Protest Art Essay Examples

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Thanks to our friends at the Do Art Foundation each year we have an array of art from murals to sculptures along with a variety of psychedelic shade structures to splash color across the landscape. Most of the artists participating draw inspiration from all sorts of places and more often than not, they have a reason for pouring out their creativity for us all to see. The inspiration that propels them to transmute ideas into art is sometimes difficult to observe but it’s almost always a window into who the artist is and, perhaps more interestingly, what they believe.

In a time where the future is dark with uncertainty and hope runs thin it’s the artists that equip the everyday citizen with the tools to imagine something better. It’s also the artists that can ask the tough questions and suggest possible answers, which gives meaning to their art. Sometimes art can be the source of controversy within a community. Whether protest or satire, a spoonful of art helps the activism go down.

Here are five unique and inspiring examples of art as activism with video!

Calder Greenwood

Medium: Cardboard

If you’ve seen his larger-than-life animal sculptures around Los Angeles you’ll know Calder Greenwood has an affinity for the environment, but what you might not know is that the majority of his projects are a sort of paper-mache, all comprised of second-hand cardboard and other recycled materials. Through his work he seeks to set a green example for other artists, while inspiring Angelenos to notice the forces of nature pushing through the cracks in the sidewalk. With his anonymous partner, who goes by the moniker Wild Life, Greenwood has seeded sculptures in several corners around Los Angeles with a simple hope to get passersby to notice the everpresent influence of nature in the things they see everyday. In this video you’ll see his work used in a the movie Swiss Army man.

Doron Gazit

Medium: Balloons

Probably best known for inventing what the popular animated show Family Guy called “the wacky-waving-inflatable arm-flailing tubeman”, the signature wind sculptures of Doron Gazit are somewhere in between a lazypak and a waterslide. From Egypt to Hollywood and the Dead Sea to the Bay, Gazit has been all over as a celebrated creative and a leader of the arts. He’s been bringing his sculptures to Burning Man for years and even has the distinction of being probably the only balloon artist (of his caliber) to bring his art to a Superbowl (2007), the Olympics (1996) and the White House. In addition to drawing attention to ecosystems abroad and at home, Gazit seeks to capture the very spirit of nature.

Jana Cruder

Medium: Plastics

Those in the know about Jana Cruder and her colleague, Matthew LaPenta, will tell you the eco-themed art they create really makes waves. In fact, the World Art Vision for Environmental Sustainability (W.A.V.E.S.) features two colossal forms of the most commonly tossed non-recyclables in our culture – the plastic water bottle and the Starbucks-style cup. The tragedy of these plastics is that they all eventually find their way to the ocean, where they remain ostensibly forever. To drive this point home, Cruder and LaPenta toured “Natural Plasticity” around the city, showcasing it at different destinations until eventually presenting it in Venice Beach.  

Joshua “Ginger” Monroe

Medium: Sculpture

When the Anarchist Art Collective known as Indecline wants to setup an installation you can bet it’ll come jampacked with socio-political commentary that will be as concerning as it is hilarious. So when it came time to do a piece about the most ugly politician of our time, they brought in the creative muscle of Joshua “Ginger” Monroe. In their renegade collaboration, The Emperor has No Balls, a naked Donald Trump towers over pedestrians in high traffic destinations around the country. Along with his trademark combover haircut and signature scowl of entitlement, the lifelike effigy sports vericose vein riddled skin, a tiny phallus and (of course) no balls. Suffice it to say, people gathered to gawk and laugh while law enforcement scrambled to take the statues down. With meticulous planning the installations simultaneously appeared in Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland, New York and Los Angeles which sparked a larger conversation about the presidential candidate across the country. The New York Parks Department even tweeted that they were “against illegal erections, no matter how small”.


Medium: Paint

There are few names with the activists clout quite like the mysterious muralist, Banksy. From Los Angeles to the West Bank and just about everywhere in between, Banksy has been an icon of protest in paint for the better part of two decades and his satirical epigrams and commitment to anonymity make him a polarizing figure outside the artist community. Through his work he discusses the role of authority and discent, while shedding some light on the imbalances found in Western culture. His famous piece of a rioter whose maltov cocktail is swapped for a bouquet of flowers encourages those who fight to do it for love. Using the popular art from Les Miserables, Banksy retells the tragedy of the story by placing a can of wafting tear gas nearby. In a piece on immigration, a wandering Steve Jobs is seen with a bag of personal belongings and an early model Apple I, the first apple computer, in his arms.

Featured Photo Credit: Jacob Avanzato 

Arguing for art in the sociopolitical

By Gimel Samera

In his 1897-published book, ‘What is Art?’, Leo Tolstoy described art as “one of the means of intercourse between man and man”. We know this to be true when we’re standing beside strangers in an art gallery or museum, gazing at an artist’s work. You might overhear a discussion between patrons, one praising the artist’s craftsmanship and the other criticizing its overarching message. As opposing as their responses may be, what transpires in this interaction is exactly what Tolstoy wrote about. The creator, the producer of the art, invites spectators to study his / her work, engage with it, learn from it, ask and ponder questions, leave it in a state of undress. History has observed that mankind has used art for a great number of distinct functions, which is why the purpose of art cannot be compressed into a single concept. Much like music and writing, art – in its own unique way – is created and enjoyed for different reasons.

A paradox in itself, art can reflect beauty, speaking to our longing to experience it. At the same time, art can reflect the despotic and the revolting, either driving us away or charging powerful emotions in us.

To commemorate the crowning and coronation of Napoleon in Notre-Dame de Paris, Jacque-Louis David, the political leader’s painter, was instructed to render the ceremony on canvas which was finished and exhibited three years after the actual event. In Judith Slaying Holofernes, Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi tells the story of two women beheading an Assyrian general, who fell asleep intoxicated; Michelangelo spent four years, suspended hundreds of feet in the air, painting Biblical accounts from the Book of Genesis on the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel. In art, history is preserved in the service of narrative. A vehicle for the expression of thought, art can shape or reinforce the way we perceive events and issues that take place within society. A paradox in itself, art can reflect beauty, speaking to our longing to experience it. At the same time, art can reflect the despotic and the revolting, either driving us away or charging powerful emotions in us.

The relationship between art and politics is not a new one, dating back to the early 1900s, perhaps further still. Prominent artists, such as Pablo Picasso, have used art as a medium of expressing their displeasure towards objectionable socio-political circumstances. When German and Italian warplanes bombed a village in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Picasso responded by painting the atrocities of war and the suffering of civilians and communities in Guernica. Upon completion, his work made a brief trip around the world, publicizing the war to an international audience. Another example of an artist who found art instrumental in exposing cruelty is Susan Crile. She translated the images of American soldiers torturing and abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib into drawings. Without sparing her audience, Crile’s sketches, paired with short captions, are graphic and horrifying, showing that there was no justice in the inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad.

Art is a key element in contemporary social activism because more often than not, it takes visuals to get an important message across. Through this medium of communication, avant-garde artists can produce knowledge and interact with unsavory political systems. Furthermore, art activism is a visual representation of what’s already embedded in us. It speaks to our frustration, hoping to empower us to do something about it. When dialogue isn’t possible in socio-political conflicts, art steps in to protest. Call it a creative dissent; an intimate encounter between freedom of speech and artistic expression. A prime example of this is the 2014 Hong Kong protests. When the Chinese government announced that candidates required the approval of a “centrally controlled nominating committee” in order to participate in Hong Kong’s first full election in 2017, frustrated citizens took to the streets to show their objection. As a result, protestors decorated downtown Hong Kong with doodles, stickers, laminated flyers, banners, yellow ribbons and a growing collection of messages from supporters on post-its. The pièce de résistance to the 2014 Hong Kong protest is a 10-foot tall wooden statue with a yellow umbrella clenched in its fist and held high. Though the artist, a 22-year-old sculptor who goes by the pseudonym “Milk”, did not give the piece a title, soon enough, passersby started calling it the Umbrella Man. Standing outside the government headquarters, what initially began as a shield against the teargas and pepper-spray fired by police forces became an image of defiance and a symbol of pro-democracy for demonstrators. It seems that even in the midst of chaos, mankind’s creativity is not hindered. If anything, it is fueled.

Perhaps politically-motivated art is not supposed to change the world because for it to bring about lasting and drastic change would require its audience to act as a result of its message.

The same can be said of the Arab Spring, another event that demonstrated art as an instrument of protest. Prior to the revolution, street art was a rare sight in Cairo and many other cities in the Middle East. Now, their streets flourish with testimonies of resistance and triumph, bravery and suffering. To document the people’s political dissent and fight the country’s corrupt political system, local avant-garde artists have turned city walls into canvases. These fervent messages, combined with striking and powerful imagery, narrates the tiresome yet hopeful struggle of their journey. Take a look at the West Bank barrier too. It is heavily marked by the manifold voices of artists from both sides of the Separation Wall, some with drawn and written accounts of what would otherwise not be published in the news. In contrast to the Hong Kong protests, some of these artists have paid with their lives for using street art to defy tyranny. For example, Kais Al-Hilali, a Libyan political artist known for his satirical cartoons of Gaddafi, was shot and killed on March 2011 while painting another one of his political street murals across Benghazi’s walls. Revolution art may be the quietest form of protest, but any freedom of expression is often stifled by anti-revolutionary forces for the sake of power preservation.

In the words of Schumann, perhaps the duty of an artist in a world that, for the most part, is politically and socially suffering is “to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts”. At the end of the day, this is what art influenced by the socio-political is: expressions of opinions aimed to facilitate social and political reform. Ernst Fischer once said, “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it”. You may disagree, but perhaps politically-motivated art is not supposed to change the world because for it to bring about lasting and drastic change would require its audience to act as a result of its message. Perhaps socio-politically influenced art, like its cosmically dissonant counterparts, is meant to act as a messenger – a catalyst for change – reminding the populace of the malaises of the world we inhabit. It is an artist’s letter to society and if left untouched, it will continue to speak its beliefs to the generations that follow.

Gimel Samera is an articles editor for The Missing Slate.


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