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“Racism Still Exists”: The Power of Art

This is a guest post by Laurie and Debbie. Debbie Notkin is a body image activist, a feminist science fiction advocate, and a publishing professional. She is chair of the motherboard of the Tiptree Award and will be one of the two guests of honor at the next WisCon in May 2012. Laurie is a photographer whose photos make up the books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher). Her photographs have been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds. Laurie and Debbie blog together at Body Impolitic, talking about body image, photography, art and related issues. This post originally appeared on Body Impolitic.

Laurie says:

RISE (Racism Still Exists) is an anonymous artist group putting up powerful posters in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. It’s a very long time black neighborhood and is now rapidly gentrifying. I used to visit a good friend of my grandmother’s there years ago. It sounds like I wouldn’t recognize much of it now.

I frequently hear people say that art has no political power, that it is merely aesthetics and/or money. Many countries repress the power of art by punishing the artists. Here the dominant culture disparages art’s power and commoditize it and among other things turn it into a speculative consumer product. Nevertheless, art in our country can be politically powerful and these posters tell it all.



Quotes are from Colorlines. The whole post is really worth reading.

RISE is …also the name of the appropriately titled campaign. At least half a dozen billboard sites have sprung up around the neighborhood since August, with each month dedicated to highlighting racial disparities that impact black people in America. So far, the billboards have touched on topics ranging from the entertainment industry, education, fast food, smoking, policing and black wealth all of the posters and a detailed explanation of them are on Tumbler.


Even local activists who spend their time dedicated to working on racial justice issues can’t figure out who’s behind the billboards. Nonetheless, they’re intrigued by the campaign. This month’s billboard is dedicated to Stop-and-Frisk, the controversial NYPD tactic that’s drawn national criticism for its disproportionate impact on black and Latino men. The billboard’s proactive text reads, “Don’t want to get stopped by the NYPD? Stop being black.” On the heels of New York City’s 2013 mayoral race and the prominent role that critics of Stop-and-Frisk have taken in in city politics, the billboards have become a meaningful part of local discussion.

My own experience with the political power of art, aside from my own work, includes working with some of the Latina political artists and muralists at the Woman’s Building here in San Francisco.

I’ve always admired this iconic poster by Esther Hernandez.


And this poster of revolutionary futurist art is a good example, as are the RISE posters, of the use of words in art for both meaning and aesthetics.


Work is essential, the rifle is near – 1920
With the civil war still raging, there was no time to relax for the inhabitants of Soviet Russia. Another interesting poster, with a stylized, simple look that clearly conveys its message.


All of the RISE posters and clear detailed explanations of them and of RISE are on on the Tumbler web link above. Check them all out!

14 thoughts on “Racism Still Exists”: The Power of Art

  1. I especially like the first poster because I swear that movie made me so mad I almost turned it off and most of the people I know LOVED it! They called it heart-warming even! I’m sorry, but it did not warm my heart. It depressed the shit out of me. I mean, at the end, the white woman gets a brand new exciting job…and a black woman is fired and walking off into the distance. Excuse me if that didn’t give me warm fuzzies!

    1. Right? White Women Syndrome movies generally only serve to make white women feel the warm fuzzies.

    2. I just read a review for a book that described the book as a cross of The Help and Beloved …I just sat back trying to imagine that.

    3. My beef is with all the folks (looking at you, Jezebel) who tried to say Viola Davis playing a maid was a good thing because she’d win an Oscar and it’d open doors for more high-profile roles, because she’s “unknown”. Neither of those things happened (Wikipedia says she was in only film in 2012, in fact), so what now? How many times must black women mammy to make it?

  2. I believe that is a Russian Constructivist poster- Futurism was an Italian movement.
    As a student of art history, I can see the impact -politically and socially- of art. After WWI there was an EXPLOSION of art movements bent on bettering and changing society- Dada, Futurism, de stijl, and on and on. But what I see as the real problem is the commodification of art and art images. Think about the gift shop in an art museum (and of course there are a few exceptions as always) are any of the things for sale there art? or are they full of kitsch and bad reproductions with the sole purpose of separating you from your money?

    1. Think about the gift shop in an art museum (and of course there are a few exceptions as always) are any of the things for sale there art? or are they full of kitsch and bad reproductions with the sole purpose of separating you from your money?

      Right, because everyone who deeply admires a painting in a museum has the $500-odd to plunk down on the best reproductions. Talk about elitism.

    2. But what I see as the real problem is the commodification of art and art images.

      I am genuinely curious as to when, as “a student of art history” you think art was not a commodity. Unless by “commodification” you mean “increasing accessibility of high art to people other than the rich”.

      1. Addendum: “high art” is a deeply silly term that clearly needs to make up its mind as to what it actually wants to mean, but I’m tired and my caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet so I couldn’t be bothered coming up with an alternative. So take “high art” in this context to mean “art people will spend reasonable portions of time thinking of or describing as ‘high’, ‘proper’ ‘actual’ or ‘other legitimating synonym’ “.

  3. Business is a luxury, art is a necessity. Thanks for this great art history post. I’m watching the HBO series Treme on DVD and appreciating the fine and honest depiction of race and gender privilege and amazing music– New Orleans was a man-made disaster on top of a natural disaster.
    Alice Sheldon was a woman ahead of her time- would she have escaped her demons in this century, or just created different demons?

  4. Racism is for the ignorant and inbred. Racist people know they are inferior, so they project that inferiority out onto others. They always pick qualities that a person can’t change to help them decide who the victims will be. That’s because they don’t want to have to earn the respect, or to run the risk their intended victim will earn the respect.

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