History's top 10 artist protests

For those like George Brandis, who would like to silo off politics from any actual human touch, it looks like the Sydney Biennale (ok, that’s the last mention of those words….) is the thin-edge of a social revolution. Senator Brandis might be interested to learn that history tells us three things.

First, artists often protest.

Second, it probably is a revolution.

Third, you probably can’t stop either.

A scan back across history not only reveals a long list of art protests, but also a canny ability for artists to be ahead of the game, and politicians, and to be on the right side of history.

The following list throws these categories together to offer a list of ten of well-known artist/protester moments through history, in no real order.

1. Picasso’s Guernica

Completed in 1937, this disconcerting painting depicts the horrors of war, particularly concerning civilians. Based on events in the Spanish Civil War, the work captures the trend to move war from formalised battlefields and into the streets, to the point where these days there are far more civilian victims of war than soldiers.

In showing the awful inhumanity of war, Picasso’s work provided one of the inspirations for the modern human rights movement.


2. Paul Robeson’s Lefty-ism

African American singer and actor Paul Robson (he was called a Negro in those days… when people were being polite) was a fervid supporter of workers rights and civil rights. He spent time in Stalin’s USSR (and in Australia) and was often talking up the red side of the emerging Cold War.

Despite holding his views even as the atrocities were becoming known, Robeson deserves kudos for having the courage to be among the first black Americans to stand up to the growing corporate world view and for gaining political respect for black Americans.

3. John Lennon’s Bed In

It was 1969 and sit-ins against the Vietnam War were all the rage. Lennon and Ono, never ones to miss a moment to do something weird, deciding sitting in bed at the Amsterdam Hilton for their honeymoon and inviting the press in would stop the carpet bombing in SE Asia.

Less than successful as a peace device, the value of John and Yoko’s bed-ins (there was actually another one in Montreal) was that it more or less kicked off the era of celebrities who are prepared to bite the hands that freed them.

4. Brando’s Oscar No-Show

At the 1973 awards, Brando was awarded the gong for his performance in The Godfather. He failed to show, or to accept the award and sent an Apache women named Sacheen Littlefeather along to present a statement outlining his negative view on the treatment of “Indians” in the entertainment industry and in support of indigenous Americans at a rights protest at the time. She dramatically – appropriate given the context – rejected Roger Moore’s attempt to give her the award and gave a short and elegant speech

The protest drew applause and few boos and etched in the global culture the power at the celebrity finger tips if they chose to be political.

5. Pussy Riot’s Post Punk Punkisms

Having just discovered punk, Russians never knew what hit them when the femmes fatales called Pussy Riot (pictured above) balaclava’d up and raided the establishment.

With a moving membership of indeterminate number, Pussy Riot targetted gay and lesbian rights, feminism, combined with a Putin-is-a-dickhead line and anarchic drop-ins on the Orthodox Church for its non-stance on all the above.

Their significance is in highlighting to a new audience in the West in particular the thuggish regime of Putin which is even now threatening global peace by upping the ante in Crimea.

Their music is, lets say an acquired taste. But their political chops are firm.

6. Ai Wei Wei’s Tiananmen Finger

As part of his Study of Perspective series, Ai took photos of a stiff middle finger sticking it up various global monuments, including Tienanmen, probably China’s most weighted political site.

Its questionable the anti-establishment Ai (he has stuck it up Western governments too) would have been so internationally popular if his career had not corresponded with the world’s fascination with his country, but his art stands for the many who the have courage to take on the party on human rights and corruption issues. It’s not all rosy-cheeked growth and chubby millionaires kids in China.

Ai has paid a price for his work and went missing in detention for almost 3 months in 2011 and is regularly harassed by Chinese officials. But, his hard won fame seems to have won him some cover at least. He speaks – and acts – for many.

7. Nowhere Island’s State-ment

Nowhere Island was a project of the Bristol, UK-based group art group, Situations and in particular the visual artist and photographer Alex Hartley.

The small, seemingly nondescript slab of icy rock drifted off the Arctic ice floe sometime in the early part of this decade and was effectively inhabited as a “new nation” by the group. The group invited people to become citizens and around 23,000 (including my 11-year-old daughter) signed up.

Nowhere Island presents a compelling template for land occupation and a comment on the politics of statism as it opened the citizenship to all, not just those whom its founder(s) favoured. There are around 135 countries represented among its citizens. It has a constitution and an embassy but no resorts.

8. Woody Guthrie’s Guitar

American folk singer Woodrow Guthrie sang for the dispossessed and the alienated. He was particularly active during the Depression years and his themes of anti-corporatism and anti-greed resonated among Dust Bowl farmers as well as big city factory workers and unemployed itinerants criss-crossing the country in search of work.

His favourite guitars were plastered with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” and it is one of the more salient statements on the power of personal struggle and the ability of a single voice – or musical note – to effect positive change.

Woody Guthrie

9. Harper Lee’s adaptation

To Kill a Mockingbird is the 1962 film version of Harper Lee’s only published book, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1960. The central protagonist, Atticus Finch, has become arguably the leading film hero of all time, representing as he does the embodiment of human justice and human rights.

Director Robert Mulligan and screenwriter Horton Foote captured the power of discrimination as a force in every day society and our inherent willingness to judge and to categorise based on prejudice.

For many, the film introduced the ability of a popular Hollywood movie to take on tricky political issues and to take sides in ways that held the artistic integrity of the concept.

10. The Arab Spring’s Graffiti

The Arab Spring, which is generally considered to have kicked off in Tunisia in 2011 and is effectively still continuing in Syria and Bahrain and elsewhere, produced stadiums full of gritty news copy. But is also produced some of the most immediate, insightful and human art seen for some time.

As the street demos occupied the main thoroughfares throughout the Arab world, protesters armed with spray cans spun off from the throng and, often risking arrest or worse, recorded their interpretations of events as they happened on the walls and buildings around them.

Perhaps because it’s not really a coherent art movement the revolutionary street art of the Arab Spring hasn’t resulted in a definitive study, not even, inexplicably, a nice glossy coffee-table slab from Taschen.

10 responses to “History's top 10 artist protests

  1. The difference, of course, between all these excellent examples is that the boycotting Biennale artists decided to forgo an artistic and creative protest in lieu of a petition signing exercise no one will remember.

    They have no Guernica or Pussy Riot stunt to show for their actions, just empty words which are cheap. This list shows the boycott was a missed opportunity.

  2. Hey!! What about our very own Australian Cultural Terrorists? Their beef may have not been as noble as Pablo’s or Pussy’s, but their method and execution was ….. AMAZING. Those were the days when I read The Age religiously – such a long long time ago..sigh…

  3. Neglect not local boys Midnight Oil and their guerilla gig in front of the Exxon headquarters in New York city in 1990…a great gig, and just how did they pull that off? It made many people notice the environmental/corporate issue of the time, not least perhaps some of the good citizens of that city.

  4. An interesting choice of protests. Graffiti in Libya can hardly be called an artists protest. I read the same crap on buildings along the Bombay Express track from GC to Brisvegas. And all your other examples except for Ai Wei Wei’s are western Eoropean which along with Ai Wei Wei’s (unfortunately) changed nothing. Where were the artists’ protests that bought down Hitler, Stalin, Tojo, Mao and Pol Pot?

  5. Hey! What about J’accuse! (Emil Zola) … Brought down the French government; highlighted anti-semitism as a political issue; proposed that JUSTICE might be a more important policy-motivator than HONOUR… Surely deserves a place in the top 10.

  6. Ha! The Big Rambling Multi Venue Art Exhibition Formerly Known As…The Big Expensive Tax Dodge Endlessly Full Of Cliched Videos, Installations Of Any Old Stuff, A Few So-Called Names, More Dubious Performances Of The Public Interacting By Being Silly In The Domain, Plastic Exploding Inevitable Art Show That Dare Not Speak It’s Sponsor….

    Picasso’ Guernica was itself the subject of a protest work in 1974 by a young Tony Shafrazi. Shafrazi went on to become one of the top 80s art dealers fostering such talents as Keith Haring, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Enzo Cucchi among others. Shafrazi spray-canned the words: KILL LIES ALL across the work in protest against the My Lai Massacre by US troops during the Vietnam War. The work had a heavy coat of varnish so was unharmed. Shafrazi’s comments about his action are themselves both timely and timeless. “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life. Maybe that’s why the Guernica action remains so difficult to deal with. I tried to trespass that invisible barrier that no one is allowed to cross; I wanted to dwell within the act of the painting’s creation, get involved with the making of the work, put my hand within it and by that act encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it and thus see it in its raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history.”



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