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Protest Art and SOS Art 2020

collage art of ghost bird flying above relics with background of idustrial pollution

Reliquary, mixed media collage on antique book cover, 17.5 x 11 in

JULY 1, 2020

art by Shepard Fairey depicting Angela Davis

(left) Late Hour Riot, Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey is an American graphic artist and social activist who is part of the Street Art movement along with other artists including Banksy and Mr. Brainwash.

Shepard Fairey art Uncle Sam holding hand over man's mouth

Pay Up or Shut Up, Shepard Fairey

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son? Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one? I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’ I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest Where the people are many and their hands are all empty Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten Where black is the color, where none is the number And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’ But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’ And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

(lyrics exerpt from It's a Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan)

It's a Hard Rain

The lyrics of Bob Dylan's song (above) are every bit as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in 1963. Today, I got goosebumps reading them. Because the hard rain, people, it's falling. Now. And maybe, this time, someone's listening.

I won't get into politics here, or bore you with my opinion. That's not what this is about. I'm interested in the role that art can play - or could play, or should play - in all of this. Art, as I always say, is ultimately about some sort of communication.

Usually, when we make art of any kind, we're trying to make a connection. Dylan didn't write his songs just for himself; he was trying to provoke change, or at least to get people to think about it. Art has been used as a form of political and social protest for a very long time. If you doubt its effect, you must be one of the few humans on earth who hasn't seen this:

photo of George Floyd mural with flowers and signs below it

George Floyd Mural, Minneapolis, MN (photo credit: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/Getty)

"It’s one of the most recognizable images to have come out of the protests raging around the world.  As the protests proliferated, so did the murals. Portraits of Floyd have appeared on an Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem and on the last remains of a building damaged by air strikes in Idlib, Syria. Murals of Floyd spread as far as the news of his death... These displays of public art have a long historical connection to civil rights movements in the United States and are an organic expression of the politics the latest movement has unleashed—a politics that is insistent, collaborative, and suspicious of institutions of all kinds."

Protest Art

Some surveys of the history of social protest art begin with the Dada Movement of the early 20th century. But in reality, artists have always used their brushes, pens, bodies, and voices to address social issues. According to author Kurt Vonnegut, artists are often the first to call attention to the need for change:

“I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”

Goya painting of man being executed in war

 The 3rd of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (1814), oil on canvas

Goya etching Que Valor from The Disasters of War

Que Valor! from The Disasters of War

Spanish court painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828) has been called the first 'modern' artist because of The Disasters of War , a series of etchings chronicling the horrors of The Napoleanic wars. It's true that other artists had depicted scenes of war, but those works had always been commissioned by the victors to celebrate and glorify their actions. Goya's prints were made only to satisfy his own need to record the truth of war's atrocities.

"...given how long art was commissioned almost solely by ruling elites (monarchs, popes etc), it’s still fair to think of protest art as modern – as something reflecting increased freedom of expression, a societal shift towards democracy, and a broadening out of artistic patrons." (from Notes From Art History: Power, Protest, Disruption - Sotheby's)

Art For Change

It's far beyond the scope of this blog post to survey the history of protest art. (For a good, brief survey, I recommend the Sotheby's article which is linked in the above quote.) But I do want to show you a few examples that I find compelling, just for context. Disclaimer: I am not an art historian, just a person who, like most people, has my own opinions, likes, and dislikes.

The artists of the Dada Movement were among the first to be known for their activist art. The group formed in 1916 as a reaction against World War I and growing nationalism in Europe. It was comprised of about 30 artists, including Hannah Hoch, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, and Tristan Tzara.

Hannah Hoch collage about the Weimar government in Germany

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,

Hannah Hoch's 1919 collage used text and images from the mass media to protest against the German Weimar government.

jacob lawrence painting from the great migration series 3 black girls writing on chalk borad

African American artist Jacob Lawrence's most famous work was a group of 60 paintings called the Migration Series. These paintings cronicled the Great Black Migration, the movement of six million African Americans out of the Jim Crow South to other parts of the U.S. in search of a better life.

Diego Rivera the uprising painting of soldiers attacking protesters

The Uprising, Diego Rivera, fresco, 1931.

The Mexican Muralist Movement aimed to promote national pride as the country bebuilt after the end of the revolution in 1920. Since many Mexicans at that time were illiterate, the new government saw mural painting in public spaces as a way to disseminate their values and goals. David Alfaro SiqueirosJosé Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera became the leaders of this new art movement.

I was fortunate to be in Washington, DC when world-reknowned activist artist Ai Weiwei's exhibition, Trace, was there.

large lego portraits of activists from around the world by Ai Weiwei

Excerpt from  Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn  "...the monumental installation portrays individuals from around the world whom the artist and various human rights groups consider to be activists, prisoners of conscience, and advocates of free speech. Each of these 176 portraits comprises thousands of plastic LEGO® bricks, assembled by hand and laid out on the floor. The work foregrounds Ai Weiwei’s own experiences of incarceration, interrogation, and surveillance."

photo of Trace installation at Hirshorn museum by Ai Weiwei

Banksy's grafitti painting of kitten on the Gaza strip

World-famous grafitti art activist Banksy says this about one of his paintings on the  Gaza strip: “A local man came up and said ‘Please – what does this mean?’ I explained I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website – but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.” 

Banksy grafitti painting of Basquiat being frisked by police

I've got to admit he's kind of right about that, you know? I just love his painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat being frisked, with Basquiat represented in his own painting style. I admire Banksy's ability to make his point with humor.

"Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing." ~Banksy, Artist

Martha Rosler is a feminist protest artist you may never have heard of.  Her collage/montage series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c. 1967–72) juxtaposes beautiful domestic spaces with images of the Vietnam War. This video is well worth watching, as it shows images from the work while Rosler explains them.

SOS Art 2020: Art for Peace and Justice

Artists are part of the society they live in, and the arts have always been instrumental in the development of social and political change. We are still, and probably always will be, the canaries in the coal mines. It isn't the only purpose of art, but it is perhaps one of the most important ones.

SOS Art 2020 logo woman dressed as statue of liberty screaming

SOS (Save Our Souls) ART Cincinnati is a non-profit organization which promotes activism through art in a multitude of ways. Their primary event is the annual SOS Art exhibition, now in its 18th year. This show features creative expressions for peace and justice by Cincinnati artists.

The organization also publishes the  book, “For a Better World: Book of Poems and Drawings on Peace and Justice by Greater Cincinnati Artists” each year. To learn more about them and the work they do, click the link above. 

Though I don't consider myself a protest artist, it's something I've become more interested in over the past few years. There have been many issues in our country and across our world that have touched me deeply, and I have from time to time felt compelled to comment on them through my work. So I am very proud to be participating again in the SOS Art 2020 exhibit, which is being held online this year due to covid-19 concerns.

Please click this link to view this important exhibition.

collage of youngnative girl with half leopard face being served a dead bird by white girl

The End of Innocence, mixed media collage on antique book cover, 13.75 x 9.75 inches

Stay safe, my friends, and make the art that truly comes from your heart.


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