Goya did this in 1814 with his powerful painting “Third of May” which depicts the horror of war in the face of a dejected screaming soldier. Picasso did it too in his iconic 1937 painting “Guernica,” a stunning indictment of the suffering of innocent people during the Spanish Civil War. Diego Rivera did this in his famous murals from 1920s Mexico that attacked the ruling class, the church and capitalism.
The art of resistance is a long-standing tradition that has expanded over time as a form of political protest based on the mobilization and activism of people who wish to resist non-violently. It came to represent popular power and strength by offering activists something to rally behind, as art historian and critic Ruth Millington has pointed out. “Protest artwork can challenge, disrupt and even change the status quo,” she says, citing AIDS awareness campaigns in the 1980s and the more recent Guerilla Girls, a group of anonymous feminist activists. who began to push for the representation of female artists in galleries. . Now they protest, speak and perform, their identities hidden as they are working artists. Their humorous posters, flyers, billboards and books are widely recognized and revered.
Throughout history, brave and creative people have fought oppression, injustice and inequality through various art forms. They have championed and led those who are voiceless, marginalized due to class, gender, age, disability, race or social status. They have been the embodiment of the slogan “Power to the People” as they lead the way in acts of defiance that inspire connection and belief.
Today, protest art is even more important and possible thanks to the prolific possibilities of social media. It also takes many forms beyond paintings and poetry. But all of this, whether it’s literature, theater, dance, puppets, posters, or strobe lights on public buildings, speaks volumes, encouraging public gatherings and passive resistance.
Music can also inspire people to take action. Think Arlo Guthrie, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan. Or Yo Yo Ma playing the Ukrainian national anthem on her cello outside the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC Or just think of the beauty of the little girl with the golden voice who sang from a bunker in Ukraine and became viral. Watch Ukrainians sing their national anthem in front of Russian tanks.
Photography can also be an art of social reform. The work of 1960s photographer Diane Arbus revealed the pain of poverty and otherness, while the work of Dorothea Lange, whose “migrant mother” displaced millions during the days of the Depression and of the Dust Bowl. Social reformers like Jacob Riis used their social reform photographs to bring their claims of injustice to viewers, delivering powerful messages that engaged others. They communicate ideas that resonate across time, place and context.
Such ideas are shared in the simple act of witnessing. Who wouldn’t be moved by the overwhelming crowds of protesters around the world moving silently along the boulevards of their cities, placards in hand, as Ukrainians suffer? Who couldn’t be mesmerized by the brave woman rushing into the video of a live Russian television program with a sign saying “Don’t believe the propaganda! They are lying to you!
Who isn’t motivated to take action in any way possible when we see bombed babies and mothers giving birth on Facebook and Twitter?
Whether it’s a universal image of a clenched fist on a poster, a little graffiti on a building or a bridge, an outrageous visual of the Guerrilla Girls, or a simple interpretation of the Ukrainian flag , powerful images like those of Iranian artist Shirin Neeshat, who defends women in Iran, call us to action because, as she says, “art is our weapon”.
It is also a common thread among those of us who wish to be counted in the fight against cruelty, injustice and violence, and for those of us who want to bring about positive societal change. In light of all that this fragile world is facing in these times, I am grateful for all art forms that humanize and galvanize us, as they inspire us to resist when resistance is needed.
Elayne Clift lives in Saxtons River.