Jo Clarke

Protest in Art: Protest is Art

The art critic Waldemar Januszczak recently condemned contemporary art as ‘this preserve of curators and their attendant artists producing this stuff for themselves and becoming increasingly divorced from the world outside’. On the same news programme, five minutes earlier, the columnist Geraint Anderson predicted public outrage at the prospect that banks which have been bailed out with public money should continue to pay out six figure bonuses, ‘there should be riots on the streets quite frankly’. Januszczak ‘loves modern art. It’s been my sustenance, it’s been my meaning. One of the things that art is supposed to do is engage the emotions, quicken the pulse’ but if we’re looking for sustenance, meaning and heart pounding reactions, perhaps we need to look to the street rather than the gallery.

Januszczak’s criticism was directed specifically at the current Altermodern: Tate Triennial at the Tate Britain. The same gallery showed Mark Wallinger’s State Britain in 2007, a monument to peace campaigner Brian Haw’s encampment opposite the Houses of Parliament. Haw began his protest in June 2001 against economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. In May 2006, following the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, Section 132 of which makes it illegal to protest within a one mile radius of Parliament Square, the police removed most of Haw’s placards. Wallinger painstakingly recreated the camp, including the empty milk bottles and personal effects that signify this man’s life lived on a strip of pavement, in full view of, and with a full view of, the government he believes have done so many harm. Half of the gallery space falls within the protest exclusion zone, and State Britain occupies both sides of the line. By recreating the encampment as art, do the placards cease to be protest and a threat? Has Wallinger used the pretext of art to protest within the exclusion zone? Or is he bringing the question of our civil liberties into a neutral space, the public art gallery, in order to facilitate a more measured discussion?

Despite police attempts to remove him, Brian Haw’s protest continues outside Parliament. His encampment is an insertion in the physical landscape of the city, an interruption to the traditional tourist landscape of landmarks; it sits alongside, and at odds to, our legal landscape. With his clear view of parliament, Haw oversees our political landscape. Artist Paul Noble acknowledges that ‘demonstrations and street actions often have more spectators than participants. The spectator’s camera displaces commitment. You’re not really here because you are just watching’. Likewise the audiences who read the banners of Wallinger’s meticulous recreation were physically and politically removed from the protest which continues to take place a mile down the road. To stand and stare at State Britain in sympathy and sadness is not to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people.

Eudre Tót’s TÓTaLJOYS street action of 1976, in which two people held a banner that read, ‘We are glad if we can hold this in our hands’, predates by almost 30 years the Serious Organised Crime Act which prevents us from holding an unauthorised banner in our hands outside Parliament. Seeing images of TÓTaLJOYS, the work brings to mind the thorny concepts of freedom of speech, freedom to protest (as it exists or is prohibited around the world) and the nature of protest as an interruption to everyday street life. In 1976, performed in West Berlin, the action itself responded to the division of Berlin and the contrasting lives led on either side of the wall. East Berliners in the 1970s had little freedom to protest outside of what historian Stefan Wolle calls the ‘officially tolerated ersatz protest culture’.

A protest by Plane Stupid and other groups outside Downing Street on 19 February 2009, against the expansion of Heathrow, was met with a counter protest bearing banners reading ‘More planes, less stupid’, who Plane Stupid in turn attempted to infiltrate. These protests, counter protests and counter-counter protests prove that protest is igniting debate and challenging society in a way that contemporary art is failing to do.

Adam Weymouth, an activist campaigning on climate change, sees direct action – illegal action taken by those who are prepared to put themselves at risk to highlight or prevent something they believe to be harmful to themselves or others – as an ‘attempt to drive a knife through the sheen of the everyday and prise it open, so for just a moment new spaces are revealed and new forms of thinking can emerge. This moment, called ‘antistructure’, is the birthplace of art, of revolution, of religion, of genius. It is, in short, where spirit lies’.

‘The true function of Art’, according to Gilbert and George, ‘is to bring about new understanding, progress and advancement. Every single person on Earth agrees that there is room for improvement’. Their ‘reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are’.

If art’s function is to hold a mirror up to society, to show us how we are and how we should change, then nothing does this better than an act of protest. Protest displays to us the structures of power, the underrepresented, the oppressed and the workings of society. To protest is a creative act. To create is a political act. To lie down and do nothing is a political act. In the words of artist Tejal Shah, ‘seeing nothing is as political an act as seeing something’.

Those who question the validity of contemporary art often doubt that any effort or feeling has gone into its creation. When someone previously unconvinced by a movement, concept or artwork begins to rethink that conviction, it is often as a result of an unexpected experience and emotional reaction. Protest is an art form purer than those cynical Saatchi-led trends, ostentatious displays of wealth and market place power – as with artist-businessman Damien Hirst’s £50m diamond encrusted skull. We do not step out of our lives to protest cynically. Protest is not art for art’s sake, this is art for life’s sake and this is life for goodness sake.

Jo Clarke

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