Protesting against a sudden and new war on the European continent, populated by millions of citizens who have forgotten about what a military conflict means, requires many forms of expression. Some to denounce, some to sensitize, some to awaken. Over the years, art has often been in place to address the fear, the horror, and the absurdity of military fights, which invariably affect bodies and souls, geographies and cultures, experiences and memories.
One can remember Guernica, the gigantic work of Picasso which has become known as the most famous painted denunciation of war. Compared to other forms of protests that took place at that time for the same cause, history remembers this piece of art as a unifying discourse, voiced by people refusing death and promoting freedom. This is probably a perfect illustration of art expressing protest.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937.
Opposing through art raises the permanence of a cause, giving the chance to settle its memory in time. It also offers a universal perception, easy to share across the world as a piece of cultural heritage. Who knows now what will remain to testify of the nightmare of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24th, 2022? Times have changed since the Spanish civil war, yet the range of choices to raise voices of opposition has not been revolutionized. Still, we have to deal with what exists to protest and art is definitely one of the options.
In fact, just as the “art of war” is not so much an artistic gesture, but about know-how in terms of army tactics and strategy, the “art of protest” can be understood as the capacity to use artistic practice to embody protest.
Yet because humans spontaneously tend to see the world through a hierarchical system with binary choices, some continue to believe in a kind of aristocracy of protest. At the top is a protest shaped like a struggle, carried out by fighters, focused on an identifiable risk. Under that is a protest free from any form of judgmental categorizations.
The two forms of activism are differently enshrined into two temporalities and no one could seriously pretend one is more effective than the other. It depends on how efficiency is assessed. Can it be better to gain a quasi-immediate result out of a resistance protest, or to value ideals as a long-term effect with art? Both forms represent two kinds of discourses, emitted by two kinds of authors. But both are always about free citizen expression, and importantly both expect to bring about change.
The first reflex when needing a gesture of protest and activism are tools like street demonstrations, slogans, occupying places, and starting fires. This is about rebelling, using modest revolts which can lead to massive revolutions. When a sudden cry cannot be silenced or delayed, it ignites a creation process.
Public and collective protests sometimes generate heroes, which is about rewarding the risks that have been taken. For some people across the world, history has retained a kind of romanticism about the May 1968 unrest in France. Young and attractive students fighting for freedom in front of Sorbonne University in the rive gauche of Paris, unified workers opposing domination during a warm and promising springtime, and a whole country was inspired by the spirit of change after years of conservatism. These seductive ingredients were probably enough to value social movements as the quintessence of protest in the country of the Lumières. But for one social movement that ended up becoming mythical, how many others sank into insignificance and were thus forgotten?
Alternatively, artistic expression offers the chance for a protest to be remembered.
Femen activists hold placards shaped as tombstones, reading the name and the age of each women killed this year by their partner in 2019, during a protest action dedicated to the memory of the women killed by their partner or ex-partner and against the violence against women, at the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris, France, on October 5, 2019. 114 women have been killed by their partner or ex-partner since the beginning of 2019 in France, according to the 'Feminicides par compagnons ou ex' (Feminicides by companions or ex) association. Photo by Patrice Pierrot,
What turns out to be truly exciting is the balanced conjunction between the ephemeral aspect of social activism combined with some kind of artistic performance. It is notably the case with the actions developed by the Act Up organization during the peak of AIDS deaths before tri-therapy was discovered. Starting in New York, Act Up was inspired by the Gran Fury cultural movement to design graphic representations of the epidemic, allowing to speak the unspeakable. On the other side of the Atlantic, Act Up-Paris succeeded in elevating the cause by putting a pink condom on the obelisk of Place de la Concorde down the Champs-Elysées in 1993. This historical stunt remains a reference in terms of protest worldwide because of the power of images. Like an art performance, such activism succeeded in "selling a cause" to a large audience like a cultural product. Who can remain insensitive to this act? It created an unforgettable short moment (several hours only) likely to recall the memory of the forgotten people dying from Aids behind the screens of a prudish society. More recently, Femen activism aimed at defending the rights of women, also worked as art performances. One could even qualify their protests as dance-theater based on a true mise en scene, using nudity as costumes in a significant decor.
Among other forms of contemporary protests, the street-art trend in western cities often attempts to reflect views of society, such as denouncing violence, capitalism and inequalities, or even promoting good sentiments and virtues. Once again, this expression mostly based on the language of irony does not have the power to drastically change the world, but distills a constant reminder of awareness. Somehow this self-expressed art of protest could be considered as a form of individualism or even a symptom of narcissism masked in the signatures of those artists marking their territory. It is also a political appropriation of public space considered as a huge blank page to enjoy freedom of expression. In 2018, street art offered a genius mise en abîme of protest through the shredded Banksy artwork. Ironically, the destroyed piece of art, combined with the shredding mechanism got re-sold in 2021 for $25 million dollars, over 20 times more than the previous auction in its original form. Somehow it is less the price of the physical object, and more about the value of the unprecedented event that took place during the first auction at Sotheby’s. An event which definitely had the taste of protest.
For its capacity to bring the illusion of simulating the real, the seventh art and motion pictures by extension might have become an essential path to protest or call to action, and moreover, to settle the collective memory about what should never be forgotten. Although when it is conceived as an artistic gesture, this art of protest works probably better when it is more about suggesting indignation than when it is about direct denunciation. Notably in circumstances where addressing a cause is forbidden because of repression that still exists in countries where freedom is an illusion. Thus, art brings the opportunity to embody a protest through the "art of nuance", connecting a variety of human beings through deep emotions at a large scale. This means the artistic approach is playing the role of a non-authorized language in capacity to subtly hide ideological resistance. Also, when regular activism is sometimes repellent to people who fear public disorder, art is less likely to divide supporters, more likely to federate opinions and, thus, to change people’s minds. Is this evidence of how much civilization relies on culture? Perhaps. And above all it demonstrates that when it is time to protest, we are all artists, capable of thinking, that is to create.