It is hard to miss the role of art in protest these days. Bold acts of performativity; vulnerable bodies marching and dancing in the streets; songs, chants, posters, banners, murals, new monuments raised and old ones brought crashing down. Alongside grief, fear, and anger, there is a collective exuberance here, the discovery of power in the aesthetics of resistance. It is this moment of unforeseen power in beauty mingling with defiance—art merging with protest—that breathes life into such images, infusing cultural memory with hope that change is possible in times like these. But what is this power? Can something as otherworldly as art really change the world? Aren’t there more direct ways to resist? What strategies and tactics have artists and activists tried? Do they work? Is art still art when it serves political ends? Isn’t that just propaganda? Above all: What can art do that other forms of resistance cannot? Artists and activists have been asking questions like these for a century or more. We still ask them today. Inspired by Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and other recent struggles, a whole new generation faces them, urgently, as it confronts pressing new concerns of its own. Art, Protest, & the Archives invites concerned citizens young and old to explore both questions and answers through the work of previous generations in a century-long struggle to change the world through the power of art.
The role of protest in art is not always so obvious. Yet social and political struggles did much to shape avant-garde art over the past century. From the Russian Revolution and conflicts around class and race in Depression-era America to the Spanish Civil War, artists in the age of “heroic modernism” devised strategies and tactics that continue to inform the histories of both art and protest today. After the Second World War, decolonization and the struggle for civil rights spurred artists and activists to refine, revise, invert, and overturn modernist innovations while adding new ones of their own, culminating in the creative worldwide uprisings of May 1968. Once again, new actors, agents, and causes reshaped landscapes of art and protest in the post-’68 era, slowly laying the groundwork for the latest wave of “socially engaged art” and global activism of today. Art, Protest, & the Archives explores these alternative histories (quite literally) on two levels:
GROUND FLOOR: a chronological survey traces art-activist innovation from Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and Constructivism through the postwar battles of Situationists and Beats, Happenings and Guerilla theater, Provos and Panthers, to May ’68 and the rainbow revolutions that followed.
UPSTAIRS: a topical approach focuses on protest art’s relationship to media and militancy; performativity and the body; prefigurative community and temporary autonomous zones; solidarity and appropriation; the aesthetics of healing and harm; art and protest in authoritarian states; and institutional critique.
The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centers of conflict, that is to say in the streets and on the walls of factories. To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect. This is why the Atelier Populaire has always refused to put them on sale.
—Students occupying the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, May 16, 1968
What is the place of art and protest in the archives? From the Futurist Manifesto’s threat in 1909 to “destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind” to the angry lines of May ’68 (above), to the latest calls to “Decolonize This Place” — many have insisted that protest art has no place at all in the archives. “Bourgeois places of culture” deprive such material of all subversive power by removing it from the communities and “centers of conflict” where it served as a “weapon,” so the argument goes, embedding it instead in the very institutions of power it was meant to resist. Yet it would be difficult to retell and reactivate such stories of resistance without this material—and behind that the systematic acquisition and preservation necessary for its display. What does inclusion in Beinecke’s collections mean for these objects, their creators, the communities they hoped to serve? What does their absence imply? Can art be protest in a place like this? Art, Protest, & the Archives asks you to decide.
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Art, Protest, and the Archives