Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness

The sensational trial of the Chicago Seven, which lasted almost a year from 1969 to 1970, became a focal point for campaigns against American involvement in the Vietnam War. The seven defendants were charged with conspiracy to incite violence and riots relating to the countercultural protests that took place outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention from 26 to 29 August.

For five days and nights, anti-war groups united to stage a series of demonstrations, rallies and marches declaiming President Johnson’s policies in Vietnam. In response police used tear gas and batons to deter the campaigners. In the aftermath of these confrontations politicians and judges were divided as to whether protesters or police were primarily to blame for the violence.

During a colourful trial, the seven protesters accused of spearheading the dissent used the courtroom to mock the United States government and the prejudiced legal system. Ultimately all defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, but five of the group were sentenced to five years each imprisonment for inciting the riots.

In 1971 prominent anti-war artists campaigned against the convictions with the publication of a portfolio of 12 lithographs and screenprints under the title Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness. Contributors included Alexander Calder, Leon Golub, Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenberg, Frank Stella and Peter Saul. Eventually in November 1972 the imprisoned members of the Chicago Seven were released after an appeal found evidence of cultural and racial bias throughout the trial.

Images: Top – Romare Howard Bearden, Mother and Child; Bottom – Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, They Will Torture You, My Friend. From Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness, 1971. Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago.

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