On Art and Political Protest (jane dávila)

In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Peru last month I was all set to discuss a form of folk art commonly found among the indigenous people of the Andes mountains, as a form of recognition and remembrance. As I began writing I realized that the underlying theme of the art (political protest and social commentary) is more universal and deserves a broader view. So… my topic got a heck of a lot bigger.

arpillera1.jpgPeruvian Arpillera – potato harvest

Art as political protest can probably be traced back to the very beginnings of Art itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cave paintings in Lascaux and Altamira contain visual references to rivalries between group leaders or dissension among hunters. It seems a natural and almost inevitable expression for an artist to use his chosen medium to give commentary and opinion on the events and people of his time. As a form of protest against injustice, inhumanity or inequality, visual art can be particularly effective.

The most famous example to spring to mind is Guernica by Pablo Picasso.

The huge mural (137″ x 305″) depicts the bombing by Nazi Germany of Guernica, Spain, on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, As many as 1,600 were killed and many more were injured. Picasso said about his painting, started just a week after the bombing:

The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? … In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.

Arpilleras (ar-pee-YAIR-as) are a form of 3-dimensional appliquéd and embroidered art originating in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Many thousands of people were seized by the government as political dissidents and never seen again. The mothers and other female relatives of these “desaparecidos” (disappeared ones) made small wallhangings as a means of recording the fruitless search for their loved ones and as a means of remembrance. Later, arpilleras also recorded historical events such as the downfall of the Pinochet regime. While many of the arpilleras of Peru contain simple imagery of rural life – markets, harvests, etc, there are also those depicting a more than a touch of social commentary. A squad of policemen might be shown breaking up a hunger demonstration; leftist guerrillas may be seen sabotaging a power station, complete with little red sticks of dynamite.

Jumping backward to 1926 we find Otto Dix, a German painter who portrayed the decadant glamour of the Weimar Republic with a good measure of social criticism.

Portrait of the Journalist Sylivia von Harden

Notice the menacing fingers, the stocking slipping down her leg, and the use of strong color in the painting.

Back in the present, Susan Crile of New York has created a powerful series of work about the torture in the prison at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Hands of Power is seen here

It may be that a visual form of protest will engender a stronger, more visceral reaction from the public than spoken or written commentary can ever hope to achieve. Can you think of other examples of art as political protest? Do you know of a work of art that has altered the course of events, due to the strength of its message?

11 Responses to “On Art and Political Protest (jane dávila)”

  1. 1 Cinde Rawn, Threads of Hope June 24, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    I am so intrigued by this new-found blog. I am the director of a non-profit economic development project supporting women textile artists in the shanty towns of Lima, Peru…they make arpilleras. In our ten years of supporting their work we have grown from 7 artisans to 22, plus 28 secondary producers they hire to construct their art into wearable art, home decor, and other items. We market their art for them throughout the United States. Since the inception of the project we have, and continue to, maintain a 100% return of profit to these remarkable women.

    For me, their art is a testimony to the unstoppable spirit within each of them. They sew these delightful scenes of hope, joy, beauty and love even in the midst of the difficulties encountered as they rise out of poverty. The work of their hands and hearts really is changing the world for them and their children.

    Our best story this year is of Moya. Moya learned to sew nine years ago, determined to make a better life for her children. She built a proper home, acquired electricity and water, and then stopped short of a cement floor. She chose earthen floors for a few more years while she put her son through law school! He graduated in 2009 and sat for the exams in 2010! All possible because of the textile art that has long told the stories of overcoming hardships in Peru. Now the textiles tell even greater stores about hope and renewed lives.

    Learn more about this project at http://www.tohtexas.org

    Cinde Rawn, Director
    Threads of Hope

  2. 2 Kristin Freeman September 13, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Strange I as read the posts about protest and dress I look back at my years of marching for civil rights, for no war and supporting the conscientous objectors during the Vietnam War by driving underground to Canada with folks….and always I wore very straight clothes; never wanted to draw attention to me by being different; marched for civil rights in the north and in the south – traveled with the freedom train and always looked provincial in a suit with a white blouse, gloves and a hat. Seeing “mind” pictures of those times brings wonder to me about who and when and what and where the new clothing looks came fully onto the scene. Those late 50’s and early 60’s were not times of protest through appearance, but protest I did by marching and singing and writing lots of letters. Those years were so busy for me that there were few trips to the art museums, but I well remember an exhibit of Paul Klee’s work at the museum in Volunteer Park in Seattle. These were pictures that changed my eye in galleries forever. Probably my earliest textile pieces reflected the art I viewed much more than it reflected my political and social positions until well into the mid eighties when work that unearthed feelings and found form for the soul of me began to make statements that spoke of my position on war and violence of any kind.
    See art that speaks of social challenge always draws me closer and closer for a better look and to drink in every drop of symbolism on/in the work of art.

  3. 3 Jane Davila September 13, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    Sparked by some of the comments here I went looking for political art from more areas of the world. Here’s a link to work by Cheri Cherin (Joseph Kinkonda) from the Democratic Republic Congo.

    His work sharply criticizes the government of Congo with visual metaphors.


    Many of the other examples I’ve been finding (in South Africa during apartheid for example) show that the artists were at risk for arrest or worse for creating this type of work and so many were, perforce, created as “temporary” protest – posters, grafitti, etc – with no thought for permanence or often credit.

    I know in the case of the arpilleras the powers that be in the various countries where they are popular overlooked or didn’t notice the political message because they were rendered in a traditionally “female” medium.

  4. 4 June September 13, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    I forgot to mention the great landscape painters of the nineteenth century, who might be considered the force that got our national park system in gear, and to some extent still inform our current desire to save unspoiled land. They did so by depicting beauty and grandeur rather than what we currently see more often in art, the spoiled land and logged off moonscapes. Different times, different needs.

    But I must say that while tie-dye was a rebellion against dress norms of the fifties, it was not really an anti-war/political statement, except insofar as mass movements are always political, even when they aren’t. I was highly political during the Vietnam era, but only sort of took on the fashion of the period — sort of in the sense that one generally gets caught in current fashion just because we buy clothes.

    That said, I have some magnificent photos of myself and my husband in bright plaid pants doing a TV program about feminism!

  5. 5 susi sole`r September 13, 2007 at 11:06 am

    I liked what Virginia Burnett had to say..and I think we DO need to talk WITH, not AT, kids, about these issues, and what happened in the 60’s. It is relevant to today’s wars, and most kids nowdays just blink their eyes when you say “protest”, whether it be in art form, or marching, or whatever.
    I bought a very beautiful, very sad embroidered piece in Denver several yrs ago…it’s an embroidery about 36″ square by Cambodians who were brought to Denver afterthe “fall” in VietNam. It depicts people swimming, walking and running away, presumbably towards a safe country…animals and people and even birds have red blood embroidered on them, villages have fire coming out of the roofs, there’s a helicopter with lines representing bullets, aiming at people, etc. Its a “heavy” piece, and I bought it back then to remind me of war, never imagining we would be doing it all over again. (how naieve of me)I cant spell that word!
    Anyway, I think probably the artist who did this piece was doing it perhaps not as an overt “protest”, more as a record of fwhat happened…but its a covert protest of war and all the damage it does. I have it hanging in my living room to remind me of those days.

  6. 6 Chris Gilman September 13, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Sometimes there are situations which warrant retribution; art is a much better method than anything else. That “pesky First Amendment” is a great way to vent.

    “Success is the Best Revenge!!”

    Chris Gilman

  7. 7 Virginia Burnett September 13, 2007 at 4:37 am

    I believe that the arts and crafts and clothing/jewelry of the hippie generation fit the description of a folkart dedicated to mass protest. Because we are still so culturally close to these “fashion trends” (they keep being re-cycled into the ready-to-wear fashion industry) it is easy to forget just how revolutionary it was for someone to wear tie-dye instead of the standard white button down blouse in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

    I led a tie-dye activity as part of art summer camp this year and tried talking with the kids about the conservative dress standards of the 1950’s and about how the teens and young adults began using “hippie” clothes as a way of protesting the conflicts in Korea & Vietnam as well as the false/superficial “decency” of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. My students were clueless. I got the distinct impression that no one is really having meaningful discussions with them about our current political/military situation.

    Maybe it is time to go raid my Auntie’s closet…

  8. 8 eileen doughty September 13, 2007 at 4:01 am

    Aside from paintings, consider graffiti and political cartoons (published in newspapers, magazines, online) as other examples of political art. With graffiti at least, no one has paid for it to be made.

    Can these forms be considered ‘art’? That is something I struggle with myself, as my own political statement quilts tend more towards the editorial cartoon-style than a subtle painting of a subject.

  9. 9 june September 12, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    The tapestry version of Guernica was covered up prior to Colin Powell’s speech to the UN in Feb. 2003 ( http://www.slate.com/id/2078242/ ) because it was felt that it would be inappropriate for him to be touting the war in Iraq in front of the most famous anti-war painting in history. The Slate article cited above gives more history of the painting as protest — Picasso wouldn’t allow it to be taken to Spain while Franco was in power. And during Vietnam, it was defaced as a protest against the My Lai massacres (the painting was well varnished so the vandalism didn’t take).

    Photographs had a huge impact on America’s withdrawal from Vietnam — I’m thinking of the girl kneeling over the Kent State student who was shot by the National Guard and the naked child running down a road having been napalmed by American troops. Both these photos were journalism, of course, but they were also faithful to artistic principles.

    And then there’s Diego Rivera. He put Lenin into a mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center and got fired, and he painted a lot about workers and indigenous peoples in Mexico. Terry did a blog on him a while back which I’m too brain-dead to find.

    I think Terry is right, at least about art in the industrialized world — it affects public opinion and raises consciousness. But I don’t know of any western European/US visual examples such as the Chilean Arpilleras, where a whole folkart became dedicated to mass protest. Music among African Americans took on that role here in the states, I think.

    The role of visual arts is different in different cultures. In the US it tends to be just another consumer product, measured by what is paid for it. Content is a side issue.

  10. 10 terrygrant September 12, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    I think of Picasso’s “Guernica”, which was painted in protest of the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It was first exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1938, then toured around the world, drawing attention to the atrocities. It has since become one of the most recognized paintings in the world and symbolizes the horrors of war. The image has been used repeatedly to protest wars in general and was copied in tapestry form to hang at the United Nations as a constant reminder of the consequences of war. Whether it has altered the course of events in a quantifiable way–that I don’t know, but I think it can be argued that the painting has certainly affected public opinion and raised consciousness.

  11. 11 Linda September 12, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    An artist that quickly comes to mind is Franscisco de Goya. Another Spaniard, he painted the picture The Third of May, 1808. Goya’s art wasn’t well known outside of Spain until after his death, but is considered to have influenced modern art.

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