A Brief History of Protest Art


Art as long been used as a form of criticizing or protesting various activities throughout the world. It can be used to criticize and protect governments, corporations, or other things the artist does not agree with. Protest art is not simply limited to posters and slogans, but also includes art such as theatre performance, literature, and even cartoon art. You could even find art scrawled across a 40 foot container.

If you have ever seen Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, you might recall a particularly humorous scene where the title character paints a slogan on a large wall in Jerusalem, which he believes to read “Romans Go Home”. A patrolling Roman soldier points out that it actually reads “People called Romans they go to house”, and after a short grammar lesson, forces Brian to write the corrected version one hundred times.

While this is a fictionalized and comedic situation, it is an example of how people have been using street graffiti for centuries to decry powerful establishments. This tradition is continued today, such as the street artwork done by “Banksy”, a pseudonym for a British graffiti artist. Banksy’s artwork became popular during modern protest movements, such as Occupy Wall Street.

Famous literature throughout history has also protested or satirized political regimes. William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “The Merchant of Venice” were loose parodies of the political atmosphere in England at the time. Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” also parodied political figures, such as the Queen of Hearts being a direct caricature of Queen Victoria.

In ancient Greece, political theatre was popular amongst the Athenians. Because theatre was a highly popular spectacle during those times, comic poets and theatre troupes had a considerable amount of influence in shaping the public’s opinion. Also because Athenian democracy encouraged the examination of the political atmosphere and free speech, these theatre performances were able to interpret and satirize highly controversial topics.

Political theatre was also popular during the regime of oppressive governments, such as Soviet Russia. Cabaret became a popular albeit underground form of criticizing the government through theatre, in what was seen as theatre “by the people, for the people”.

1950s Japan was a hot bed for political protest art. During American occupation of Japan after World War II, many Japanese artists painted vivid portraits that depicted life during these times. Much of this artwork depicted dramatic and realistic scenery, such as American troops standing watch over large protest rallies, or the skeletal remains of soldiers. In fact, Japan became quite adept at producing protest art and there are a number of famous artists and portrait sets from this time.

Street artwork has also played a role in modern day Eastern Congo. One iconic street art features a semi-nude woman who has covered herself in oil and attached oil filters to her breasts, as a direct protest against pollution.

Because artwork typically allows the artist to remain anonymous, it has been utilized for a long time by those who want to make their voices heard, without fear of consequence. It allows the artist to show defiance towards power holders, especially in places where governments are known for brutalizing or killing dissenters.

However, not all political artwork is anonymous, or limited to street movements. Political cartoons have long been featured in newspaper publications. Typically featuring caricatures and lampoons of politicians, these editorial cartoons have been around since about the 18th century, where they grew popular in England, especially during the French Revolution period.

Famous political cartoonists include James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, considered the godfather’s of political cartoon in newspaper. Many of their works directly lampooned and criticized authority figures such as George III, Napoleon, and various prime ministers.

Political cartoons became especially popular in America during the Civil War era. Thomas Nast of New York City was highly successful by importing German drawing techniques that blended realism and caricature, and he was most famous for a series of 160 cartoons that ridiculed the political machine of New York City.

Finally, protest art has also been used to criticize apartheid in South Africa. Willie Bester is a famous artist who got his beginnings in the resistance artwork scene of South Africa during the 1980s. Many of Willie Bester’s art pieces are displayed in museums around the world, and some of his work has sold for incredibly high prices during auctions in London.

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