“The role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible,” screams the words of Oakland-based street artist and printmaker Paul Barron from his Art Attack Mural, painted on an otherwise nondescript wall in Rome, Italy. Barron, and others like him, are not only artists, but activists, people whose work are a visual protest to the status quo. They’re no longer just concerned with putting brush to canvas and making something pretty in the process. The fusion of art and activism, it seems, is just a natural result of the visual medium’s power to evoke more powerfully than words and actions themselves, a fact which plays out in visual art throughout the Bay Area.
Even in our own backyard, activism has taken a visual rather than physical tone. In the days following the ill-fated clash between police and protesters, Occupy Cal’s presence has been felt less through such events, and more through the various ways in which occupiers have transformed the space in front of Sproul Hall into a mecca of protest-driven artwork. From papier-mache dinosaurs to eight-point stars, such artwork showcased not only the creative force behind the occupation, but the evolving spirit of the Occupy movement and its manifestation on the Berkeley campus, now a living testimony to the growing role of art in activism.
Beyond Berkeley, many artists from the Bay Area are attempting to address both local and national issues through their provocative artwork. One particular woodcut by Barron takes on the issue of Internet surveillance head-on: a faceless everyman sitting in front of his computer and behind him, two looming black figures unambiguously labeled “FBI” and “POLICE.” Printed beneath are the taunting words, “Never feel alone again!” The exclamation point seems to be the final jab on Barron’s part — if we are meant to feel uncomfortable and invaded, he has certainly succeeded.
That feeling of unease has become a staple of activist artwork, as is the use of found objects, as the artwork from Occupy Cal has demonstrated. Using found objects allows artists to take physical reminders of the status quo and manipulate them to promote a different message. San Francisco-based artist Michele Pred lays testament to that in her project “Homeland Security.” Pred took confiscated items from security checkpoints at San Francisco International Airport and formed them into a biting commentary on post-9/11 America. American flags are formed out of red, white and blue lighters. A large green dollar sign is, on second sight, a collection of confiscated razor blades. The curious objects that make up these wall pieces stand in place of their owners, people forced to surrender their innocuous possessions in the name of national security.
Ultimately, perhaps the most significant aspect of protest-driven artwork is its potential availability to a mainstream audience. No other type of art is so accessible to the 99 percent, in a world where paintings are more often than not hung up in galleries than laid out on the street. The art of activists breaks itself free from such barriers by means of its own medium.
Through street art and printmaking, art is made available for the masses. The former puts the artwork in a common space, allowing anyone to appreciate and be moved by it, and the latter allows for such artwork to be mass-produced cheaply and quickly. We need only return to the steps of Sproul Hall to bear witness to that. Just hark back to the Nov. 15th Day of Action when street artist Political Gridlock was screen printing “Hella Occupy Cal” posters on the spot for students to take and display proudly alongside the various other showings of creative protest — the art of activism in action.