Protest Art is More Than Just Graffiti on the Wall. It's a Call to Action.
We’ve all encountered protest art at least once: the unsubtle writing on the wall calling for an end to imperialism, an effigy of the President being burned or maimed during a protest, or songs and stories about the harsh realities of society. We’ve seen it, and some of us have recoiled at the concept of it.
Why do these protesters have to burn effigies? Why do they have to vandalize public property? Why can’t they just rally in peace?
Protest art is more than just graffiti on a wall or an effigy being burned. It is an expression of anger, a call to action, and an indictment of present society’s injustice.
The Meaning of Art
It is impossible to divorce art from the meaning behind it. It is a product of the artist and the environment, and is essentially a reflection of both. Amorsolo’s pastoral works of quaint Filipino life are reflections of Philippine society. The Mona Lisa is a depiction of Italian cultural standards of beauty in Da Vinci’s time.
The same can be said of protest art. Far from the idealizations of “art for art’s sake” and notions that art must not be political, protest art acknowledges that all art is political in nature. The art of the protester embraces this and reflects upon this.
Everything, from its form to its implementation, becomes a reflection of the protester’s condition: destroying an effigy is the culmination of rage, graffiti is the shout resisting silence. Far from simple vandalism, it is a meaningful expression and a reflection of an entire society put under heel by unfair conditions.
The Economics of Art
Beyond meaning, we must talk about the economic space in which art exists or rather the economic hurdles people face in the pursuit of art.
Creating art has become an exclusive process that requires time, training, and most important, money. Students enroll in art schools and get college degrees in order to be considered competent. Being an artist becomes less of a question of organic skill, but a question of the artist’s training, expertise, materials, and capital.
That art has an economic paywall thus creates artists borne of a certain middle class, with their own bourgeois tendencies. Art becomes a reflection of that subset of society, and everything—modes, techniques, production, distribution, appreciation—reflects that. Art not only straddles class lines, but becomes commodified and dictated by market forces. Prevailing trends prevail not because of the artist’s will, but because they are marketable.
Protest art is a rejection of this modern trend. It rejects notions of economic prerequisites, of art as a commodity meant to be bought and sold, and of art as being restricted to a select trained few. It brings art back to its most primal form: something anybody should be capable of doing, regardless of class or training. It rejects the commodification of art and empowers the artist, proving that they can seize cultural power from the ruling elite.
The Purpose of Protest Art
Which brings us back to the question: What is protest art?
Protest art exists to comment on, and ultimately, condemn the current structures that shackle the artist. But more than providing commentary, as all art does, protest art exists in conflict with its existing environment. Protest art is, in a word, revolutionary.
When workers create a mural depicting their union’s struggles, it is both an indictment of the society that oppresses them as well as a means of creating a product that is truly theirs. It is the workers seizing the means of their own production, disregarding all notions of commodity and product.
When students write about revolutionary change directly on the walls and the streets, it is both a call to action and an expression of their stifled voices. Protest art takes on the form of graffiti in the absence of an avenue that will adequately contain an artist's call, much like the reason why the protest movement takes to the streets in the first place.
When farmers create their own songs, write their own poems, and narrate their own stories, it gives agency to the lowest and most populous class by allowing them to create culture that reflects their reality, while also turning societal norms of art upside-down. It is a shout to the world, against a system that actively disenfranchises them and puts them down. The revolutionary character of protest art becomes a reaffirmation of existence, like birds chirping in the morning to tell other birds that they are still there.
What is protest art? It is art in its purest form, unfettered by the trappings of modern capitalism and the needs of the market. It is art, unrefined and stripped of any middle and upper-class pretentiousness. And, in the proper hands, it is unbridled power.