Zinesters, the Insurgent Imagination, and Civil Society
Flourishing throughout the United States is a loosely knit multicultural coalition of academically and non-academically trained artists largely without connection or appreciation in the "fine arts" world. The art of these women and men (many of whom are in their late teens and twenties), is referred to variously as underground art, outlaw art, alternative art, low brow, rat fink art, and American gnarly, among others. This art is an amalgam of images and text from, and/or influenced by, comic books, posters, album covers, graffiti, tagging, thrasher art, tattoo flash, television, the movies, video games, and appropriation from the history of fine art. Iconography from these sources is combined to create two and three-dimensional objects that are chaotic, disturbing, uncomfortable, sensual, complex, loud, confrontive, violent, and an irreverent social critique of everyday life. Gender roles, religion,familial relationships, politics, academic disciplines, the fine arts, class structure, ethnicity, generational differences, economics, and pop culture are among the many issues celebrated, skewered,reconstructed, and illuminated by these artists. These artists present their ideas in traditional forms associated with painting and sculpture, as well as on the bottoms of skate boards,on t-shirts, album covers, quick-copied flyers, on walls, and as tattoos. One primary form produced by this coalition of artists is the "zine."(click here to see a zine timeline)
In mid-July I had the opportunity to attend a zines symposium in Portland, Oregon. Participants at this symposium encouraged a view of zines as non-commercial, non-professional, small circulation magazines. Zines, with a combined estimated readership of 500,000 to 750,000 persons, are available in music stores, pubs, comic book stores, thrasher shops, independent bookstores, body modification shops, political storefronts, alternative galleries, and on the internet (e-zines). Listening to the zinesters at the symposium convinced me that zines are a "do-it-yourself" space for public discussion and the development of public values. Because of their socio-political orientation, zinesters exemplify a type of participation in social critique and engagement necessary to democracy.
Within the mainstream, the work of zinesters may promote dismissal, disgust, disdain, righteous indignation, fear, and loathing. The texts and images of the zinester often threaten mainstream cultural institutions and values. Many will correctly see their work as insurgent and as a consequence subverting what is commonly thought to be good within civil society.
It is important to remember, however; that civil society has as its purpose the facilitation of public discourse free from the power of the state and political parties. Much of the rhetoric surrounding civil society emphasizes mutual support, common purpose, shared history, shared values, and principled behavior. Congruent with the facilitation of civil society is mutual care. However, the zinesters I met in Portland argued that caring about society does not always come in the form of visual and textual niceties. Caring sometimes requires uncomfortable and confrontational strategies. The zinesters I met embody this insurgent imagination within civil society.
Democracy is a standard by which institutions can, and should, be measured. Democracy can be seen as a living critique of centralized power. The insurgency of the zinesters I met demonstrates a type of social responsibility necessary to democratic societies. Artists (substitute zinesters) are, as Cornell West reminded a University of Oregon audience in January 1998, the truth tellers in society. For this reason it is imperative that zinesters be recognized and celebrated for encouraging the dissent necessary to a functioning democracy. I left the Portland symposium convinced that zines are among the most caring acts that are being accomplished on democracy's behalf.
Program in Arts and Administration
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403