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Notes from Art History: Protest, Power, Disruption

By Sotheby's

C onventional wisdom has it that protest art is a relatively new phenomenon; that only in the past couple of centuries have artists made work in dissent against the powers that be.

I Object, a recent exhibition at the British Museum, revealed the truth to be slightly more complex than that. It featured objects of protest from across the ages – including a brick from ancient Babylonia, whose maker had rebelliously inscribed his own name above that of the king, Nebuchadnezzar.

Nebuchadnezzar brick British Museum
Fired clay brick of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605-562 B.C. British Museum Collection.

In the main, though, 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.

One wouldn’t call him a protest artist per se, but William Hogarth denounced the status quo in his depictions of the vices of 18th Century London – in series such as A Rake’s Progress. In the 19th Century, Francisco Goya produced his seminal series The Disasters of War, a devastating set of prints decrying the atrocities carried out in the Peninsular War.

Francisco de Goya, They Do Not Want To The Disasters of War
Francisco de Goya, They Do Not Want To, from The Disasters of War, 1810-1820.

Fast forward 100 years and another conflict – the First World War – would inspire a whole movement of protest art: Dada. It was launched in Zürich nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire, in 1916 by a German poet called Hugo Ball: dressed as a mystical bishop, he spouted incomprehensible verse and shared the stage with performers in Virgin Mary masks doing the splits.

Absurdity was at Dada’s very heart: a response to the way so-called reason had precipitated a war in which 10 million soldiers died. If that was sanity, surely it was better to opt for madness?

Hugo Ball Cabaret Voltaire Zurich
Hugo Ball in on a publicity postcard for Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich, 1916. Unknown photographer.

For Dadaists, anything and everything could now be called art; it no longer meant fine paintings on walls or sculptures on plinths. The movement’s most famous piece was Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, a commercially-made urinal that the artist bought and then presented as an art work.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917 (replica 1964). © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. Photo © Tate.

It’s probably the final decades of the 20th Century and initial ones of the 21st, however, when protest art has reached a peak. This period has seen the rise of pluralism and identity politics, in which long-marginalised and -repressed groups have finally gained prominence in society – with artists from these groups creating work that focuses on their experience of injustice and inequality.

Take the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of feminists formed in New York in 1985 in protest at the under-representation of women in the art world. Still active today, they’ve made a name for wearing gorilla masks and creating posters and billboards with statistics in support of their cause.

Guerrilla Girls Met Museum
Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?, 1989. © Guerrilla Girls.

Kerry James Marshall, meanwhile, is an African-American who has made it to the mainstream. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles, Marshall has gained renown for paintings in which extremely dark figures are inserted into scenes reminiscent of Old Master paintings – thereby emphasising the invisibility of black people in the Western pictorial canon. (His canvas, Past Times, sold at Sotheby’s in May 2018 for $21.1 million, making it the most expensive art work by an African American artist ever sold at auction.)

We’ve concentrated so far on Europe and the United States, but it’s also worth stressing the obvious point that the world boasts a range of political systems – meaning artists work in a range of political contexts. Take three of the big names in art today, Ai Weiwei (from China), Tania Bruguera (from Cuba) and Pussy Riot (from Russia): all of them come from non-democratic countries and all of them have, at some point, been sent to jail by the authorities in their home countries.

Pussy Riot
Members of Pussy Riot in 2012.

In many cases, they've created work clearly criticising their government (Ai Weiwei’s Remembering, for example, which questioned the Chinese response to a deadly 2008 earthquake in Sichuan). However, in a sense, their artistic protest has consisted simply in an assertion of individual expression in lands where such assertion is not welcome. The artist chose to further comment on global issues with Soleil Levant, an installation at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg comprised of 3,500 life jackets collected from the island of Lesbos at the height of the refugee crisis. The title is borrowed from a 1872 painting by Claude Monet (Impression, Sunrise) — a palatable, yet pointed name for a tragic scene.

Ai Weiwei Soleil Levant Copenhagen
Ai Weiwei, Soleil Levant, 2017, installed at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen.

All of which brings us to the key tension in protest art: that, though a democratic context and absence of censorship clearly helps, protest art by definition won’t exist in a utopia. There needs to be something to dissent against.

Given the many geopolitical tensions of the 21st Century, as well as a digital revolution that seems to be sweeping all before it, nobody today could make the claim for our living in a utopia. One result of this is that a fresh wave of protest art can surely be expected in the coming months and years.

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