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