs. This is war. This is the people fighting the corporations.” (Richie Perez, CAFA)

In the summer of 1980, the city closed Sydenham Hospital in Harlem due to lack of funds, and against the protest of thousands. Two weeks earlier 600 new cops were hired, bringing the year’s total recruits to nearly 1,000.

During the past year (1980-81), 27 Black and Latino people have been killed by the New York Police Department. Not one office has been convicted of any wrongdoing.

“Many times we called to set up press conferences to express the community’s opposition to the film. The media’s response has always been the same—‘Is it violent? Community opinions aren’t news. We need action.’ They’re always trying to fit us into the same mold—the violent Latino—street criminal, whore, pimp. They love to focus on violence. That’s how the Ku Klux Klan gets on TV. They threaten a race war and the networks flash it across the nation.” (Richie Perez, CAFA)

The women in Fort Apache are the only members of the community who cross the lines to offer any exchange with the white men/cops. They are mammies, virgins, and whores. (They serve’em, fuck’em, and kill’em.) They heroine nurse is the only vaguely positive female character. She’s Hispanic, but different. She’s pulled herself up, but she can’t escape and she’s not allowed to stay on her pedestal because she’s gotten above herself. Upward mobility is hobnobbing with the enemy. She’s murdered for it. Murphy the cop is disillusioned when he sees the needle tracks on her legs, but he offers to keep her high on confiscated drugs. (Keep’em down where they belong.)

“I make affirmative pictures. This is about a cop who is in love with a Puerto Rican nurse.” (David Susskind, the _Daily News), June 8, 1980)

“Love? You know what a nice Catholic schoolboy means when he says he’s in love? He means he ain’t getting any cho cha.” (Paul Newman as Murphy in Fort Apache)

The First Amendment is precious. However, it has to be constantly checked against reality. Subtle class, racial, and sexual elements have to be considered. Those in power coerce and manipulate to stay there. The media serves their purposes. Stereotyping in a hundred Fort Apaches feeds longstanding prejudices by creating distorted images of Hispanic and Black people.

These stereotypes go home with everyone after the movie, no matter how much we may consciously resist them. We remember pictures long after we forget names and plots. Millions of Americans see people of color only on TV and in films. The Fort Apaches, with their hookers, pimps, junkies, copkillers and just plain dopes, populate that experiential void with vicious myths. In our present political reality, Reagan cuts billions in social services and slams them into the military machine. “Common knowledge” has it (inaccurately) that mostly minorities fill the welfare rolls. The administration’s programs become acceptable as ways to “protect the nation” from the poor: “After all, there’s no hope for them anyway; I saw it in a realistic movie.” Ironically, the man who attempted to assassinate the president was recently quoted as saying “if there were more people like the de Niro character” in Taxi Driver, the world would be a better place.

Access to the media is a major First Amendment issue. Freedom of speech is meaningless unless you have the capacity to be heard. Freedom of expression is not some abstract idea hidden away in the Constitution. It’s a right that’s contended every day.

The images planted in our minds by the media are made by artists. Many of them do not call themselves artists (many of those who do call themselves artists consider these questions irrelevant to their activities). There is, however, a real connection between “fine art” and “just entertainment.” Like it or not, Fort Apache is nevertheless a “work of art”—made by a consciousness industry with other than esthetic and ethical ends in mind. Hegemony is not merely the control of ideas. The ideas are devised to define and defend very material possessions. Physical coercion is the real control behind the ideological maze.

As we should have learned from American history, it’s not the soldiers in Fort Apache who need protection; it’s the Indians who are under siege. Until an understanding of the content of form is part of our art educations, much of what we learn in this field is going to come from grass roots groups like CAFA, defending their rights in hostile territory, not always protected by the First Amendment.


“One of the problems is the intense ratings race between the networks. Sex and violence are used to generate high ratings,” says Arnie Semsky, a senior vice president of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, Inc. (New York Times, June 17, 1981). Mr. Semsky’s “problem” is really a momentary bind; they’ll solve it. His industry has made billions for itself and its advertisers by first fueling then exploiting our appetites for sex and violence. Everything’s been just fine, but . . . uh, oh . . . wait a minute . . . now a Moral Majority group called the Coalition for Better Television has been organizing an intensive pressure campaign that threatens to boycott sponsors of those shows it deems “offensive.” Corporate heads, being bright fellows, have been quick to see the fundamental rightness of the call for media uplift. Nothing like the fear of God to cleanse the land and shape up the flock, especially if he sells more soap in the process. Procter & Gamble, for instance, has already seen the light clearly enough to withdraw sponsorship this year from 50 network programs that did not meet the company’s “program guidelines.” And on June 1, 1981, a five-day-a-week religious soap opera, “Another Life,” debuted on 63 stations around the country. The producer, employing only nonunion actors and staff, is the Continental Broadcasting Network, headed by Reverend Pat Robertson of the “700 Club.” According to them, the difference between “Another Life” and major network soaps is that the new serial will have an underlying religious theme and “present positive answers to moral perplexities.” (New York Times, May 31, 1981).

As we write this, the whole U.S. consciousness industry is entering a period of conflict. A major battle is developing over the control of ideas, the framing of what’s thinkable and sayable, what’s legitimate social behavior. For the same reason Joseph McCarthy went to Hollywood in the ’50s, the New Right is there today. Their attack on television is an attention grabber; fake a left and run to the right. It’s part of a strategy to destroy the legacy of ’60s legislation and establish the Right Agenda. The Right blames TV’s current “moral decay” on liberal excesses. The media can change the ideological climate of the country. With the threat of a Coalition for Better Television boycott, the networks are crying censorship (though negotiating in the back room—not necessarily because they approve of what the New Right is up to, but because they are afraid the corporations, who are cozying up to the boycotters, will use its momentum to increase control over programming content). The “creative liberals” led by Norman Lear, genuinely concerned about censorship, are developing counter-tactics. Meanwhile the Left, aware that attacks on “controversial” and jiggle shows are an early form of witchhunting, is preparing for battle.

No segment of culture will be exempted from the results of this battle, including popular culture, the entire educational system, the religious system, and of course the high-culture system. We in the art world, schooled in isolation and atomization, may have trouble seeing how we are directly affected by events outside our sphere. Yet any analysis of high culture must begin with the location and examination of its function within the entire cultural apparatus. Hans Haacke made this clear in his article “Working Conditions” (in Artforum this past summer) where he outlined increasing corporate control of museum exhibitions and of public broadcasting’s cultural entertainment packaging.

Manipulation of high culture is part of a state/corporate cooling out process designed to reassure the liberal middleground that all is well within the status quo. It appears that Charlton Heston has succeeded with his savior act, and the cuts threatening the National Endowment for the Arts will be less severe than predicted. This will temporarily reassure the art world, but it is hardly cause for celebration. The money may stay, but the climate for funding is changing. Not only is the emphasis on “Quality” and off of “populism” of all kinds, but Quality is going to be interpreted as the Moral Majority’s version of Traditional American Values, rather than the (also rightwing) Greenbergian version.

At the same time, dissent of any kind is already being equated with “the international terrorist conspiracy.” First Amendment rights are being eroded like all other liberal legislation. In 1981 isolated incidents involving style and intramural art politics have given way to: outright censorship (Paulette Nenner’s Crucified Coyote removed from the Central Park Zoo show); and the arrest of artists for making artworks (a Political Art Documentation/Distribution project by Michael Anderson who impaled a dummy corpse on the bayonet of an armory statue and was charged with criminal trespass and unruly conduct), or for trespass (Frank Shifreen, during a dispute with his landlord that temporarily closed the Monumental Show in Brooklyn). (Nenner lost at one hearing on First Amendment rights, but is appealing. Anderson was conditionally discharged; he is pursuing his own rights in civil court. Charges against Shifreen were dropped.) These are warnings it would be as dangerous for artworkers to ignore as Fort Apache would have been dangerous for the Black and Puerto Rican communities to ignore. They are ominously reminiscent of the “desecration of the flag” cases in the late ’60s, when images (or symbols of patriotism) took on a significance denied them in less anxious times. Those who speak loudest and clearest—something artists are supposed to be good at—will be the first to get hit. The art world is a special sanctuary only if you stay within its bounds. Use your art to oppose the status quo and you run the risk of being shown precisely what we’re trying to convey here that artists are people, that the real world is closer than you think, that art and life are in the same place, if not in the same neighborhood. Make a picture that frames reality as seen by a Puerto Rican in the South Bronx, and you may discover a “new realism”—an art quite at variance with the notion that culture provides a “restful interlude from the stringent demands of the real world” (Mitchell Douglas Kahan, quoted in the Haacke article).

We hope it’s obvious by now that we are writing in Artforum about Fort Apache not to make it into a cult film or to enjoy some condescending high analysis of a low organism. Fort Apache is not “just another film”—or some isolated example. It is only one of a million little pieces being fit together into a terrifyingly repressive pattern that reinforces the racism and sexism necessary to maintain the status quo. It rationalizes and reaffirms the reasons why those who are on top are on top, and keeps those down who are down. CAFA and organizations like it emerge to interrupt the flow of misinformation, to replace the absorption of distorted facts and false values with the tools for questioning, analyzing, and resisting them. Art is good at this too, and CAFA as a cultural voice used some of the same provocative strategies employed by artists in another arena. All too many high artists, though, have been deprived by conditioning of the means to use their tools effectively.

Without a certain level of political consciousness, the contradictions and flexibility on which hegemony is based become too confusing to cope with. For instance, an oppositional movement defying the mass media is at the moment largely dependent on these same dominant media to spread the word. CAFA had to utilize the spaces in the infrastructure afforded by the competition between news media for news and audience. Similarly, by writing this for Artforum we are doing what Haacke does, resorting to a kind of homeopathic remedy using part of the dominant high culture to criticize the function of the whole. While this process gives visibility to a movement or a message it can misrepresent it. We are constantly being warned against commercialism from within the art world (yet!) and told to rock the world only inside the gold frame or the bank plaza. Our schools tell us to imagine that there are no limits to our imaginations, but that there are very clear limits to how far our images can go. On the left, we tend to be oversensitive to the dangers of cooptation—used in another way to scare dissidents away from communication with an unconverted audience.

There is also the danger that when “elevated,” the fragments of opposition will float harmlessly on the surface of the dominant culture, defined only by the scriptures of that context—rather than floating intentionally, sticking out like a sore thumb—which is the general role of oppositional culture. Nevertheless, an increasing number of oppositional artists are beginning to recognize that they are not so alienated from the art context as some would like us to think, that there is a constituency for activism inside as well as outside the art world. Criticism of media is a crucial meeting place for art-world and real-world concerns—a conjunction that misfired due to divisive tactics in the early ’70s, but which now seems to be growing up to its potential. The days when films like Fort Apache could not be treated in the high art media are hopefully giving way to the necessity for a vitalizing cross-fertilization, a blurring of those boundaries that benefit the establishment.

The activist art being made today is not the same old “political art” that was docilely contained or ignored or voluntarily isolated in the ’70s. It is moving to incorporate social involvement as well as social concern. It is an advocacy art, taking advantage of the traditional notion of art as passionate and subjective but without swallowing the incommunicative element this is supposed to insure. The subjective advocacy not only of individual but of collective rights is one of the ways progressive culture can avoid the pitfalls of cooled-out “neutrality.”

Certainly it is clear that the development of an activist art is dependent on interactions with broader social movements. The next step in the ideological conflict is the development of our own economic base, of our own networking and distribution systems, to allow for further expansion. We will be doing this in an atmosphere of cutbacks and social unrest and legislation designed explicitly to keep us from expanding. CAFA is, therefore, a model to study carefully, as is the whole national media activist movement (an important part of which is emerging from the Asian community on East and West Coasts). These groups are at the moment better equipped than most fine artists to see what’s going down.

Among the first actions taken by the new Republican-dominated Senate was to set up a Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism (SST); a similar committee is pending in the house. SST is a born-again HUAC, and its leader, Jeremiah Denton is reincarnating McCarthyism. Witchhunting is back. Possible targets include such “terrorists” as Mother Jones magazine, the Institute for Policy Studies, Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Development, and the Mobilization for Survival. Reagan is preparing an Executive Order (which requires no congressional approval) to broaden the FBI’s domestic spying base, at the same time that CIA Director William Casey has decided to cut out agency briefings for reporters, so as to “. . . tighten security and reduce the visibility of the C.I.A.” (New York Times, May 28, 1981). This amounts to shutting down the competition, because as Sean Gervasi, a former consultant to UNESCO, said on a panel in June, “The C.I.A. is the largest news agency in the world today. They define the climate of opinion. By UNESCO estimates in 1978 they were spending almost $300 million a year; they had 1000 men in the field; they had 2000 people in the U.S. manufacturing lies into reality” (reported in the Village Voice, June 17–23, 1981).

So what’s a wolf ticket anyway? On the street it’s a warning. It’s mind and mouth defeating stronger opponents by huffing up and blowing them away. It’s sniffing out the agenda buried beneath the “truths” binding high and mass culture in a symbiotic embrace. It’s the rap we’ve been slipped on our way to a rightwing con. It’s an artwork. It’s not an artwork. It’s the not unconquerable dilemma facing artists and activists alike. It’s winning against the odds. You get sold a wolf ticket, and you get embalmed in the status quo forever. You cash in a wolf ticket, and you get a shot at social change.

Jerry Kearns and Lucy R. Lippard are cultural activists who work with PAD. Kearns is an artist and was a member of CAFA. Lippard is a writer and member of the Heresies Collective. They want to thank CAFA for many of the ideas and strategies included above. These two collaborations—one visual project, one article—were developed separately and then merged for simultaneous publication.

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