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What Role Does Protest Have in Art?

By Kate


Over the last year protests have broken out all over the world, from Hong Kong, to Spain, France, Bolivia, and here in the UK. Each protest has a unique goal and a unique message that they want to send to politicians, citizens of their country and the wider world. Images on the news show a sea of banners, placards and flags, often with protesters wearing a costume or an item of clothing that identifies them as a cohesive group. With all these elements coming together it inevitably leads us to draw a connection between protest and artistic practices. I’ve been taking a look into this connection and have been examining how elements of protest can be seen as art, how art is utilized in protest and how protest and art can work together even on the main stages in our theatres.

Over the last few years many protests have occupied the streets of the UK.

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From the Trump visit protests to anti-Brexit marches, large groups of people have marched on cities with banners, placards and signs. Many of these signs contain texts, slogans or rhymes and images. Mostly handmade, these DIY signs have become a key symbol of protest. Moving away from a narrow conception of art as being contained in a formal gallery or ‘art space’, Nina Power argues that these home-made protest banners are a form of art.

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 Posters and banners have been made to accompany all manners of marches and movements, even going back to the Suffragette movement in the late 19th and early 20th Century. These images can be incredibly powerful as they “have the power to rally a group around a simple phrase or effective image, pithily spreading a message of defiance against power in its many guises.”  (Guyver, 2019)

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It can also be seen that protesting itself may also be counted as a kind of performance as a “choreographed relation between opponents of a regime and the forces of reaction” (Power, 2016). This is especially true when looking at the Extinction Rebellion protests in October 2019. This meticulously planned performance occupied streets and squares around cities, attempting to halt ‘usual business’. With training sessions organised, webinars, and a structured timeline of the protest available beforehand, this was a carefully choreographed and rehearsed event. The act of protest is also very performative with every individual joining a march or a sit in taking on the role of a ‘protester’ impacting on all of their behaviour and actions.

The Extinction Rebellion protests took the inclusion of art one step further

and incorporated sculptures, puppets and murals into their protests. They state that through art they aim “to create a more loving, compassionate and creative society in a non-violent and healthy environment.” They intend for their art to educate, entertain and inspire. Using visual art such as sculptures and puppets in protests allows for the message to engage more people. Highly visual art without text is also easier for individuals to understand, especially in areas they may not have a high literacy rate, or for those that don’t know the language. This also allows the art to be understood all over the world, potentially creating an international conversation about the cause.

Theatre spaces and art galleries can also provide a valuable platform for responding to ongoing political situations. These pieces of art can rouse support for a cause and to spread awareness of injustices. However, it is important in these situations that the artist consider who they want to impact. Lyn Gardner argues that political theatre is unlike performances on the street as it can easily be ignored (Gardner, 2019). Taking the art behind closed doors and playing to a limited audience (who can afford a ticket) may only serve to perform to a crowd who agree with the message in the first place. However, in Cultural Resistance: The Power of Music and Visual Art as Protest Stephen Duncombe argues that these events may have the power to “open the eyes” of people who have connections to higher institutes. Protest in theatre and gallery spaces have the potential to play an important part of protest, as the messages conveyed in the art are linked with respectable and renowned institutions, which can give credibility to the cause and to encourage support.

Protest and art have a very interesting relationship. Art can be used for protest in so many ways and has the power to effectively carry a message to the masses. In a year that has been dominated by both peaceful and violent protests, it’s important to acknowledge this connection and to look to the future. In our ever-changing and volatile world the frequency of protests is likely to increase, and perhaps we should all consider how we would use art to resist. We need to use art to resist, because as Nina Power says, “we should worry instead about those periods where there is no artistic commentary or intervention: for those are truly times without humanity”.

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