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Politics and Protest through Art

Giuliana Maresca (protest poster Black Lives Matter Movement 2020)

I am by no means an art historian, but I would like to explore for the sake of our current political and cultural climate, how art has addressed issues of injustice, inequality and politics in the past (and contemporaneously). I personally do no create "political art" in the sense of a discourse on the government or on public affairs of any certain country. I do however, strongly believe that art is a language and is one of the best means of communicating on multiple levels, including emotional, psychological, spiritual, visual and tactile. Because we as humans are all part of a greater community, if we create art about ourselves, about our lives or about that community (or the community of humanity in general) we are in a sense creating political art. The culture we belong to or identify with comes with certain conditions we must either accept, ignore or reject. As artists, we are putting our beliefs, whether consciously or unconsciously into the public realm and thus we have the responsibility and the means to call attention to the discrepancies in our society and learn for ourselves how our beliefs are affected by those discrepancies.

Pablo Picasso (Guernica, 1937)

The first piece I'd like to talk about is by no means the first protest art piece, but it is a very powerful and famous painting by Pablo Picasso referencing the massacre from a bombing by the Nazi's on the Basque city of Guernica, to assist the efforts of Spain's General Francisco Franco. Picasso's visceral portrayal of the agony undergone by the citizens of a city in his home country call upon the emotions of his countrymen and all who witness the mural to become aware of the unjust atrocities being committed by the Nationalists prior to WWII. Artists like Picasso utilize numerous symbols that reference both personal vocabulary such as the Bull, as well as cultural, such as the colors of black, white and blue which reference the photographic nature of documenting the events as well as the way Picasso learned about the incident through the newspaper. This work shows how artists use their voice to draw attention to injustice and just by the nature of depicting events in a particular way, take a political stand. This is also a prime example of how once an art piece is created and displayed, it becomes part of the culture of the society, and takes on a life of its own, changing meaning with the times, often independent of the artist's original intentions.

Keith Haring (Ignorance=Fear=Silence=Death, 1989)

Another great example of how an artist can leverage their power through visual means is Keith Haring's work pictured above. Created to draw awareness to the AIDS epidemic as well as to the need for people to actually change their outlook on the Gay community, his poster used his particular way of painting in addition to the known symbol of the pink triangle that was originally used by the Nazi's to identify homosexual concentration camp inmates, and then adopted by the LGBT community as a symbol of Gay liberation.

As artists we need to be aware of symbols and their historic, cross cultural and contemporary meanings in order to use them effectively. Whether intentionally political or not, the work we create and display will be read according to the time and place in which we live. In our present American culture, we are at a time when not just artists are taking up the call to bring awareness to inequity but also everyone in a community is asking "how can I use my voice for good?" Our call for protest posters has already provided some awareness to the Black Lives Matter movement in SVP's neck of the woods and we hope to continue to be an education platform for positive change in our society.

For more on this topic, check out this great survey of political artists in contemporary culture from WideWalls:

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