Modern art icons to DIY placards, the aesthetics of protest show how creativity can exact important change.
It’s January 1937 and Pablo Picasso has been commissioned to create a mural for the Spanish pavilion at Paris’s Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne; that year’s edition of the extravagant World’s Fair expositions that were transforming cityscapes around the world.
Tentatively the Spanish modern art great would potter away the next few months, unemotionally working on a series of sketches. This was until 26 April, 1937, when news filtered through that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had bombed the Basque Country town of Guernica at the behest of Spanish Nationalists; the town in the province of Biscay seen as a bastion of Republican resistance throughout the Spanish Civil War.
A quiet village with many of its men away fighting for the Republican cause, warplanes rained some 40 tonnes of explosives over the course of two hours. It’s said 1,654 would die in what was condemned as a terror bombing. Immediately upon hearing this, Basque poet Juan Larrea visited Picasso at his home in Paris, and the seeds for his most famous painting were sown. 40 days later, Guernica was complete, to be unveiled at the Paris International Exposition in July, where Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia had monumental pavilions of their own.
Legend goes of an exchange between Picasso and a German officer visiting his studio in occupied Paris: "Did you do this?” The Nazi asks, pointing to a photo of the mural. "No, you did,” retorts the artist. There had been examples of activist art during the early 1900s but, in Guernica, Picasso had created an exemplar, whose potency still burns bright.
Today, Guernica—all 349.3 × 776.6 centimetres of it—hangs at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, and emotional responses are still common. Men, women, animals and children dead and dismembered in depressing monochrome, its chaotic composition makes for an affecting, harrowing show of anti-war art. Perhaps the first iconic work to deliver such a confrontational message, over 80 years on, art as activism has become commonplace. And the aesthetic of protest need not be dictated by the esteemed art elite; in a world where we are all looking for change, the DIY approach of art activism can be a critical tool.
Take Hong Kong, for example. In 2019, the special administrative region of China would see an unprecedented social movement, as protesters fighting for democracy demonstrated on an unimaginable scale. And creativity was at its heart. From its aesthetics to how it was distributed, political art was one of the most fascinating aspects of how the city’s protesters would set up against its authorities. Homemade posters whose inspiration ran from punk to anime would make their way around the public, with messaging applications and social media frequently their conduit.
Harnessing a common theme to ‘be water’— a phrase informed by Bruce Lee, encouraging fluidity and an ability to adapt to any situation—protestors used technology to help them achieve this omnipresence. Groups on encrypted messaging app Telegram circulated posters that drummed up support for specific demonstrations or shared vital information on state brutality and means to protect yourself; Apple’s filesharing facility, AirDrop, was ingeniously used to disseminate such messages in crowded public spaces.
From the Arab Spring to Occupy movements, Istanbul’s Gezi Park demonstrations to Catalan independence, technological advancements and the rise of social media has changed the landscape of protest, also giving rise to the ubiquity of art as activism. And in this digital age of instant communication, sometimes it’s a case of the more DIY, the better. "I think it reflects and emphasises that it is 'by the people, for the people,' and there is no true leader in this movement," a 22-year-old protester told CNN in August.
Echoing the theme of 2018 Oscar-winning film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, #Justice4Grenfell activists took their stark message to the streets of London following the devastating Grenfell fire. Three mobile billboards, one harrowing message: “71 Dead. And Still No Arrests? How Come?” Importing the aesthetic of an Oscar-winning movie, the campaigners sent their message viral, capitalising on popular culture in the age of likes and retweets. Brilliantly clever creativity that is the fundamental essence of what visual activism can achieve.
Protest through meme culture, the #Justice4Grenfell campaign is a textbook example of how creativity can convey a message. Art for Planet Earth is a project with change at its core, a project imagining a better and brighter future with art as its armoury. And those participating can take inspiration from the sort of grassroots activism that has changed the landscape of activist art. It is a case of anyone with a message can be an artist.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND); Vietnam anti-war protests; the civil rights and LGBT rights movements; Occupy; anti-Trump campaigning; school strike for the climate … from the midpoint of the 1900s to today, grassroots activism has gone hand-in-hand with creative endeavour. Messages scrawled on neon card and sellotaped to broom handles, paint on cardboard, banners painstakingly printed on the home Epson, crayons and coloured pencils employed to stand out from the crowd—protest placards are the rawest form of political art; personal and heartfelt pleas to make a change.
Most importantly, the funnier they are, the more attention they receive. Twitter’s 140 character limit imposed a shift in language and messaging, in the age of the slogan, punchy placards have become an art movement in their own. And, like the the #Justice4Grenfell campaign, meme culture beams their message to a global stage. Ever thought about how your art can change the world?
Political expression and the participation of protest is today intertwined with social media and internet culture. From the humorous slogans of protest placards to beautiful but provocative street art murals shared across Instagram, the aesthetics of protest have exploded inline with modern society’s need for it. Human rights or global warming, the rise of the far right or political oppression, from Bolivia to Beirut, Baghdad to Barcelona, we are in a time of unavoidable activism, it’s little surprise that its appearance is as varied and inspired as the causes being championed.
In the protest age, the creativity that accompanies it takes on countless forms. As police and protesters battled on the streets of Hong Kong, scores of youngsters patiently folded hundreds of multicoloured origami birds which would fill Times Square in Causeway Bay, resembling a contemporary art gallery installation. “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” chanted the young creatives as they worked. In the UK, a group of creatives took to guerrilla street art, installing a series of ‘In case of hard Brexit break glass’ boxes, filled with a variety of humorous objects ranging from an Irish passport to Boris Johnson voodoo doll. And in Puerto Rico, demonstrators gathered in San Juan Bay on kayaks in sight of the mansion of the island’s embattled governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló; a protest cum performance piece that again appealed to generation meme.
Indeed, everywhere you turn, there is grassroots protest. “By last week it was undeniable,” wrote Washington Post journalist Jackson Diehl in October of last year, “2019 has become the year of the street protester. As hundreds of thousands marched in Hong Kong and Santiago, Lebanon and London, what has become a global explosion of people power was prompting panic among a host of governments; and raising some interesting questions about how and why it was all happening.”
Perhaps the world’s most famous protest artist, Ai Weiwei, may have the answer: “We can see that different societies have different types of propaganda,” he tells Hyperallergic, “but they have the same character. People feel powerless. They don’t trust any media anymore, then they don’t trust any authority anymore. When there is no sense of trust, they have lost the legitimacy of the power. And the only thing that can solve it is a revolution. But of course in a democratic society, the word ‘revolution’ cannot be mentioned or talked about—because it’s designed in many ways to keep that from happening.”
Of course Weiwei is an artist for whom revolution is an essential constituent of his makeup. “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one,” he retorted to those who condemned his 1995 work, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn; one of of all time’s most controversial pieces of art.
Ever a great provocateur, the series of three black and white photos depicts the Chinese contemporary artist dropping, and breaking, a 2,000-year-old ceremonial Han Dynasty Urn estimated to be worth a million dollars; its symbolic and cultural worth perhaps priceless. Eternally critical of the Chinese government’s oppression of expression, this show-stopping work carries as much potency as Picasso’s emotive attack on Spain’s nationalists.
And no account of protest in troubled times can pass without mention of Mr Trump. From the infamous Donald Trump baby balloon to disparaging graffiti adorning walls from Palestine to Australia, no nation has been untouched by outrage at possibly the most unpopular American president of all time; yet the cultural significance of his presidency reaches far beyond grassroots protest art.
“As long as you come here legally and get a proper job … we need immigrants,” revealed Donald’s first wife, Ivana, in a 2016 New York Post interview. “Who’s going to vacuum our living rooms and clean up after us? Americans don’t like to do that.” In February 2019, American conceptual artist, Jennifer Rubell, retorted.
In rebuttal to a comment loaded with xenophobia at best, Rubell hired a look-alike of Ivana and Donald’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, putting her to work vacuuming a pink carpet in stilettos. Inviting visitors to “throw crumbs on to the carpet, watching as Ivanka elegantly vacuums up the mess, her smile never wavering,” Ivanka Vacuuming was a performance art piece speaking to that helplessness Ai Weiwei moots. As the elite wreak havoc the world over, there is a sense they can get away with anything; as Ivanka positioned herself as the ‘everywoman’, Rubell’s work underpinned a world’s worth of cynicism.
It is a century since Nazi Germany rebranded modern art as ‘Degenerate Art’, a movement that would seek to silence the voices of the creatively engaged who opposed their oppression and intolerance. In April 1933, the iconic multifaceted design and art school, Bauhaus, was forced to close as a result of the regime. In 1937, the Nazis would hold an exhibition in Munich, chastising the output of artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse; movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism deemed to be working against the German people.
It is testament to the power of art that the Nazis took such extreme measures to shut down those at its forefront. Berlin of the 1920s was a city rife with cultural exploration, intellectuals mixed with artists, scientists with filmmakers, and scenes such as German Expressionism and the Bauhaus had positioned the country among the world’s cultural elite. With creativity, though, comes backlash to the sort of oppression that the Nazis wished to impose. As is the case today when right wing governments like those in the United States and the United Kingdom belittle the importance of the arts. Mr Trump need look no further than a bloated floating effigy of himself as a baby to understand its importance.
The Nazis knew what Trump knows, what Britain’s Conservatives know and anyone else in an unwarranted position of power know: art can equal change. And using your talent to raise awareness can contribute to that change. Art for Planet Earth is challenging you to use your creativity to make a positive and significant difference; for your inspiration to be a starting point for a better future. Don’t waste your time feeling helpless, as DIY protest art proves, anyone can be an artist. It can be a hand-scrawled message. It can be a deeply detailed illustration. It can be as free an expression of your opinion as you care to share. All that matters is you have the fire inside you to enact change.
As protestors the world over showed us all in 2019: anything is possible.