An examination of the social context in which NO!art occurred immediately raises the question whether this kind of art movement could have developed at that time in any other culture. The United States of America is a constrictive and restrictive culture. The puritanical shadow which hangs over it originated with the most rigid religious and social forces coupled with a struggle for survival against overwhelming odds. A harsh and guilt-provoking ethos has been produced. Yet the greatness of the country lies precisely in the fact that it nevertheless permits rebellion to be expressed, within limits.
In this context, a central human problem has been and continues to be the conflict between conformism and rebellion. If we take this as a primary continuum, a great deal of American history of an individual or social order, whether in art or other social institution, begins to make sense as a continuing fluctuation, an oscillation between rebellion and submission. The drive for conformism, for following the rules of the game, and the social support of this kind of submission are characteristic of the American attitude toward the individual.
What happens when the pressures within the community demand conformism and submission? The individual is torn between the need to submit and anger at the submission. The individual usually submits and then demands a price. He submits and is filled with rage, with spite, with anger. He attempts to express his dissatisfaction without jeopardizing his social position, his security or his survival.
Emphasis upon toilet training, cleanliness, orderliness and control are part of the development of each socialized individual. As a consequence of unusual stress in these areas certain psychological problems ensue. Much suppressed rage and impotent wilfulness are involved in whether the parents'will will compel the child to submit or whether the child's will compel the adults to capitulate. A great many long-range attitudes of the adult are formed around toilet training.
Toilet training becomes one of the key character formative experiences in everyone's life. It is in the struggle between the power of the parent, generally the mother, and behind her the father and the social group, and the power of the child, that the coming struggle for social power as it is carried on later in life is fixed. Moral superiority in the parent as well as in the child comes to issue. We see attempts at magical ritualistic efforts on the part of the child to deal with the mother, the source of power. It is the beginning assertion of the power of the powerless; that is, the child begins to develop through spite, through "dirty tricks", through resistance and rebellion, through aggressive action. In the USA, which is a motherland according to anthropologists Geoffrey Gorer and Margaret Mead, the power of authority is not total. Our culture embraces many contradictions. There is respect for individual differences and needs and, at the same time, a demand for conformism. In the USA absolute authority in the family and total submission to it are not general. Rather the growing child seems to receive a double message. On the one hand, we say, "Grow up! Be a rugged individualist! Learn to think for yourself! God helps those who help themselves!" On the other hand, we say, "Obey! Be clean and neat! Follow the rules! Learn to be a good citizen! Learn to be co-operative! Play the game! Don't stick your neck out! Be the man in the grey flannel suit!" Contradictory directives permit the members of the family a certain leeway, the opportunity for an occasional NO! But such contradictions also encourage fadism, uncertainty, and, in the extreme, even neurosis and psychosis, via the double bind.
In such a context we are able somewhat to understand why NO!art developed as an integrated programmatic aesthetic movement in the United States, and more particularly in New York City, between 1959 and 1964, in direct reaction to the McCarthy era, and pointing on the weathermap toward the oncoming youth-cultural revolution. It is generally assumed that the USA is a country with tolerance for differences, with regard for the rugged individualist, for a person's right to think, to feel, to believe, to be different. The citizen need not submit to a preconceived model, if he is willing to take the consequences. Such rights are supposedly guaranteed by the nation's important social documents and institutions. Yet this is one of the myths of the American people. McCarthy and the McCarthy hysteria shocked all into an awakening realization. Perhaps it is only illusion that an individual may submit or rebel, conform and deviate at the same time, that there is room in the USA for an honest difference of opinion, whether political, social, personal, religious or ethnic.
Still another myth clashed with the new reality. It had been believed that the American system of government was one of checks and balances, that the branches of government could prevail upon one another, like a father and a mother, and a grandmother and a grandfather. If one branch of government became irrational another could ameliorate, attenuate its demand for submission. It was during the McCarthy period that the second shock came. The checks and balances did not work. It is possible for a nation like the USA to destroy deviance, individuality.
Perhaps we can gain some insight into what has happened in the twenty years since the McCarthy period, not only in art but also in the fabric of our society, as exemplified by recent movements among youth, the generation gap, new developments in radio, television, art, music and theatre, in men's and women's costumes, and in male-female relations. It is not our purpose to write a detailed cultural history of this period but rather to make clear the point that shortly after the McCarthy phenomenon and in reaction to it, NO!art developed. Anger and rebellion were expressed, as well as resentment for the great anxiety which all Americans suffered during that time. Diarrhea is a frequent symptom, an equivalent of the expression of anxiety. It is not surprising then that the followers of the rebellious trend called their work NO!art or SHIT!art.
We leave it for others to discuss the aesthetic or art historic roots of this movement. It is sufficient for us to emphasize the fact that these artists had an indomitable urge to examine society and to say "NO!" in large letters, in the most basic and symbolic way possible; namely, in shit. In some of their works the observer could see NO written across a painting in what was meant to depict feces. There was, moreover, a SHIT! Show in which the entire exhibition of sculpture was made up of mounds and shapes of pseudo-feces which aroused reactions of repugnance as if the materials used were genuine. This form of art expression is to be understood as an effort to rebel against the tremendous force for conformism and to attack every aspect of society which tends to dehumanize, to deny the different, the individual, the non-submissive, the growth potential of each human being. It sought to provoke and to shock into unpleasant awareness, and so to enlighten on a deeper than conscious level.
It may be of interest to make an index, a classification of some of the themes to be found in the work of the artists who participated in the movement. Let us see with what social institutions they concerned themselves. With what dehumanizing aspects of society did they become preoccupied? What kind of activities did they see as destructive of the individual and without respect for integrity and life? They elected to say NO to advertising, automobiles, dirt, gloom, armaments, murder, fallout, genocide, lack of liberty, hunger, pornography, religion, and exploitation in all forms.
NO!art then is a swing to the other extreme from the McCarthyism that demands absolute submission. The NO!artist says: "NO! We will make rebellion! Shit on conformism!" They shit on art games, estheticisms, but they never wanted to shit on life. Sometimes, it seems, in desperation they even did that. In some ways the shit, the denial, the provocation became the art itself, became the life, became their hope for self-hood, for self-respect, for survival in a world which said, "The individual human being cannot survive except if he gives up his humanity." For them, in the midst of revolution, it was the highest duty to revolt.
Source: Lurie, Boris; Krim, Seymour: NO!art, Cologne 1988