Times Celebrates: A Vietnam Protest Lives Again as Art

The Times helps repurpose anti-Vietnam War agitprop for Iraq in "Giving New Life To Protests Of Yore."

Randy Kennedy used his Saturday front-page Arts section story to hand out publicity for a piece of left-wing agitprop staged on the Mall in D.C. ("http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/28/arts/design/28mall.html " target="_self">Giving http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/28/arts/design/28mall.html ">New Life To Protests Of Yore"). The text box read: "Antiwar words from 42 years ago, reconsidered as art."

Basically, an actor reenacted a Vietnam war protest speech made on the Mall by Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1965.

"It's not an unfamiliar tableau these days: people gathered on a grassy expanse of the National Mall here, listening to someone deliver an impassioned antiwar speech with phrases like 'aggressive, activist foreign policy,' 'the war we are creating,' 'vigorous governmental efforts to control information' and 'distorted or downright dishonest documents.' At some point, the crowd breaks into applause and a young woman yells out, 'That's right!'

"She shouts this, however, just after the speaker behind the lectern refers to men with last names like Johnson, Rusk and Bundy and to the destinies of the Vietnamese people. And at its high point, the crowd numbers only about 30 people, many of them involved in videotaping, recording and photographing the event as flags snap majestically in the wind around the Washington Monument.

"In other words, if you had wandered into this spectacle on Thursday evening, you would have found yourself not exactly in the midst of an actual protest but somewhere slightly removed, in the disorienting territory where art meets political engagement.

"The firebrand orator was Max Bunzel, a 23-year-old actor from New York, juggling the role between movie auditions - for a fee, although he said that the speech, originally delivered by Paul Potter, the president of Students for a Democratic Society, during the 1965 march on Washington, genuinely moved and affected him. Most of the college-age spectators gathered there in a clutch were fully aware they were witnessing art, but by the end they also seemed not to be simply playing along but to be genuinely engaged by Mr. Potter's arguments."

Organized by professor Mark Tribe (son of semi-famous liberal Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe). "Mark Tribe, an artist and assistant professor of modern culture and media studies at Brown University, has organized a series of such re-enactments at sites where important speeches of the New Left originally took place, and he says his intention was precisely to create such a strange cultural and political straddle. The goal was to use the speeches not just as historical ready-mades or conceptual-art explorations of context, he said, but also maybe as a genuine form of protest, to point out with the help of art how much has changed, yet how much remains the same.

"Or, in Mr. Tribe's view, has grown worse since the era when Mr. Potter urged his listeners, with characteristic 1960s deconstructionist fervor, to 'name the system' that allowed the Vietnam War to happen.

"'Forty years has elapsed,' Mr. Tribe said, 'and the system that Paul Potter talked about has gotten so much more sophisticated. The military-industrial complex or capitalism or whatever you want to call it has globalized and intensified.'"

Kennedy doesn't get into SDS's links to Communist groups and its embrace of Communist dictatorships. But he at least lets one critic make his feelings felt at the end: "Some of the spectators in the crowd on Thursday did not describe their reactions to the re-enactment quite the same way. Russell Mann, who showed up after reading about the event in the newspaper and stood at the edge of the crowd, said he served as a mechanical engineer on an air base near Saigon in 1973 and feels the United States should never have abandoned its fight in Vietnam. 'I'm not on the side of these people,' Mr. Mann said, scowling and gesturing toward Mr. Bunzel. 'I just came to hear what I missed in 1965.'"

Randy Kennedy made the front page back in 2004 with his profile of another left-winger, the Marxist playwright Tony Kushner.