Arts movements in the face of political oppression

Christopher Little talks about current and past politically motivated arts movements.

Christopher Little
12th March 2018
Image: Carys Thomas

The noise of power may, at times, feel all encompassing, but artists will always find a way to make their voices heard.

They are not afraid to express radical ideas, and will combine innovation with fearless temerity to rise up above the oppressive clamour. When artists unite, they form movements that challenge the dominant discourses and powerful hierarchies of society.

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht once said that art is not merely a mirror that reflects society, but a hammer with which to shape it; a powerful tool that can transform the way we see the world. It is no surprise, then, that protest art has such a long – and often turbulent – history; for it is during times conflict, strife and political oppression that we need the artist’s voice most of all.

Dada was an artistic movement that formed during World War I in Zurich, Switzerland. They responded to the absurdity of war with a menagerie of art, poetry and performance that was often satirical and nonsensical. They were repulsed by not only the war, but also every aspect of a society that could engender and prolong such horrors. As the Dada artist Hans Arp wrote: “While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.”

Art is an intoxicating and affective means to challenge unjust social orders

Most people will have heard of the now notorious graffiti artist Banksy. His satirical street art uses dark humour to portray a microcosm of simmering counterculture, but he was not the first to convey their political messages on impassive walls.

In the face of widespread industrialisation in the 1920s, Mexican Muralists painted evocative large-scale public frescos to communicate their left-wing socialist ideals. During the 1980s the Berlin wall became one of the largest canvases in the world as artists challenged communist repression using a pandemonium of colour and emotion. Graffiti is seen as vandalism to some, but to others it is a form of creative dissent that can openly rebel against oppressive structures.

Art is an intoxicating and affective means to challenge unjust social orders: it stirs passion and desire. Artists helped create solidarity during the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and queer movements; aiding the production of counter-narratives that now define who we are today.

But the battle is not over. A politics of fear and denial is burrowing its way into Western democracy. We need art to rout it out; to lay bare its machinations and offer a new story that we can believe in. And we need look no further than our own doorstep to find artists are answering that plea.

‘Nasty Women’ is a global art movement that formed in reaction to the divisive and misogynist rhetoric of President Trump. Using art as a platform, they unite all genders, races, faiths and LGBTQIA identities to fight against threats to roll back women’s rights, individual rights and abortion rights. They’ve held over 40 events across the world and held their first International Conference at the Thought Foundation in Gateshead last November.

Art allows us to foster an ethos of resilience, relinquishment and restoration

The second part of the AV festival Meanwhile, What About Socialism? began on 2 March. This month long biennial festival hosts a series of events across Newcastle, and uses the underlying ideals of socialism – justice and liberty – to question the political and capitalist system we live in.

The Newcastle based artist-run collective The Newbridge Project has undertaken a year-long initiative called ‘Deep Adaptation’. This politically engaged programme aims to expose the grim reality of unsustainable consumption, and has used Dadaism to confront the horrors of the Grenfell Tower disaster. But it also offers hope; using the programme to foster an ethos of resilience, relinquishment and restoration.

And therein lies the secret to prosperity in these artistic movements: the possibility of an alternative; the promise of something better.

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