Lesson: Skin Fruit: Propaganda of the Deed

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grades)
  • Subject Area: History, Contemporary Art, Art History, Literature, Sociology, Film, Current Events


Written by Shauna Skalitzky

“I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things” —Emma Goldman

Social issues such as integration, the right to vote, and the safety of factory workers may not exist today without activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Malcolm X, or Emma Goldman. While many, like Martin Luther King, Jr., acted through nonviolent protests—sit-ins, boycotts, walks—others felt that the only way to be heard was through violent action. Emma Goldman, a human rights activist in the early twentieth century, defended her role in the attempted assassination of “America’s most hated man,” the Pennsylvania steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, by stating that direct action through violent means is just, as long as the result outweighs the means. This idea of violence, also known as “propaganda of the deed,” is used to inspire others to act out against injustice. In this lesson students will explore two artworks that deal with a specific event in history—the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Through these artworks they will examine this violent side of activism: why people kill, Goldman’s view of violence, and the idea of propaganda of the deed. The lesson culminates in an art project that reflects the discussion.

Time: Two forty-five minute sessions


  • Students will examine and analyze contemporary works of art in relation to a specific moment in history
  • Students will be introduced to sociology, and anarchy
  • Students will elaborate on their discussion through an art project that responds to a current event


Anarchy is a social state in which there is no governing body.

Propaganda of the deed is a concept that promotes violent acts, designed for maximum symbolic impact, in order to rally the masses on an issue and inspire revolution.

Sociology is the study of society and its effects on individuals, including human interactions, religion, law, culture, and class.

Victim of society is a person unfairly harmed, injured, or killed because of his or her position in the community.


Internet access, art-making materials determined by students

Suggested Procedures:

  1. As an in-class assignment, have students research Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Have them write down points of interest to be used in a class discussion. Where was Lee Harvey Oswald from? Was he a part of any groups or organizations? What did he do for a living? What were JFK’s major contributions during his presidency? Where did the assassination take place? Why was JFK there? What did Oswald say/do after he was caught? What theories surround the assassination? How did the public react?
  2. Have students break into groups to discuss their lists. Allow each group to write one or two points of interest on the board, forming a list of “What We Know.” Engage the class on a discussion of Oswald and the assassination based on the list. Why might Oswald have committed murder? Why JFK? What don’t we know?
  3. Introduce Maurizio Cattelan’s Now (2004) and Cady Noland’s Bluewald (1989) to the class. Explain that Now is a life-size sculpture of JFK and Bluewald is taken from a photograph of Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner and friend of the mafia, shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.
  4. Break class into groups of four to five students to analyze each artwork. Hand out copies of both works and a list of the following questions to assist in discussion: What is your initial response to each work? What materials did each artist use? How do the materials inform your interpretation of the work? How does the way the artwork is presented (Now in a dark room and Bluewald as a target with an American flag placed in a hole) influence how you read the work? Both artworks deal with democracy, American ideals, and cause and effect. Both artworks were created more than thirty years after the fact. Why might the artist have chosen this particular event to depict? What are some ideas each artist might be suggesting through their work?
  5. Ask students: What are some justifications people have used to kill others? What conditions produce a murderer? Will these conditions always exist or is there a way to change them? Introduce students to the terms sociology and anarchy. Read anarchist Emma Goldman’s quote: “As an anarchist, I am opposed to violence. But if the people want to do away with assassins, they must do away with the conditions which produce murderers.”[1] What “conditions” might Goldman be referring to? What does it mean to be a victim of society? Looking back on the “What We Know” list, as well as the artworks, how can this quote be interpreted? Is Oswald a victim of society? Why or why not? Goldman believed in propaganda of the deed, meaning the ends justify the means if the result benefits humanity. In looking at Now and Bluewald as propaganda of the deed, discuss whether or not the end justified the means. Why or why not? 
  6. Using the artworks as inspiration, have students create an artwork that responds to a current event that they feel exemplifies propaganda of the deed. Ask students if they would consider their artworks propaganda of the deed. Why or why not?

Extending the Lesson into Film

As a class, watch either Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames (1983), which deals with using direct action against sexism, or Jose Luis Cuerda’s film Butterfly (1999), a film about the effect of the Spanish Civil War on a young boy. After viewing the film, discuss Emma Goldman’s quote: “The accumulated forces in our social and economic life, culminating in an act of violence, are similar to the terrors of the atmosphere, manifested in storm and lightning.”[2] How is Goldman’s view of violence reflected in the movie? How were the main characters victims of their society? How else might they have reacted to project their desires, position, or ideals?

Extending the Lesson into Literature

Read The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide. Define the society and culture present in the novel. What is the main character’s background? Is he a victim of society? Why or why not? What are his ideals? What aspects of society may have induced certain reactions? If this novel were written today, would the outcome be the same? Are there activists like Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton today? Why or why not? Have students think of a current situation that might lend or has lent itself to violent acts of protest. Using that situation, assign students to write or illustrate a proposal for a novel, short story, play, graphic novel, or comic book that depicts an imaginary activist’s reaction to the situation. Have them include what the situation is, a description of the propaganda of the deed, its results, as well as a tentative opening paragraph. For additional information and ideas involving this topic refer to the G:Class lesson plan Emory Douglas: Here and Now: Looking at Contemporary Artists Continuing the Struggle.


  • Provide visual evidence to describe the work?
  • Understand the vocabulary and relate it to the discussion?
  • Synthesize their discussion in a completed artwork?

[1] Emma Goldman, “The Psychology of Political Violence,” Anarchism and Other Essays, <http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman/> (accessed 10 May 2010).

[2] Ibid., “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For,” Anarchism and Other Essays.

Lesson Plan: Skin Fruit: Propaganda of the Deed