Reliquary, mixed media collage on antique book cover, 17.5 x 11 in
Late Hour Riot, Shepard Fairey
Pay Up or Shut Up, Shepard Fairey
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
exerpt from It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan
It’s a Hard Rain
The lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song (above) are every bit as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in 1963. Today, I got goosebumps reading them. Because the hard rain, people, it’s falling. Now. And maybe, this time, someone’s listening.
I won’t get into politics here, or bore you with my opinion. That’s not what this is about. I’m interested in the role that art can play – or could play, or should play – in all of this. Art, as I always say, is ultimately about some sort of communication.
Usually, when we make art of any kind, we’re trying to make a connection. Dylan didn’t write his songs just for himself; he was trying to provoke change, or at least to get people to think about it. Art has been used as a form of political and social protest for a very long time. If you doubt its effect, you must be one of the few humans on earth who hasn’t seen this:
George Floyd Mural, Minneapolis, MN
photo credit: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/Getty
“It’s one of the most recognizable images to have come out of the protests raging around the world. As the protests proliferated, so did the murals. Portraits of Floyd have appeared on an Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem and on the last remains of a building damaged by air strikes in Idlib, Syria. Murals of Floyd spread as far as the news of his death… These displays of public art have a long historical connection to civil rights movements in the United States and are an organic expression of the politics the latest movement has unleashed—a politics that is insistent, collaborative, and suspicious of institutions of all kinds.”
Some surveys of the history of social protest art begin with the Dada Movement of the early 20th century. But in reality, artists have always used their brushes, pens, bodies, and voices to address social issues. According to author Kurt Vonnegut, artists are often the first to call attention to the need for change:
“I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”
above: The 3rd of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (1814), oil on canvas
right: Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, etching ,
Spanish court painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828) has been called the first ‘modern’ artist because of The Disasters of War , a series of etchings chronicling the horrors of The Napoleanic wars. It’s true that other artists had depicted scenes of war, but those works had always been commissioned by the victors to celebrate and glorify their actions. Goya’s prints were made only to satisfy his own need to record the truth of war’s atrocities.
“…given how long art was commissioned almost solely by ruling elites (monarchs, popes etc), it’s still fair to think of protest art as modern – as something reflecting increased freedom of expression, a societal shift towards democracy, and a broadening out of artistic patrons.” (from Notes From Art History: Power, Protest, Disruption – Sotheby’s)
Art For Change
It’s far beyond the scope of this blog post to survey the history of protest art. (For a good, brief survey, I recommend the Sotheby’s article which is linked in the above quote.) But I do want to show you a few examples that I find compelling, just for context. Disclaimer: I am not an art historian, just a person who, like most people, has my own opinions, likes, and dislikes.
The artists of the Dada Movement were among the first to be known for their activist art. The group formed in 1916 as a reaction against World War I and growing nationalism in Europe. It was comprised of about 30 artists, including Hannah Hoch, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, and Tristan Tzara.
I was fortunate to be in Washington, DC when world-reknowned activist artist Ai Weiwei‘s exhibition, Trace, was there.
Excerpt from Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn “…the monumental installation portrays individuals from around the world whom the artist and various human rights groups consider to be activists, prisoners of conscience, and advocates of free speech. Each of these 176 portraits comprises thousands of plastic LEGO® bricks, assembled by hand and laid out on the floor. The work foregrounds Ai Weiwei’s own experiences of incarceration, interrogation, and surveillance.”
“World-famous grafitti art activist Banksy says this about one of his paintings on the Gaza strip: “A local man came up and said ‘Please – what does this mean?’ I explained I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website – but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.”
I’ve got to admit he’s kind of right about that, you know? I just love his painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat being frisked, with Basquiat represented in his own painting style. I admire Banksy’s ability to make his point with humor.
“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing.”
Martha Rosler is a feminist protest artist you may never have heard of. Her collage/montage series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c. 1967–72) juxtaposes beautiful domestic spaces with images of the Vietnam War. This video is well worth watching, as it shows images from the work while Rosler explains them.
SOS Art 2020: Art for Peace and Justice
Artists are part of the society they live in, and the arts have always been instrumental in the development of social and political change. We are still, and probably always will be, the canaries in the coal mines. It isn’t the only purpose of art, but it is perhaps one of the most important ones.
Stay safe, my friends, and make the art that truly comes from your heart.
SOS (Save Our Souls) ART Cincinnati is a non-profit organization which promotes activism through art in a multitude of ways. Their primary event is the annual SOS Art exhibition, now in its 18th year. This show features creative expressions for peace and justice by Cincinnati artists. The organization also publishes the book, “For a Better World: Book of Poems and Drawings on Peace and Justice by Greater Cincinnati Artists” each year. To learn more about them and the work they do, click the link above.
Though I don’t consider myself a protest artist, it’s something I’ve become more interested in over the past few years. There have been many issues in our country and across our world that have touched me deeply, and I have from time to time felt compelled to comment on them through my work. So I am very proud to be participating again in the SOS Art 2020 exhibit, which is being held online this year due to covid-19 concerns. Please click this link to view this important exhibition.
The End of Innocence, mixed media collage on antique book cover, 13.75 x 9.75 inches