The Power of Protest Art

During any era rife with tension, private citizens have adopted a myriad of ways to express their displeasure. One of the newest and most quickly-evolving forms of which is protest art.

Protest art has become a popular method of sparking conversations about controversial issues. While people have been using art as a means of expressing dissent throughout history, the idea of “protest art” as a genre is a relatively new one that began in the 20th century, taking root in pieces such as Pablo Picasso’s 1937 work, Guernica, a protest against the violence and fascism that occurred during the Spanish Civil War.

According to art teacher Adrian Loving, protest art has become more “activist-oriented” in recent years. “You have protest art, activist art, and advocacy art,” he explains. “Activist art is a lot of the stuff you see now for the Trump campaign. It is for inciting people to act…to do things like vote or take action. Protest art is direct opposition to something, like the travel ban.” Recent large protests, such as the various Women’s Marches around the world and the demonstrations at airports have featured a mixture of the three types of art.

Artists from all around the world, like Ai Weiwei and Shepard Fairey, have used their artistic talents as a form of protest and activism. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist and activist, uses his art to critique the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights. With his 2013 album, “The Divine Comedy,” he uses influences from pop, heavy metal, and punk to protest against the Chinese political climate. Shepard Fairey, an American contemporary street artist who painted the 2008 presidential campaign posters of Barack Obama, “Hope”, as of Trump’s inauguration produced a new set of three posters depicting Muslim, Latino, and African American women. These images are a part of a political campaign called “We the People,” which describes itself as a “art machine for social change.” In an interview with CNN, Fairey said, “We thought [they] were the three groups that had been maybe criticized by Trump.” Fairey hopes that his images will raise awareness and shed a light onto the negative impact the new president is having on our country.

While Fairey and Weiwei have received international recognition for their work, “very little protest art makes it into the museums,” says ceramics teacher Nick Ryan. “Shepard Fairey is an established name…but the majority of them, they do their art and then they move on, either to another political movement, or they evolve so they’re no longer political and they just make art, and they’re not necessarily recognized for what they did. So it’s kind of a selfless act that they do that.” Loving adds that the nature of the work is to be unrecognized. “I still think protest art is underground and renegade, because it’s functional art….There’s always a danger between artists making things that are collectibles, but they don’t necessarily serve a purpose. So right now, it’s still pretty renegade, and that’s why you don’t know a lot of these artists.”

The abundant supply of recent protest art has been aided such by digital platforms and the internet. “Digital art is now a major part of protest art,” says Ryan. “Before, silkscreening was a very big way of making protest art because you could make quick multiple images. Now, you can do that all on a computer digitally.”

Within the GDS community, artists have taken to creating pieces of protest art. “Kids come in [the art studio] all the time when there’s a protest and then they make signs and then they go out and use them. So they are expressing their sentiments visually and verbally,” says Loving. In the recent identity show, students created pieces that had “political overtones or undertones,” tackling such issues as racial, gender, religious, and sexual identity, all of which have recently been topics of discussion. Loving says that he wants to continue the idea of protest art and introduce it to his curricula next year. “I’m thinking about for the fall, doing a project where we research certain trends or movements that are protest-worthy.” The project would involve students creating a sign that featured an issue they cared about.   

In the upcoming years, as a community we will be faced with trying times and throughout these times it is important to find platforms to express your views. We encourage students to find ways to voice their opinions whether that be through protest art or day to day conversations.

By: Caroline Katzive and Jenna Schulman