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Art and Protest

Can art today be a form of protest? And, if so, what subjects, what issues, what transgressions or injustices, does it most vitally and persuasively critique? In many ways, the obvious answer to this question is “yes.”

Karl Marx at the Venice Biennale

The sale in March of Paul Gauguin’s “When Will You Marry?” (1892) to an anonymous buyer for $300 million—the highest price ever paid for a work of art, according to The Economist (April 4, 2015)—brings to mind two of Gauguin’s remarks, both relevant to any discussion of so-called protest art.

Nefertiti in a Gas Mask

In September 2012, the Egyptian street artist El Zeft pasted the stenciled image of a battle-ready Nefertiti onto a long concrete wall stretching across Muhammad Mahmud Street, the famous mural art corridor leading to Tahrir Square.

Art as Protest

Art as protest can take two rather different forms. It can be an intervention which makes an explicitly political statement. As such it needs to be immediately recognized by its audience as registering opposition to some aspect of the dominant social and political order and as offering a provocation to its ideas and attitudes.

Execution, Huntsville Prison, 2013

This is an event in which there was protest, support, and simple bearing of witness.

Pills, Protest, and Piracy

Last month, boats of artists docked at the Venice Biennale to protest the Guggenheim’s questionable global labor practices. Like pirates, the Occupy-inspired syndicalists established a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), what artist-activist (and Brooklyn Rail contributor) Hakim Bey suggests is a spontaneous social community of resistance.

When? Where? How?

My first reaction to your question about art and protest is to distrust generalizations about strategies and outcomes. Today there exist societies and cultures in which art facilitates protest and leads to change.

Detroit and the Art of Protest

Bright orange houses, totemic garbage mounds, ice-encased houses, and sculptures of lost neighborhoods—these are some of the sites of protest or resistance of Detroit artists today.

after Audre Lorde’s “Power”

I imagine the advertising in Rome / for whatever was sold in the streets was also/ rhetorically rich and dumb/ anaphorae for mass-produced / amphorae


During an artist residency in Medellín, Colombia, I became increasingly frustrated by the shortcomings of representation. I felt like I was just cropping the experience into a frame.

“Good luck, Bauhaus and Berlin Comrades, and See You After the Revolution”

At a time when sales of artworks for record sums compete for newspaper headlines with the stories of the tragic deaths of migrants and refugees, it’s worth reflecting on the life and politically-inflected artworks of a fascinating and transitory figure of history.

Protest and Survive

On April 29th, 2015, eight men were executed by firing squad in Nusa Kambangan, known as the Alcatraz of Indonesia, where prisoners on death row are taken to await their deaths.

“To the Lynching!”

The 1935 drawing “To the Lynching!” by artist Paul Cadmus was for New York audiences a call to action. Completed for the NAACP-sponsored exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching, the work moved beyond much of the era’s socially conscious art that advocated progress in response to adversity broadly defined in favor of protest art that demanded a direct response to explicit acts of injustice.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2015

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