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The Art of Protest

This tour explores how artists have used art to change the world. The art works are not political in the narrow sense of the word,  but use art techniques to address major social issues. The subjects range from revolution to the rise of Hitler to the consequences of wars and the impact of the recesssion.  


The Meaning of  the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gifts, John Heartfield, 1932

No Future, Banksy, 2010

The Weeping Woman, Picasso, 1937

The Haywain with Cruise Missiles, Peter Kennard , 1982

All art is political in the sense that it engages society in some way, either influencing or influenced by it.


Some art works speak directly to concerns relating to human rights, corruption, the distribution of class, wealth or power—not every artist is moved by beauty.


At times, the more political works cause a stir. Some work is directly aimed at a political cause, an endorsement, or message. Then again, a particular artwork can be political as well, directly or subversively.


If this all sounds convoluted, it is—but that’s indicative of this culturally confusing times we live in.


For this tour, an outstanding collection of works has been gathered together covering the period from 1830 to 2013.  Galvanised by some of the biggest political events,  the overriding message is one of commitment to building a better society, often on the debris of horror and human suffering.


The range, style and methods used by the artists vary considerably, but all are united in using art to speak out against injustice, suffering and the futility of wars. 


The tour starts with one of the best-recognised paintings of the 19th century - Liberty from Delacroix. The figure of Liberty is shown on the barricades surrounded by the symbols of  popular revolt. 


The debacle of the First World War and mass loss of life is explored via a landscape painting from war artist Paul Nash entitled We are Making a New World.


Exposing Nazism, and its leaders, to ridicule, was German artist, John Heartfield's primary aim in the 30s, represented here by a dramatic photomontage - The Meaning of the Hitler Salute.


The horrors of the Spanish Civil War seen through the eyes of Pablo Picasso,  not Guernica but Weeping Woman.


The period after the 2nd World War is represented by a broad range of works. 


A cartoon version of the US military machine in action in Vietnam called Whaam! by Roy Liechtenstein turns the images of the war comic on its head and challenges the viewer to think again.


Protests against nuclear weapons dominated the 60s and 80s.  At the height of the Cold War the siting of US missiles in the UK was greeted with a storm of protest. An artist closely associated with CND and the anti-nuclear protests was Peter Kennard whose photomontages dominated the demonstrations at the time. His work with CND has not lined art galleries but the streets with his punchy posters.


The disastrous  Iraq War is seen in two startlingly different treatments.  Paul Riga’s  War a version of Alice in Wonderland and Richard Hamilton’s portrait of UK PM Tony Blair dressed in wild west garb called Shock and Awe, a term taken from the US military’s believe in overwhelming an enemy through the use of massive air power.


A recent survey - Art and Politics Now - highlighted more than 200 contemporary artists whose work address the political. 


Some are well known like the Chineses artist Ai Weiwei; others are unknown outside their circle of friends.


New technologies allow artists to get around gate-keeping curators and mainstream media. Call it what you will — performance art, social practice, avant-garde, dialogical aesthetics, community art, public art, activist art, radical art — audiences for the confounding, beautiful, horrible and hilarious kinds of symbolic dissidence these practices describe are growing.


There is a difference between art and activism – while the artists may be motivated by strong political beliefs, their aim is to open discussion and explore the complexities of issues that we face daily, rather than trying to persuade the viewer to one narrow position.


Jeremy Deller’s ‘It Is What It Is’ is a great example of contemporary art.  It is an installation of the remains of a car destroyed by a bomb in Baghdad. It toured the United States with an Iraqi artist and a US military reservist – viewers were encouraged to pose questions to the participants to open discussion about the USA’s involvement in Iraq. Others liked Banksy leave their art in public spaces, often walls of shops, warehouses or garage doors. Today it greets visitors in the atrium of the Imperial War Museum in London.




Many of the works can be seen in London at the Tate Gallery, and Imperial War Museum - others can be accessed online.

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