is a broad term that refers to creative works that concern or are produced by activists and social movements. There are also contemporary and historical works and currents of thought that can be characterized in this way.
Social movements produce such works as the signs, banners, posters, and other printed materials used to convey a particular cause or message. Often, such art is used as part of demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience
Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power. Civil disobedience is commonly, though not always, defined as being nonviolent resistance. It is one form of civil resistance...
. These works tend to be ephemeral, characterized by their portability and disposability, and are frequently not authored or owned by any one person. The various peace symbols, and the raised fist
The raised fist is a symbol of solidarity and support. It is also used as a salute to express unity, strength, defiance, or resistance. The salute dates back to ancient Assyria as a symbol of resistance in the face of violence.-History:Assyrian depictions of the goddess Ishtar show her raising a...
are two examples that highlight the democratic ownership of these signs.
Protest art also includes (but is not limited to) performance, site-specific installations, graffiti and street art, and crosses the boundaries of art genres, media, and disciplines.
While some protest art is associated with trained and professional artists, an extensive knowledge of art is not required to take part in protest art. Protest artists frequently bypass the art-world institutions and commercial gallery system in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Furthermore, protest art is not limited to one region or country, but is rather a method that is used around the world. For example, Publixtheatre Caravan
The Publixtheatre Caravan is the English name for a travelling project of the Volxtheater Favoriten, a Vienna-based international theatrical troupe that has been creating site-specific theatrical interventions in public space as well as stage-based performances since 1994...
is an international theatre troupe that creates critical performances in everyday spaces around the world.
There are many politically charged pieces of fine art
Fine art or the fine arts encompass art forms developed primarily for aesthetics and/or concept rather than practical application. Art is often a synonym for fine art, as employed in the term "art gallery"....
- such as Picasso's Guernica
Guernica may refer to:* Guernica , Spanish Basque town, historical capital of Biscay* Bombing of Guernica, an attack on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War* Guernica , a 1937 painting by Pablo Picasso...
, some of Norman Carlberg
Norman Carlberg is an American sculptor and printmaker. He is noted as an exemplar of the modular constructivist style....
's Vietnam war
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...
-era work, or Susan Crile
Susan Crile is an artist, primarily a painter and printmaker. She has had over 50 solo exhibitions, and her work is in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Phillips Collection, and...
's images of torture at Abu Ghraib
The city of Abu Ghraib in the Baghdad Governorate of Iraq is located just west of Baghdad's city center, or northwest of Baghdad International Airport. It has a population of 189,000. The old road to Jordan passes through Abu Ghraib...
It is difficult to establish a history for protest art because many variations of it can be found throughout history. While many cases of protest art can be found during the early 1900s, like Picasso's Guernica in 1937, the last thirty years has experienced a large increase in the number of artists adopting protest art as a style to relay a message to the public.
As awareness of social justices around the world became more common among the public, an increase in protest art can be seen. Some of the most critically effective artworks of the recent period were staged outside the gallery, away from the museum and in that sense, protest art has found a different relationship to the public.
Activist art represents and includes aesthetic, sociopolitical, and technological developments that have attempted to challenge and complicate the traditional boundaries and hierarchies of culture as represented by those in power. Like protest art, activist art practice emerged partly out of a call for art to be connected to a wider audience, and to open up spaces where the marginalized and disenfranchised can be seen and heard.
Activist art incorporates the use of public space to address socio-political issues and to encourage community and public participation as a means of bringing about social change. It aims to effect social change by engaging in active processes of representation that work to foster participation in dialogue, raise consciousness, and empower individuals and communities. The need to ensure the continued impact of a work by sustaining the public participation process it initiated is also a challenge for many activist artists. It often requires the artist to establish relationships within the communities where projects take place.
If social movements are understood as “repeated public displays” of alternative political and cultural values, then activist art is significant in articulating such alternative views. Activist art is also important to the dimension of culture and an understanding of its importance alongside political, economical, and social forces in movements and acts of social change. One should be wary of conflating activist art with political art, as doing so obscures critical differences in methodology, strategy, and activist goals.
Historical basis in art and politics
Activist art cites its origins from a particular artistic and political climate. In the art world, performance art of the late 1960s to the 70s worked to broaden aesthetic boundaries within visual arts
The visual arts are art forms that create works which are primarily visual in nature, such as ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, and often modern visual arts and architecture...
and traditional theatre
Theatre is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place. The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music or dance...
, blurring the rigidly construed distinction between the two. The transient, interdisciplinary, and hybrid nature of performance art allowed for audience engagement. The openness and immediacy of the medium invited public participation, and the nature of the artistic medium was a hub for media attention.
Emerging forms of feminism
Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. Its concepts overlap with those of women's rights...
and feminist art of the time was particularly influential to activist art. The idea that “the personal is the political”, that is, the notion that personal revelation through art can be a political tool, guided much activist art in its study of the public dimensions to private experience. The strategies deployed by feminist artists parallel those by artists working in activist art. Such strategies often involved “collaboration, dialogue, a constant questioning of aesthetic and social assumptions, and a new respect for audience” and are used to articulate and negotiate issues of self-representation, empowerment, and community identity.
Conceptual art is art in which the concept or idea involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Many of the works, sometimes called installations, of the artist Sol LeWitt may be constructed by anyone simply by following a set of written instructions...
sought to expand aesthetic boundaries in its critique of notions of the art object and the commodity system within which it is circulated as currency. Conceptual artists experimented with unconventional materials and processes of art production. Grounded by strategies rooted in the real world, projects in conceptual art demanded viewer participation and were exhibited outside of the traditional and exclusive space of the art gallery, thus making the work accessible to the public. Similarly, collaborative methods of execution and expertise drawn from outside the art world are often employed in activist art so as to attain its goals for community and public participation. Parallel to the emphasis on ideas that conceptual art endorsed, activist art is process-oriented, seeking to expose embedded power relationships through its process of creation.
In the political sphere, the militancy and identity politics of the period fostered the conditions out of which activist art arose.
Strategy and practice
In practice, activist art may often take the form of temporal interventions, such as performance, media events, exhibitions, and installations. It is also common to employ mainstream media techniques (through the use of billboards, posters, advertising, newspaper inserts…etc.). By making use of these commercial distributive channels of commerce, this technique is particularly effective in conveying messages that reveal and subvert its usual intentions.
The use public participation as a strategy of activating individuals and communities to become a “catalyst for change” is important to activist art. In this context, participation becomes an act of self-expression or self-representation by the entire community. Creative expression empowers individuals by creating a space in which their voices can be heard and in which they can engage in a dialogue with one another, and with the issues in which they have a personal stake.
The Artist and Homeless Collaborative is an example of a project that works with strategies of public participation as a means of individual and community empowerment. It is an affiliation of artists, arts professionals and women, children and teenagers living in NYC shelters, the A & HC believe that their work in a collaborative project of art-making offers the residents a “positive experience of self-motivation and helps them regain what the shelter system and circumstances of lives destroy: a sense of individual identity and confidence in human interaction.” The process of engaging the community in a dialogue with dominant and public discourses about the issue of homelessness is described in a statement by its founder, Hope Sandrow: “The relevancy of art to a community is exhibited in artworks where the homeless speak directly to the public and in discussion that consider the relationship art has to their lives. The practice of creating art stimulates those living in shelters from a state of malaise to active participation in the artistic process”
The A & HC came into being at a time when a critique of the makers, sellers, and consumers of art that addressed social concerns became increasingly pronounced. Critics argued that the very works of art whose purpose was to provoke political, social and cultural conversation were confined within the exclusive and privileged space of galleries museums, and private collections. By contrast, the A & HC was an attempt to bridge the gap between art production and social action, thus allowing for the work subjects that were previously excluded and silenced to be heard.
Resistance art has long been a term used to describe those that use art as a way of showing their opposition to powerholders. The term has been used to define art that opposed such powers as the German Nazi party, and the Bolshevik Revolution. The term most recently has been applied to artists opposed to apartheid in South Africa. Willie Bester
Willie Bester is a South African artist known for his installations made of found objects.- Life : Born in the Montagu section of Cape Flats, at the age of ten Bester was required to move to a township with his family after the area of Montagu was designated under apartheid’s Group Areas Act as...
is one of South Africa's most well known artists who originally began as a resistance artist. Using materials assembled from garbage, Bester builds up surfaces into relief and then paints the surface with oil paint. His works commented on important black South African figures and aspects important to his community. South African resistance artists do not exclusively deal with race nor do they have to be from the townships. Another artist, Jane Alexander, has dealt with the atrocities of apartheid from a white perspective. Her resistance art deals with the unhealthy society that continues in post-apartheid South Africa.
- Sandwich board
A sandwich board is a type of advertisement composed of two boards and being either:*Carried by a person, with one board in front and one behind, creating a "sandwich" effect; or...
- Guerrilla Girls
Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of feminists devoted to fighting against sexism within the visual fine art world internationally. Started in New York City in 1985 to protest gender and racial inequality in the art world, members are known for the gorilla masks they wear to keep their...
- Object Orange
Object Orange is an artistic project in Detroit, Michigan which seeks to draw attention to dilapidated buildings by painting them orange....
Graffiti is the name for images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property....
- Anica Nonveiller
Anica Lazin Nonveiller is a Serbian-born Canadian journalist, writer and producer.She is the sister of a Parisian theatre director Miloš Lazin. In 1991 she was fired from a state-owned Radio Belgrade for broadcasting a Croatian war song during the Yugoslav wars. After receiving death threats in...
- Paul Klein (art activist)
Paul Klein is an American art dealer. He was chosen 2006 Man of the Year by the Chicago Society of Artists.Klein works for the Briddge Group providing financial and legacy planning for collectors. He was the first executive director of the Chicago ART Project...
- Aaron Tobey Richmond Airport 4th Amendment Naked Protest
- Felshin, Nina. But Is It Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism. Seattle: Bay Press Inc., 1995.
- Groundswell Collective. Groundswell | A Journal of Art and Activism: Issue 00. 2010.
- Lacy, Suzanne. Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Seattle: Bay Press Inc., 1995.
- Muller, Mary Lee ; Elvehjem Museum of Art. Imagery of dissent : protest art from the 1930s and 1960s : March 4 - April 16, 1989, Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin–Madison (Madison, Wis. : The Museum, ©1989) ISBN 0-932900-20-8 (exhibition devoted to two periods of intensely political protest art: the Spanish Civil War and America's Vietnam War)
- Perry, Gill, and Paul Wood, eds. Themes in Contemporary Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
- Reed, T.V. The art of protest : culture and activism from the civil rights movement to the streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
- Robertson, Jean. "Themes of Contemporary Art - Visual Art after 1980". New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2005.
- Wolper, Jean. "Making Art, Reclaiming Lives: The Artist and Homeless Collaborative." But is it Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism. Ed. Nina Felshin. Seattle: Bay Press Inc., 1995.
"Street" protest art
Political protest in fine art