The art of protest

For artists, art is both an expression and a source of inspiration, exploration and communication. For art lovers (and the two are of course not mutually exclusive) art is a rich well of beauty, ingenuity and creativity. Yet it also has another role to play – that of introducing viewers to a particular issue, saying something about it and attempting to persuade them of a way of thinking or conclusion.

The main thing here is that the work is intended not only to educate and inform but also to convince. It is, in effect, a way of publicly standing against a trend or a problem, and showing others your point of view so strongly that you hope that they cannot help but be convinced. It is a form of protest.

Art has played this role for many years, and perhaps the most famous example in the last hundred years or so is Picasso’s Guernica – the painting that he showed as the Spanish display at the 1937 World Fair, in Paris. Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish government to create a piece for the International Exposition, but he was the one who chose the theme.

It was during the Spanish Civil War, and Picasso had been horrified and moved by the news coming from Spain as the brutal fighting continued. He created Guernica, an unforgettable protest against the cruelty and suffering of war which not only brought awareness of the facts of the civil war to countries around the world but also continued to influence public and private thinking long after the Spanish Civil War had ended. A tapestry of the painting now hangs on the wall of the United Nations building in NYC.

Art has had an important role to play in recent years too. During the ‘Arab Spring,’ one of the ways people found to show their support for change and their rejection of their current government was through street art. In Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, street artists took risks and planned carefully to place their art where they thought it could reach and influence those who saw it.

In Russia, Voina, a group of protest artists have become so well-known that they were awarded a state prize for contemporary art – ironically, given that much of their work is concerned with challenging aspects of the state. In Saudi Arabia, where there are as yet no art schools, it was recently reported that a nonprofit organization has been founded to support Middle Eastern artists and recently opened an exhibition in Jeddah which contains art that deals with some of the challenges facing the Saudi state and its citizens. In the western world, contemporary artists have turned to pieces dealing with the economic and political challenges of the current time.

The Saudi artists are an example of the gentler kind of protest art – they aim not to shock but to persuade, gently, and this is something that characterizes much art in the Western world as well. While a strong message certainly can have its benefits, there is also a value in pieces which do not alarm or upset but instead encourage people to think, and perhaps offer non-frightening next steps. In some contexts this gentler form of art can be safer, too.

The risk of protest art is one that was exemplified in 2011 by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. International fame was not enough to prevent the Chinese government from sending the artist, who often used his art and his internet presence to advocate for free speech and human rights, to prison for what turned out to be a total of 81 days. Before that, in 2009, the artist needed brain surgery following a beating by the police.

Ai Weiwei is an example of the dangers of using the platform of art to protest. Yet there are other, less dramatic risks as well. The controversy over the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery showed that art which has been designed to raise contentious problems or themes continues to be a source of friction and debate in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Perhaps the potential restrictions come with advantages as well, though. In seeking to get through to people in the way that will work best, artists have to be realistic and honest about their message and their audience. They then have to employ their talents to create something that will speak to their viewers, or as many of them as possible. As Aya Alireza, the assistant curator of the Saudi exhibition, put it, “The reason I find Saudi art particularly inspiring is because the restrictions the artists face are what actually lights the fuel under their creativity, forcing them to think more deeply and to be more subtle in their work.”

In the end, artists must suit their message, and its form, to their audience, breaking down established modes of thought through their work, but doing so in a way that will resonate with those it is intended to influence.

Have you ever created or experienced art that had been used as a form of protest? Let us know in the comments!


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