It’s not often that the scattered and sordid lives of artists converge on a single global cause in the name of wholesome benevolence. But in 1985 a disparate cache of celebrity musicians united under the moniker United Support of Artists for Africa (or USA for Africa) in a fundraising campaign to feed the poor. Their musical motto was “We Are the World,” later initiating the “Hands Across America” project, the largest chain, at the time, of hand-holding in human history.
It is difficult to find out how “the children” (always a group in danger of something) in Africa (the entire continent?) benefited from after the Jackson family and forty friends’ feel-good-a-thon. But on this side of the cultural divide, that is, as an American audience, we can well remember this campaign with a bit of schlocky nostalgic sentimentality.
Why do idealism and a positive attitude seem so outdated? When I look at art that is formed out of sincere hope, optimism and brotherhood, I’m reminded of that dusty film that accretes on my fingers after an afternoon of digging around in the bargain bins at the record store. If the decade of USA for Africa’s project feels like a past from which we cannot run far enough away, then the 1960s and 70s is a fossilized antiquity. Although strongly tied to the aspects that make us contemporary citizens, the 1968 “revolution” and the Vietnam War protests seem like a myth from a distant heroic age. I feel disconnected from this recent past because I am constantly seeing it re-issued or recycled in a didactic form, a school lesson in what constitutes the present.
The Peace Tower is a collection of two-foot square panels, essentially protest signs, assembled along a fancy scaffold. Each panel contains an original message by a participating artist regarding the war and the hope for conciliatory efforts. The monument to peace was first constructed in Los Angeles in 1966 as a protest to the Vietnam War. It was re-erected once in New York in 2006 in response to the current war, and now will be on view at the Chicago Cultural Center for four months. Snubbing art-world tradition of delicately-spaced art in a white box gallery, The Peace Tower stylistically emulates a community center-type art show, a public forum, or the community bulletin board.
It’s a new war but the model for protest is the same. By now the organizers of the Peace Tower, including renowned sculptor Mark di Suvero, know that their efforts will not and cannot cause change. The panels and the structure are hand-made in reverse proportion to the industrial war machine grinding lives into the ground “over there.” Apparently the grass roots campaign is still alive, as contributors have been solicited and have responded to create panels for the third incarnation of the Tower here in Chicago. In 1966, the first time the original Peace Tower was collected and erected, it was reported that voluntary guards kept vigil at the monument through several nights to keep mobs from tearing it down. “Back then” protest was actually political. Today, in museums, the re-presentation of protest is like a memory wrapped in a soft piece of linen.
Perhaps the Tower is less a plea to actual peace making efforts and more a monument to the tenacity of organizing artists on a single issue. Three times the organizers pulled art makers onto the same page in the name of expanding and solidifying community. In a time of war, “peace” means a cessation of fighting, or inaction. More than this literal definition, the Peace Tower represents pointed action and movement. It marks a unity that did not exist pre-war.
For its third resurrection in Chicago, war veterans and any sort of local activist or artist have been asked to contribute a panel. The Peace Tower, like the children-holding-hands logo, is coming to symbolize the most basic act of community-based organization. Sticking together is something we learned how to do in kindergarten, and to remember it is to stir sweet memories packed with polite armor.
Published in Newcity (June 2, 2007)