From the Bayeux Tapestrey to ‘Guernica’ and Mark Wallinger’s ‘State Britain’, political art and armed conflict have long enjoyed a potent synergy. Art’s ability to mock warmongering in all its forms was one of its defining twentieth century characteristics – and that propensity for channeling and expressing political defiance and grassroots protest still has a place today, argues Catherine Bradley
The industrial age gave us mass production, mass destruction and a tumultuous century drenched in the blood of war. Inevitably the arts have responded to this. Most accounts of the origins of anti war protest art cite ‘Guernica’ (1937) as the first political masterpiece. Certainly Picasso’s monumental painting has become synonymous with indiscriminate slaughter with its depiction of mutilated bodies, screaming animals and people and the gut-wrenching image of a woman holding her dead baby. Despite the myriad reproductions and reinterpretations, ‘Guernica’ has never lots its power, holding up a mirror to the horror of war and the dark potential of human nature.
Before ‘Guernica’, the First World War had given rise to a host of artists who were personally affected by the conflict, either physically or psychologically. The graphic etchings and drawings of Kathe Kollowitz who lost her son Peter on the battlefields in 1914, depict the depth of devastation at the needless loss of life; her etching ‘Woman with Dead Child’ (1903) is especially emotive given her personal connection with the subject matter. Otto Dix, who fought on the Somme, was profoundly affected by the horrific sights he faced in battle. When the war ended, Dix’s paintings became increasingly political and personal. In 1914 he and fellow artists who had fought in the war put on a travelling anti-war protest exhibition called No More War! His etchings from the same year entitled Der Krieg were considered at the time as “perhaps the most powerful as well as the most anti-war statements in modern art.”
Of course, anti-war imagery in art was around long before we got to the horrors of global conflict. Francisco de Goya’s print series Disasters of War (1810-1814) depict the devastation of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808. These brutally graphic images with their scenes of torture and savagery have an enduring legacy and nearly 200 years on find eerie echoes in the atrocities of our own time.
John Heartfield’s leftwing photomontages are equally potent anti-war statements. Heartfield’s protest art has had a lasting impact on the image makers that followed him. His satirical approach to condemning Hitler, the Nazi regime and the wealthy industrialists who supported them, was confrontational, controversial and immediate. Crucially, Heartfield’s work wasn’t just about making a statement. Much of it caused diplomatic difficulties for Germany, showing the Nazi regime in its true light. The impact of his pioneering work was so great that it transformed photomontage into a powerful form of mass communication. Heartfield was revolutionary to the bone. He played a major role in the influential Dada movement founded by Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp and established in 1916 in a Zurich club called Cabaret Voltaire. The Dadaists expressed their revolt against the war in a more philosophical (albeit whimsical) way than other artists of the time. With ready-mades, assemblages, cut and paste collages and photomontage, Dadaism took on the art establishment, holding up a mirror to contemporary society. The anti-war, anti-bourgeois politics of the revolutionary Dada movement set the tone of cultural subversion within the arts for the remainder of the twentieth century and beyond.
As the mass radical activism of counter-cultural movements took hold in the sixties, the spirit of Dada made a significant reappearance with its undeniable influence on Pop Art, happenings and conceptualism, ushering in multifarious changes and evolutions in art. The combination of an anti-aesthetic sensibility, the notion of the personal as political and an increasing interrogation of the distance between representation and reality, prompted Theodor Adorno to note, “Today it goes without saying that nothing concerning art goes without saying, much less without thinking.” The radical spirit of the age questioned the fundamental structure of the art world. From Fluxus to Feminism, provocative trash aesthetics and disruptive performance strategies forced audiences to engage with socio-political messages, while Land Art (Richard Long, Hamish Fulton) and Street Art (New York artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring) took art away from the white walls of the gallery, challenging the permanence and materiality of artworks. Importantly, the spirit of change ushered in a blurring of the boundaries between the art world and the everyday, proposing a new role for the artist in relation to society.
A child of the ’70s, I grew up on the ‘Derry side’ of the River Foyle in Northern Ireland. I was never far away from the imposing protest art that documents the city’s civil rights era of the late ’60s and the subsequent troubles there. As far back as I can remember the Free Derry Wall was always an impressive sight rooted as it is so firmly at the bottom of the bypass leading from the Bogside and Creggan hill to the top of town. The iconic former gable end with its bold black text, “You are now entering Free Derry”, commemorates the defiant spirit of a people in the midst of political struggle, while the inner side of the wall documents a range of concerns, from solvent abuse to current international crises, like the war in Iraq. Bansky sites the public wall as, “the weapon of choice to hit them back.” The Free Derry Wall has been doing so for nearly forty years now; perhaps he should pay it a visit. I’d be interested to see what he’d put up there.
Banksy, the self-described “art terrorist”, is perhaps the most famous (albeit anonymous) protest artist of his time. Starting as a freehand graffiti artist in the early ‘9os in his hometown of Bristol, he made the shift to stencilling in a bid to save time on his art after an uncomfortable night hiding from the authorities under a dumper truck. Banksy’s stencils combine images of animals or people with text.
Often humorous and usually with anti-establishment, anti-war, anti-capitalist sentiments, his early works sparked controversy and interest in equal measures. His politics may be obvious and irritating to some but humour and creative flair have been central features in street art and I believe that Banksy’s success is rooted in the wit he injects into his works.
A lot of protest art in recent years has happened outside of the gallery space and as such it has built a relationship with the public through humour. Bansky’s apparent infiltration of the museum, successfully keeping his anonymity intact, keeps him on the outside of the institution even if his work is on the inside. It’s a little bit cheeky but an impressive step up from his previous gallery stunts. However obvious his political sentiments may be, Banksy’s internationally renowned persona as an art hacker/culture jammer and his signature graffiti are undeniably the touchstone for a generation (believe me, I’ve read enough first year degree student essays in the last seven years to vouch for that). Bansky is the art world’s Tyler Durden (antihero of the 1999 film Fight Club).
The soi-disant ‘counter-hegemonic’ art of Freee Collective — Dave Beech, Andy Hewitt and Mel Jordan — in a similar vein to Bansky, claims to encourage free(e) thinking citizenry through their collaborative projects. Their 2006 project Protest Is Beautiful, at 1000000mph Project Space in Bethnal Green, hosted a variety of works designed around sloganeering. The image outside the gallery depicted the name of the show constructed as a funeral wreath in sunny yellow flowers. The wreath was held up by the sombrely dressed artists, obscuring their bodies and looking as if it could be released at any moment and take off into the sky like loosed helium balloons. It was both glorious and melancholy; more like a memorial to protest that is unapologetically still potent. Their 2008/09 show at the ICA furthered their desire to create a space where public debate and protest could occur. The polemical slogans and statements central to their practice (often reminiscent of Gillian Wearing’s work) feature on a variety of media: banners, postcards, t-shirts, billboards, video, installations and live performance. Their billboard poster piece ‘Protest Drives History’, for all its simplicity, is equally a loaded and penetrating work. It acts as both a direct statement and an opener for debate, demanding that the spectator acknowledge their position and contribute their piece.
If protest art is concerned with provoking and engaging the attention of a mass audience, then Anthony Gormley’s One & Other, asking the people of the UK to occupy the empty Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square from July to October 2009, is the perfect platform. When the work is completed, over 2,400 people will have spent an hour on the plinth. According to Gormley this work is concerned with creating a picture of Britain. It is a test “of what kind of art we make and what sort of people we are.” With no real rules to follow, participants can do whatever they want. I wonder how many of them will have taken the opportunity to become protest art performers?
Previous Fourth Plinth occupant, Mark Wallinger, arguably produced one of the most provocative art protest installations in 2007 with his monument to public protest, ‘State Britain’, with which he won the Turner Prize that year. He meticulously reconstructed the Parliament Square protest campaign against the war in Iraq presided over by peace activist Brian Haw from photos taken of the campaign. The significance of this act is all the more resonant when you realise that Haw’s protest banners and placards were seized and destroyed by the police following the introduction of the ‘Serious Organized Crime and Police Act’. Only a fraction of his demonstration camp was left intact. Wallinger’s reconstruction of the missing protest within a gallery context, shifting its status to art object, was celebrated by the Turner judges as “a bold political statement with art’s ability to articulate fundamental truths.” Where political protest art is concerned, ‘State Britain’ resonates as strongly with me as Picasso’s ‘Guernica’.
In the same year that ‘State Britain’ was shown at the Tate, the ICA marked the Iraq war with a group exhibition, Memorial to the Iraq War. 26 artists in total were invited to propose and exhibit their interpretation of the title for the show. The multimedia exhibition raised criticisms for the timing and naming of the show. Running for a mere five weeks, the exhibition challenged traditional notions of memorial and the process of preservation and permanence this implies. The temporal nature of these memorial works (made specifically for this five-week show) revealed more of the purpose of the exhibition itself. The white space of the gallery (itself always fixed) is a temporary sanctuary rather than a permanent residence in this instance. This memorial to an ongoing war, rather than offering a fixed and monumental statement seemed more immediate and more tangible with its implicit allusion to the transience of memory.
The protest art of today is a diverse and dispersed phenomenon. With digital media in the mix, there are more and more platforms for expression. From Abu-Ghraib to Iran, the hidden tortures of war are more easily exposed in this digitally networked age. The footage of the shooting by Basij militia of Neda Agha-Soltan in June this year as she watched protests against the Iranian election results is a case in point. Within hours the video of the Tehran shooting had spread internationally through social media networks YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. Not surprisingly, anti-war web artists have since been using Neda’s image in their work accompanied with the slogan ‘I am Neda’. As David Connett reported for the Independent; “The web has made Tehran the world capital of online dissent, and Neda is at its hub.”
Essentially, protest is about becoming public, something art is also engaged in. Crucially, the arrival of new media and new social technologies enabling new forms of interaction between different ‘publics’ has prompted us to redefine the parameters of the public sphere. The filming and broadcast of Neda’s death, taken from the personal realm of the individual to the public realm of mass media, is arguably the most potent image of revolution we have seen since the haunting images of two planes smashing into the Twin Towers. In many ways it demands a rethinking of where art sits in terms of image-making and social engagement today.