For as long as humanity has been able to create art, it has been used as a tool to share a message. No matter the medium, the arts are how we have shared our stories, how we educate, and how we express ourselves or an idea. Just as society has developed and changed over the millennia, art has evolved also, and it has been used as a tool of protest by giving a voice to a marginalised group or idea, or by challenging the status quo.
The German sociologist Theodor Adorno wrote, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime”, meaning art, by nature, challenges the status quo. Viewed this way, art has political potential as it takes place in a public space and engages with existing ideology.
To define protest art, there’s a risk of entering the conservative trap of asking, “What is art?” While the answer to the latter question may be subjective, it’s fair to say there are commonalities between artworks in general, which can be classified as protest or activist art.
In her 2013 critique Presidential Address: The Art of Activism, art historian Wendy Simonds explains that activist art questions authority and seeks to disrupt the status quo. “Activist artists and scholars seek to call attention to the experiences of those who are marginalised or whose experiences are not typically valued,” she explains. “They want their work to be emotionally evocative and intellectually provocative.”
Throughout the history of social and political movements, art has typically reacted against violence, oppression, marginalisation and inequality. Philosopher and author Elena Martinique says this has always been a great power of the arts, “By addressing socio-political issues and challenging the traditional boundaries and hierarchies imposed by those in power, art can open up the space for the marginalised to be seen and heard and contribute to the social change by producing knowledge and solidarity, or simply raising awareness.”
HISTORY OF DISSENT
Since many variations of protest art can be found across all cultures, it’s difficult to establish when this particular form of expression developed. Dr Uros Cvoro, a researcher at Contemporary Culture, Art and Politics at the University of New South Wales, says there are many examples of artists using their work to protest throughout history, although some key moments do stand out. “There has always been motivators, such as impressionist painters who were critiquing the status quo,” he explains. “But the sense that we understand art and politics today can be traced back to the period of 1968-1970, which was really a defining moment for how we understand political engagement and protesting today.”
As society dealt with the political movements of civil rights, feminism and anti-war protests, art became a tool to share those messages and give a voice to these marginalised causes.
DISCORD IN A GLOBALISED ERA
Despite changes in the social and political landscape since 1970, art remains a tool to challenge hegemony and raise awareness about certain causes. For Dr Cvoro, the past two decades have shown a more profound understanding of how art can be political without being blatant propaganda. He says a lot of this has to do with the works of critical theorist Jacques Rancière and what he called the “regimes of visibility”.
“We live in an age where the media can’t tell us what to think anymore, and that’s true,” says Dr Cvoro. “However, what they can do is tell us what to think about, through focusing on one thing or another.” According to Rancière, in each regime there are rules and codes for what can be made visible or perceptible, and who has the legitimacy to be seen and where. This regulation of visibility distributes power, giving space, time and a voice to certain causes or groups over others.
Modern protest art challenges this regulation, by making the seemingly invisible visible. Unlike earlier periods, these effects are felt worldwide in a post-globalisation era. “What we’re finding is [that] art is a universal language to speak across cultural and historical borders,” says Dr Cvoro. “We live in a world that’s mired in the past and there’s a distinct lack of vision [about] how to go forward and think of a better society. Art is perfectly placed to do this.”
Just as the protest art of the late 1960s and ’70s reflected the social and political causes of that time, so too does the modern protest art. Today, key issues that artists are passionate about include racism, climate change and refugees/migration.
A JUST CAUSE
For Australian artist Miriam Cabello, art is a way of feeling empowered about social issues. “I don’t watch the news most days because what it does is just feed me tragedy and make me feel powerless and angry,” she says. “What the arts can do is stimulate and inspire.”
Cabello is particularly motivated to explore the issue of racism, a topic she describes as being “the core” of her work. It’s also a topic that’s quite personal to the Chilean-born artist. Cabello says that as a young girl with fair skin and red hair, she was immediately accepted by her peers when her family moved from Chile. However, her sister, who had darker features, was not. “Racism showed me how a beautiful little girl of five can be turned into someone that was completely insecure.”
Cabello has since immersed herself in the topic, exploring the ideas of the civil rights movement in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, as well as issues of racism closer to home. In her most recent works, Cabello tackles racism through paintings depicting the “Black Lives Matter” protests. “I wanted to show that history keeps repeating itself, we keep suppressing people’s liberty.”
For artistic theatre director Tim Jones, art has always been about how it connects to society. “Performance and theatre, whether we’re conscious of it or not, are always relevant to the moment,” he says. As director of the Seymour Centre in Sydney, Jones has used theatre to investigate a range of social issues, including the system of government, human interaction with technology, and the Australian justice system.
In his most recent production, 2071, Jones tackled the issue of climate change. He says theatre is a particularly good medium to explore complex matters as modern media becomes more about short grabs and bite-sized bits of information. “Climate change is a complex issue and really demands detailed thinking around it, and that can’t happen in a one-minute screen grab before you get on to the next thing.”
WHY ART WORKS
As these examples show, the arts continue to provide a great medium to share messages about social and political issues. So why are they so effective? “The romantic answer is that art is a unique form of expression that’s able to tap into the human experience,” says Dr Cvoro. “On a more cynical level, we live in a world that’s absolutely saturated with visual information, as we are bombarded by images every day. If there’s one discipline that has centuries of experience working with images and playing around with paradigms, it is art.”
For Cabello, it all comes back to art’s ability to make you feel something. “Art can pierce the barrier that we think we’re not affected in any way,” she says. “As soon as we start feeling uncomfortable, perhaps we can stop living in this insular world and stop pretending. When we stop pretending, we can do something about it.”