Book Review: Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today

Josh Macphee’s Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today

Marisa Demarco
4 min read
Art ThatÕs With You
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There’s a sense sometimes that "real" art is far away. It hangs in climate-controlled galleries. It’s expensive. It’s created by someone divinely gifted. Real art is timeless in this paradigm, and timeless translates to "not obviously connected to things that happen in your time." It’s left to pop culture to converse with what’s going on in the world today. Or so the outdated thinking goes.

Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today fires missiles in the face of this isolationist system. Globally, artists have taken to printmaking’s stencils and carvings and screens to speak powerfully on issues affecting nations—or neighborhoods.

Yet another advantage of the form is that anyone can do it with comparatively cheap supplies and in small runs. So while real art is suffocating in the armor of timelessness, and pop culture is trying to broadcast banality to everyone at once, the chick two houses down from you can screenprint an image about the issues affecting your block. The means of producing prints are often considered antiquated and limited in a world where mass messages reach millions. But for localized, timely dispatches, what could be better?

Assembled by editor
Josh MacPhee, the book is a collection of prints by more than 200 international printmakers divided into four categories. MacPhee, an artist based in Brooklyn, considers himself an activist and helped found an online political art collective at

Politics, as defined in this collection, isn’t only presidents and war. Instead, the section called "Repression" takes on jails, police, neighborhood reputations, surveillance and colonization. Similarly, the prints categorized under the heading "Existence" look at identity, love, bicycles—daily living that, though not directly political, is affected by politics or has a political impact.

These kinds of prints don’t often congregate in one place, not in a gallery or book. Instead, part of their appeal is often that they sneak into view: Spray paint stenciled on the sidewalk, a linocut poster stapled to a phone pole, a startling screen-printed face among the phone numbers and advertisements for roommates on a public wall. As MacPhee writes, the images stand out, too, because they carry the mark of the handmade. "We rarely see any evidence of the human hand in our visual landscape."

Though the guerilla nature of prints is often part of their charm, the book is based on a series of DIY shows throughout the country that hung in unexpected places. The first happened in the Chicago offices of newsmagazine
In These Times , dedicated to "informing and analyzing movements for social, environmental and economic justice," according to its website. The engine driving the first show was that, if corralled into one room, socially engaged prints could garner an audience—and, therefore, momentum and weight—beyond those lucky enough to stumble upon them in the streets.

Call it art or don’t. Fact is, it’s a lot easier to have several $25 prints in your home than the standard wallet-busting works of art. The industrial age has moved away from the idea that rarity or one-of-a-kind-ness adds value. Analisa can have that beautiful, brutal anti-war print hanging in her bathroom, and so can 70 other people in the area.

Paper Politics catches an evolving movement mid-stride; one that breathes the same air as the rest of us, one that sweats and ages, one that lives in our time. It rejects what the editor calls "modernist conceptions of the individual genius artist, locked in isolation, generating beauty and wonder for everyone else." MacPhee writes that he doesn’t want to live as a singular artist. And in a world of people looking for connections, art’s audience doesn’t want him to, either.
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