Undeniably, 2020 has been a momentous year in the history of civil rights activism as protests occurred in over 50 countries around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is not the first time we have witnessed demonstrations similar to these, from LGBTQ+ rights to indigenous rights and much more, there are a number of examples of techniques protesters use to get their message across.
Art is a timeless means of sending a message, something we know quite well in our industry, but art can also be used as the voice of change and the voice of movements. As we have seen throughout history, art helps to arouse emotions in an audience. It can connect people to a cause in a deeper way than if they look at a situation or cause strictly intellectually and focus on the facts.
Protest art includes the creative works produced by activists and social movements. It is a traditional means of communication, utilized by a cross section of collectives and the state to inform and persuade citizens. It can come in many forms, from the symbols and colours that unite a cause, to the grassroots street art expressing repressed people, to the artwork produced in a time period reflecting the feelings of the day.
Art has always had the power to…
Capture the feelings of a moment in time…
And promote change…
Since art, unlike other forms of dissent, requires few financial resources, and less financially-able groups can rely more on performance art and street art as an affordable tactic to get their message across. People may not have access to large platforms, media outlets or high quality materials, but by picking up scrap paper and paint or markers they can create powerful visuals and messages to express their point.
Social movements produce such works as the signs, banners, posters, and other printed materials used to convey a particular cause or message. Often, this art is used in demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience. These works tend to be ephemeral, characterized by their portability and disposability, and are frequently not authored or owned by any one person.
Symbols of Activism
The various peace symbols and the raised fist (used as a symbol to fight oppression) are two examples that highlight the democratic ownership of these signs. They have origins but have so widely been used in different causes that they are not owned by one group or revolution.
In the 1950s the “peace sign”, as it is known today, was designed by Gerald Holtom as the logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) a group at the forefront of the peace movement in the UK. It was later adopted by anti-war and counterculture activists in the US and elsewhere.
The raised fist is currently being used today in the Black Lives Matter movement but it has been used many times before throughout history.
It was first popularized during the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, when it was used by the Republican faction as a greeting, and was known as the “Popular Front salute” or the “anti-fascist salute”. The right fist salute subsequently spread among leftists and anti-fascists across Europe.
It was again used in 1948 by Taller de Gráfica Popular, a print shop in Mexico that used art to advance revolutionary social causes.
Its use spread through the United States in the 1960s after artist and activist Frank Cieciorka produced a simplified version for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This version was subsequently used by Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Power movement.
Categorizing Activist Art
There are endless ways that art is used to both reflect and impact current events and it seems that there are three main types of activism in art.
- The art of people in protest
- Homemade protest signs/banners
- Artists in protest
- The posters of a movement or group
- Performance art
- Pop-up installments
- “Fine arts” reflections on the times
- More traditional works of art fighting against or making a commentary on the ruling class/constraints of the day
Of course there are no solid borders, they overlap and nothing is concrete. Since there are so many different pieces of public protest art, it is impossible to cover them all, so let’s take a look at a few pieces we found particularly powerful.
Fine art has always been used to express a reaction to what was happening in society at a specific time, but when looking at this history of art as activism, this painting is widely regarded by critics to be “one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history”.
The grey, black, and white painting is 11’ 5” tall and 25’ 6″ across and portrays the suffering of people and animals wrought by the violence and chaos of the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in 1937.
Check out this video of a more in-depth analysis of the painting,
Tom Ungerer’s “Eat”
One of the most popular types of protest art is anti-war art. This piece was created in 1967 by Tom Ungerer who created numerous posters protesting the war in Vietnam.
In this composition he depicts the white arm of America shoving the statue of liberty down the throat of a Vietnamese citizen
Setmour Chwast’s “End Bad Breath”
This illustration was created in 1968 and is one of Chwast’s most notable designs, he created this poster to protest the Vietnam War.
Shown is Uncle Sam — the traditional symbol of American patriotism — with his mouth open to reveal planes bombing a small village.
The Black Panther Party
This poster was created by a member of the Black Panther Party around 1970 at the peak of the Panthers’ popularity and is one of the more lasting images from the period in part because of its unfortunate cultural relevance persists to this day.
Here is a video on Emory Douglas and the art of the Black Panther Party, talking about his role as the visual voice of the movement
Silence = Death
This piece was made in 1987 by a group of six gay men in New York City to draw attention to the AIDS crisis. It harkened back to the pink triangle’s use in Nazi concentration camps to identify homosexual prisoners — a symbol that was reclaimed by the LGBT community beginning in the 1970s as a symbol of pride. The poster was adopted by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, after its formation, when several of the original creators joined the group, and remains an iconic emblem of the movement.
Keith Haring’s “Ignorance = Fear”
Again in support of the fight against aids – protesting the government’s silence and inaction on the issue. Haring was a prolific pop art style graffiti artist of the time with this very distinctive cartoon style. He used his art to highlight a number of different causes and became a huge part of the New York street culture of the 1980’s, and created this piece in 1989. Unfortunately, he died in 1990 from complications of AIDS.
This piece is arguably the most famous poster artwork of the feminist group the Guerilla Girls and was created in 1989. They became famous for their billboards and posters calling out sexism and racism within the art world. The poster does a great job of not only highlighting the fact that women artists have been actively excluded from the “canon” of art, but also connecting this lack directly to the way women have been exploited as – often naked – subjects in art.
As we have seen from these examples, protest art comes in a variety of forms from simple signs to extravagant paintings. The goal of the art is to elicit a response from the viewer that is strong enough to act upon, preferably in a way that creates societal change. We are likely to see even more activism art come from the Black Lives Matter movement, and hopefully along with it comes long-deserved change.