Strap in, we’re going to protest: Welcome to winding roads of visual art, activism 

Illustration of a woman looking at infographics
Aarthi Muthukumar/Staff

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In the last two centuries, the worlds of art and activism have intersected on a regular basis. Out of the most significant social movements and political occurrences — from the women’s movement in the United States to the end of apartheid in South Africa — one is bound to find art that goes along with it, whether it be cartoons, posters or creative writing. However, protest art has changed and even found life as the nature of activism, and protest has shifted over time. 

Although humans have had reasons to protest since the beginning of governments and institutions, we have yet to get the art of protest down to a singular science. From peasant marches-turned-bloody revolutions, to the spilling of tea into Boston Harbor, to continuous boycotts, sit-ins and freedom rides, protests have fluctuated between the brutal, spontaneous and carefully calculated. In the same way that various tactics are used for protest, the way activists express their dissent through art varies from the subtle to the very-much-in-your-face. 

It’s no secret that art has always faced the threat of censorship. Even renowned artist Michelangelo, who created works commissioned by nobility and enjoyed fame in his time, faced the risk of being censored by the government or even the Catholic Church. With one censored piece of art under his belt already, famed artist Francisco de Goya, who was also a court painter under King Charles IV of Spain, proactively chose not to publish art that displayed his anti-war sentiments. 

In 1810, Goya created a series of sketches that depicted the realities and effects of war, titled “Disasters of War.” These 82 etchings were a response to the Spanish War of Independence, which overlapped with the Peninsular War. However, Goya’s visual protest was delayed, as “Disasters of War” was published 35 years after his death. Although the reason behind his choice to leave it unpublished is unknown, it is assumed that he chose not to out of fear of retribution from the Spanish government.

Through drawings of violent encounters between soldiers and civilians, torture of captives and other horrific scenes, Goya captured the atrocities of war with full disclosure. Although he didn’t get the chance to speak to audiences about his work, Goya’s unfiltered commentary on war speaks for itself, serving as a fatal warning and a cry to end all wars. In this way, Goya’s “Disasters of War” may be one of the most timeless pieces of protest art. 

In a similar yet distinct reaction to war, the Dada movement, which began in Zurich, Switzerland, during World War I, condemned the war by challenging the traditions, beliefs and culture that produced it. Dadaist art took a hard left in the opposite direction of wartime politics, bourgeois culture and dominant ideas about art itself. The themes of Dadaism are unusual, with absurdity and unconventionality at the root of all Dadaist works. 

Compared to the concept and presentation of Goya’s “Disasters of War,” Dadaist art is quite chaotic and nonsensical. Created in 1917, one of the most famous works from the Dada movement is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which is a porcelain urinal, something ordinary in everyday life but atypical when it comes to art. Dadaist art such as Duchamp’s ignited debates in the art world about what art really is. In a protest against conventionality and reason, Dada artists succeeded in making people question the beliefs they had gotten so comfortable with. 

Protest art didn’t end in the 20th century, though — one of the most influential artist-activists of our time is Ai Weiwei, a Chinese dissident who has spent his life criticizing the Chinese government’s handling of human rights issues and its slow moves toward democracy. Weiwei’s activism and resistance led to his incarceration in 2011 and the demolition of his Beijing studio in 2018, but also made him a symbol of resistance in China and among contemporary artists around the world. As a person, Weiwei has always dared to resist the forces of conformity, authoritarianism and oppression. As an artist, he dares to create provocative art meant to spark dialogue, tension and action. 

Weiwei’s work has been featured in museums and galleries all over the world, with one of his exhibits, “Trace,” on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles this summer. “Trace” features 83 portraits of political prisoners from all around the world, from prominent names such as Martin Luther King Jr. to those less known internationally such as Reeyot Alemu, an Ethiopian journalist. 

The exhibit takes viewers on a winding path of resistance, punishment and relentless activism, all through LEGO bricks. “Trace” captures the spirit of social justice while informing viewers about the activists who have come before us and walk among us, with one of those being the creative and courageous Ai Weiwei.

In the Internet age, protest art is not confined to the insides of museums: We now have the ability to consume, produce and share protest art right from our phones. During the last year — an election year amid a pandemic and various social movements — some people plugged into politics in a way they never have before. Since 2020, activists new and old have taken to social media to spread awareness about social justice issues and share ways to help. Also known as PowerPoint activism, information about voting, international conflicts, coronavirus facts and much more was shared through slideshows with eye-catching graphics and easy-to-read language. In just a few swipes, a viewer can learn about the farmer protests in India, how systemic racism affects public health or how to become an ally to marginalized communities. 

A major characteristic of these slideshows is their visually pleasing nature. With professional graphic designers and artists behind some of these slideshows, it can make serious and disturbing issues look simple and pretty, sometimes obscuring their gravity. 

However, this unique form of protest art manipulates not only the Instagram algorithm but the human attention span for worthy causes. Almost like an advertisement perfectly designed to capture a viewer’s attention, the slideshows can make anyone stop and stare — which can be a good thing. As the protest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries knew, sometimes political messages are best conveyed through formats that captivate and inspire the audience.

While PowerPoint activism runs into the problems of possibly spreading inaccurate information or too little information — as does any informative medium — the bite-sized slideshows are just enough for someone to learn about an issue they may have never heard of before and then later dive into their own research on it. If Instagram infographics are used as a starting point and not the beginning, middle, and end of learning about an issue, then they’re actually an impactful catalyst for change. 

The worlds of art and activism have collided in interesting ways. Protest art can be sobering, satirical and beautiful — sometimes, it may not even seem like art at first.

As our issues and technology evolve and expand, so will the very fabric of art and activism. The existence of protest art means that there’s something to learn about, something to reconsider, to tear down and to rebuild. The infographics, sketches, murals and slam poetry of activists aren’t just meant to be consumed for aestheticism, but also to serve as a call to action. Are you willing to answer?

Daniella Lake covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].