Radical History Revisited: Paris, May 1968

41 years ago this month, revolution (and tear gas) was in the air in Paris, as the streets heaved with riots and protests, in the events that are often just referred to as May/Mai ’68…


Photo: Bruno Barbey/Magnum

Over at the International Institute of Social History (IISH – based in the Netherlands), as well as numerious other places on the web such as the Warwick archive discussed previously, you can view original documents and art from this time, this movement – in particular some of the amazing posters that were produced as part of it and have remained popular with radicals ever since. (The IISH also has material relating to a more significant anniversary coming up – the 2oth anniversary of the events in Tiananmen Square in Beijing [here].)

On the blog of Just Seeds: Visual Resistance Artists’ Cooperative, Josh MacPhee writes about “Street Art and Social Movements.” Josh begins his discussion with posters and other street art from Paris, May 1968. He goes on to look at street art from Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, South Africa during the struggle against apartheid, and Argentina. In his conclusion, he observes:

Street art can be instrumental in the creation of democratic space. As the examples I’ve discussed above have shown, it can make transparent the systems of control in our environment, bringing courage to those being controlled, and fear to those doing the controlling. But I can’t stress enough the importance of the connection to larger social forces. Street art is a dynamic tool which can be wielded for social transformation, but it does not create revolutions alone.

Of course street art linked to social protest didn’t begin in Paris in 1968. The posters of that time drew on a rich tradition that included the posters of the Spanish Civil War (on which I have written at length elsewhere), the photomontage posters of John Heartfield in Germany, and the very rich Russian revolutionary poster work of artists like Gustav Klutsis. But the radical simplicity and frequent wit of the Paris posters have made them a key influence on most of the radical postering that has followed, just as students continued to be inspired by the events of that time.

For more information on May 1968, Wikipedia is a good place to begin. The revolutionary upheaval in Paris was part of a broader, worldwide upheaval during that year. For the 40th anniversary of these events last year, Berkeley’s KPFA community radio station prepared a very good overview of “1968: The Year that Shook the World.”


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