Art, Protest, and Politics: Do They Really Go Together?

If you're acquainted with the art world, you're probably aware of a debate that has been raging for years: where does art fall on the spectrum between pleasure and politics? Do we want art to challenge us, do we need to know where our favourite artists' political opinions lay, and do we really want art to reflect and make us question the conflicts, societal and economic issues we see and read about in the news every day? Shouldn't art simply be aesthetic, a pursuit of pure beauty, and a source of escapism from the stresses and turmoils of everyday life? Today, we explore this contentious topic.

Above: Photo Op – Peter Kennard, 2010

The pursuit of pure beauty can be more political than we might think. Artists are citizens; they are human beings, and thus one can argue that they carry some responsibility (akin to politics): that we should improve our lives, enjoy it, and the world we inhabit. This begs the question: can art actually ever be apolitical? 

For example, African American artists have used their platforms to humanize the Black experience and cast uprisings as something not un-American, but inherently American and in line with a longer history of revolt.

Art as Protest

The history of protest art is vast and complex. Art can present features of contemporary life in stark form, highlighting injustices or suggesting trends or developments that warrant resistance. Dadaism, was, arguably, was one of the most famous (and, perhaps, the earliest) movements that, among other things, served as a protest against the barbarism of the First World War. “The beginnings of Dada,” poet Tristan Tzara recalled, “were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.”

As Dada poet Hugo Ball said, “For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”

A brief background: in the 1920s, the Dadaists founded a nightclub called Cabaret Voltaire as a venue for experimental and political performance art. They were one of the first to do something of the sort. They also invented collage as an affordable medium, using it to appropriate from newspapers in reaction to World War I. The Dadaists were divided off into several disciplines: sculptors, designers, performers, and poets. The one thing that united them was that they all felt the need to make unapologetic, reactionary art. Some of the most influential Dadaist include Hannah Höch, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Kurt Schwitters.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

The Dadaists wanted to pontificate on the definition of art: at its very core, the Dadaists were asking a very serious question about the role of art in the modern age. This question became even more pertinent as the reach of Dada art spread – by 1915, Dadaist philosophy and their relentless questioning had been adopted by artists in New York, Paris, and beyond.

While this art movement was undoubtedly a protest, it also managed to be enjoyable, humorous, and interesting. They achieved this through the use of non-traditional art materials, satire, and nonsensical content.

Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic (1919-20)

Documentary photography, too, has served an irreplaceable role in the protest movement. For example, African American Civil Rights documentary photographer Gordon Parks was a prolific photojournalist, filmmaker, writer, and humanitarian. He was a prominent artist during the 1940s-70s. He was best known for documenting civil rights, racial inequality, and poverty. His most impactful political work was likely his images of black poverty taken during the 1940s. His photographs were formally composed, and haunting, giving glimpses into an impoverished community that was lacking the attention and highlight it needed to enforce real change.

The great power of photo-journalism is that it serves as a tool to create empathy in its viewer. A simple photograph of one person reminds onlookers of their own compassion and can stir about feelings of outrage, solidarity, and a need for change like few other things can. When it comes to protests, photographs are fundamental to their political success: without their archiving, the protest process may remain largely impotent against success.

Josef Koudelka Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops near the Radio headquarters. Prague, Czech Republic. August 1968. © Josef Koudelka | Magnum Photos

In a way, photography is the ideal medium for political change and advocacy. The photograph helps us see history repeating itself. When we view photographs of social protest, like the civil rights movement or the anti-war protests, we are reminded that our actions today will affect the future. Both photographers and citizens played a pivotal role by documenting these life-changing movements, and these images serve as a powerful call to action.

Photography cannot change the world but it can show the world, especially when it changes – Marc Riboud

Political Art

It’s impossible to begin a discussion about political art without mentioning Picasso’s Guernica.

As art historian, Patricia Failing, wrote:

One reason Guernica is considered a treasure in terms of art history is that it seemed to provide a bridge between what were considered by some to be antithetical poles: the idea of making an effective political statement and an effective artistic statement at the same time. And this is certainly one of the achievements of the Guernica project, that it was a third space between those two antithetical poles. It did something that an academic painter would have loved to do, which is to take a very traditional theme and make it modern and make it relevant to a new time and a new audience and a new sensibility. That’s a pretty big accomplishment.

In its political-symbolic dimension, the pain that we feel when we look at Guernica also transforms into a lament against violence. The painting was originally created in response to the fascist violence that led Spain into war in 1937, yet it was only around the Vietnam War that began in 1966, when the painting began started to gain momentum as a political icon. Since then, Guernica has appeared in drawings, posters, and banners at demonstrations against international armed conflicts.

Pablo Picasso painting Guernica in the spring of 1937.

Of course, political art doesn’t end at Guernica. Over the last 100 years, artists have been outspoken protesters on issues from LGBTQ+ rights and feminism to equal-pay and anti-racism. Protest artwork can question, disturb, and even change the status quo. For example, silence=death became Keith Haring’s slogan for AIDS awareness in the 80s. The Guerrilla Girls have fought for gallery representation of female artists, and Ai Wei Wei consistently speaks out against the Chinese government.

One of the latest and most intriguing of such projects is Artists for Biden, an online-only sale hosted by David Zwirner’s Platform.art to benefit the Biden Victory Fund. It’s a verified fundraising initiative to help mobilize essential resources to help the Democrats to win the 2020 elections. More than one hundred leading contemporary artists donated their artwork to help with the efforts.

Halt Action Group, Trump Plaque, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Marilyn Minter

Art as Pure Aesthetic Escapism

Despite the undeniably important role that art can play in social change, protest, and political awareness, many of us gravitate toward art not for politics or protest, but for a type of comfort derived from aesthetics. We may even use art to find solace in an unstable and sometimes threatening world.

Take Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms exhibition at Tate Modern, for example. The hoards of people queuing up to see her wonderfully trippy, immersive installations and environments were most probably looking for a form of escapism from the every day; a new experience that takes you away from the mundane at best, and troubling at worst, burdens of everyday life.

Indeed, art for art’s sake (from the French l’art pour l’art), also known as The Aesthetic Movement, permeated British culture during the latter part of the 19th century and ended up spreading to other countries such as the United States. Based on the idea that beauty was the most important element in life, artists sought to create works that were admired simply for their beauty rather than any higher moral or political message. In essence, the artists that took part in this movement argued that the arts should be judged on the basis of form rather than morality.

Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso 1866, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Henri Matisse famously declared that he dreamed of an art “devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair.”

However, it’s important to consider that the very principles of aesthetics aren’t necessarily at odds with political responsibility. Even light installation works, that seem purely inspirational and beautiful, can hold their own political meanings — for one can never be sure what inspired the artist in the first place, and it may as well have been political (even in the minor sense of the word, or on a subconscious level).

So should we embrace political and protest art, or should art be solely focused on pure aestheticism and pleasure? That, of course, is a matter of personal preference and taste. However, it is worth noting that during such uncertain times as we are experiencing today, both socio-economically and politically, dire times can sometimes inspire creative excellence and act as forces for powerful change.

Veronica Morozova
Veronica Morozova
Veronica Morozova is a London-based content writer and copyeditor. She has a Master's in Art and Politics from Goldsmiths University, and writes about a range of topics including political and social activism, mental health awareness, Eastern European culture, and more.