Artistic Activism: Art Resistance and Protest
Art world provocateur Ai Weiwei stated, “If anything, art is about morals, about our belief in humanity. Without that, there simply is no art.” Speaking to a long and growing tradition of political and activist based art, powerful commentaries on the way our world operates has helped draw attention to a need for cultural awareness and change. Empowering individuals and communities, activist, or protest art, directly confronts inequality, injustice, and problematic power structures rather than simply representing or describing them. Politically based art serves not only as a barometer of the current climate and attitudes, but a direct means to challenge the status quo affecting change.
Matthew Barney collaboration, Untitled (Trump Clock), 2017. Image Courtesy, Time Out.
In today’s exceptionally contentious world politics, protest art has been employed to mock, question, and denounce Donald Trump’s presidency both in the United States and internationally. In New York City, multimedia artist Matthew Barney created a collaborative installation on the façade of his Long Island City studio. Visible from Manhattan and designed to be intentionally vague, the illuminated clock is counting down the time left in the President’s term. In London, a balloon depicting Trump has an angry, orange baby was flown in protest of his visit to the city as well as in objection to his policies, rhetoric, and history of alleged sexual misconducts. Complete with a cell phone in hand, the balloon challenges Trump’s ability to effectively lead as it references his infamous twitter tantrums.
Matt Bonner, Trump Baby, 2018. Image Courtesy Wikipedia.
While prevalent in today’s Trump Era politics, rebelling against politics and society through the arts is not a new phenomenon. Fueling social movements and creating networks of similar minded individuals, protest art is a traditional means of communication used to arouse emotions, inform and persuade an audience, and at times, used to increase tensions surrounding the issue.
Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1964. Oil on Canvas, 36 x 58 in. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” directly confronts and addresses racism in America. Raising a voice to southern segregation and racism, Rockwell’s painting captures the moment that a young, African-American girl was escorted on her way to elementary school by four US marshals, walking in front of the protesters in 1960 New Orleans. In a powerful image filled with hate, Rockwell appeals to his audience through the perspective of an innocent girl thrust in the middle of a divisive and unjust world.
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero), 1987. Photographic Silkscreen/Vinyl, 109 x 210 in. Image courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.
Known for her work concerning consumerism, feminism, and women identity politics, Barbara Kruger’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” criticizes the gender roles taught at an early age, and the subsequent inequalities that follow. With use of black and white photography, red banners and a single bold font, Kruger mimics the appearance of an advertisement to further critique our consumerist and media driven culture.
A symbol of political protest, Picasso’s “Guernica” depicts the horrors of war while preserving the memory of the Basque town bombed by Nazi’s during the Spanish Civil War. While Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, one German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937. Oil on Canvas, 137.4 x 305.5 in. Image courtesy Wikipedia.
When questioning the role of art today, we must be aware of the illusive borders between art and life, art and media, art and society, and art and activism. Revisiting the history of politically charged artist expression and protest shows that art resistance and protest can work through taking aim at individuals and institutions, gaining justice for the righteous and or disadvantaged, and, at the very least, forcing conversations.