A survey of how art and protest intersect, from the 16th century up to the present day
This week, as activists staged demonstrations across the United States to protest the murder of George Floyd, the artist Jammie Holmes flew banners over five of America’s largest cities. Each displayed a phrase from Floyd’s final words, as captured on camera and replayed across the world. Holmes’ artwork made the very sky seem to struggle against the racism and injustice of the world below.
Art and protest have long intersected. In 1517, the Christian reformer Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses — a scorching critique of the Roman Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences — on the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. It was a singular act of dissent. In the months and years that followed, enabled by the ever-proliferating printing presses, Luther’s document circulated around Europe, and fanned one of the most enormous religious, political and cultural shifts in history, the Reformation.
Art and protest have long intersected
It is also a spiritual forebear of contemporary protest art. Luther’s repeatedly reprinted words inaugurate a lineage that includes Emory Douglas’ searing political colleges in copies of The Black Panther newspaper in the 1960s and 1970s, the Silence=Death Project’s unforgettable poster for AIDS group ACT UP, and the many artworks shared and reposted on social media support the Black Lives Matter movement in the past week. As different as these works can appear, they all utilise the technology of their time to spread their message far and wide. In doing so, they mirror the massing of people in a street protest, amplifying their voices in search of a powerful effect.
Protest art has especially flourished since the 1960s: an epoch in which, in many societies, public awareness of social injustice has exponentially increased, allowing for an unprecedented flurry of activist movements. But there are many precedents, even in eras when artists relied on the support of powerful patrons. In his Dance of Death (1523-5) series of minuscule woodcuts, published a few years after Luther’s theses, Hans Holbein depicted greedy kings and haughty priests being ushered to their graves by a skeletal reaper. In 19th century Britain, political cartoons became hugely popular. A particularly ingenious instance from 1820, by artist George Cruikshank and the writer William Hone, assumed the form of a banknote illustrated with hanged men. It stood against the alarming number of executions resulting from fake banknotes.
Here as elsewhere, the boundaries between protest art and satire — which mocked those in power but did not necessarily call for change — can be difficult to untangle. And protest art itself is nebulous, encompassing work in hugely diverse array of mediums and aesthetics. One thing which has characterised much protest art is its directness. Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War (1810-20), a sequence of 82 prints decrying the ravages of conflict, is unsparing in its horror. One is left in no doubt as to its message. The same could be said of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s rage-filled 1937 memorial to the victims of an aerial bombardment.
Contemporary protest art often shares this clarity. Keith Haring’s 1989 poster Ignorance = Fear, created for ACT UP, gains much of its power from its simplicity. Haring used primary colours and easy-to-understand mottos. His appealing, cartoon-style human figures, posed to resemble the Three Wise Monkeys of Japanese folklore, serve to engage those who might be put off by a more sombre image while excoriating those who ignored the plight of AIDS sufferers. And Haring used a recognisable symbols — the pink triangle, a badge of Nazi prejudice re-appropriated as a sign of solidarity by LGBT activists — to serve as a beacon for those familiar with it to rally around. This tendency to play with familiar slogans and symbols is another hallmark of protest art. Mexico-based African-American artist Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity (1969), for example, is a carved Mahagony sculpture of the Black Power movement’s clenched fist logo.
The late 20th century’s superabundance of advertising has provided a particular ample ground for subversive reuse of pre-existing material. Founded in 1985 to battle the white male dominance of the American art world, the Guerrilla Girls collective parodied this mass media with striking effect. ‘Do women,’ reads one work in the style of a magazine advertisement, ‘have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’, above an image of a reclining nude collaged with the head of a gorilla. By imitating a then-common advertising formation, the Guerrillas both mocked commercial advertisements and borrowed their impact.
The post-war era also saw an enormous expansion in the sort of activities that fall under the rubric of art. One of these new-fangled disciplines, performance art, is particularly ripe with political potential. Is not protest, after all, a type of performance, a coded sequence of actions? In one 1968 event the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, now famous for her innocuous dotted rooms and sculptures of pumpkins, staged a naked American flag burning ceremony on the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the Vietnam War. Such actions have punctuated the decades since. The immediate impact of performance art, as well as its potential for extremity, has made it a popular and persistent form of those protesting repressive regimes. In 1989, Chinese artist Sheng Qi chopped off his own finger during the Tiananmen Square massacre; some 14 years later, Pyotr Pavelensky nailed his own scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square as a protest against the Russian political establishment.
Concurrently to the rise of performance art, some other practitioners were moving in a very different direction: the research project as protest piece. The pioneering German artist Hans Haacke’s seminal work Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System (1971) consisted of photographs, maps, charts and texts documenting the fraudulent activities of the eponymous company. It was pulled from Haacke’s Guggenheim exhibition six weeks before opening by the museum’s director. Over a hundred artists subsequently protested this decision by refusing to exhibit their own works at the museum. Such refusals have since become one of the art world’s most powerful weapons of protest against unjust institutions: the recently deceased Christo, for instance, cancelled his years-in-the-planning Colorado project in 2017, as an act of defiance against the election of Donald Trump.
Just as the act of protesting brings people together, shared cause can also unify constellations of artists with very different projects. In the 1960s and 70s Betye Saar and Faith Ringgold were both members of the Black Arts Movement, a loose group that conceived itself in parallel to the wider Black Power movement. The New York-based Ringgold’s depicted racial and gender violence with an unstinting eye in works like Die (1967) from her American People series. Concurrently, in California, Saar’s work took for the form of assemblages of objects depicting racial stereotypes, which she gathered together in frames and boxes.
Most recently, protests have themselves become a subject of art. In his The Battle of Orgreave (2001), British artist Jeremy Deller even restaged and filmed an entire 1984 miner’s strike, immortalising a protest in the way historical paintings once immortalised military operations. Others have folded stories of protest more obliquely into their own works. Since 2011, the Chicago artist-activist Theaster Gates has integrated decommissioned fire hoses into his sculptures, reclaiming a weapon turned on protestors by the police. Fellow African-American artist Mark Bradford — whose work has been inspired by the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles — uses hoses to compress layers of paper onto vast canvases, creating luminous pieces that resemble abstract paintings and carry their own history of oppression.
Calm, considered and often confined to museums, these works might seem poles apart from the plain, potent directness of Holmes’ banners and Haring’s posters. But they share a belief that art can form an active role in shaping political views — and by doing so, can help change the world for the better.