aesthetics of protest

Aidan McGarry, University of Brighton

The intersection between art and protest has been well documented in popular culture and highlights the power of aesthetics to communicate ideas across linguistic frontiers, ideological terrain and state boundaries. Historically, human existence has been characterised as much by conflict, oppression and domination as it has by peace. Such conditions are never stable because of societal desire to challenge injustice and inequality through collective struggles which shows the importance of social agency in forging change.

labeaute2At the heart of politics sit protest and social movements: democracy is found more in the streets than at the ballot box due to the propensity of representative democracy to pacify the public. A celebrated image of this idea was expressed during the Paris 1968 student riots with the ‘La beauté est dans la rue’ poster. Over the years struggles have been captured and framed by artists, articulated by activists, and documented by photographers and journalists in myriad ways becoming part of our everyday culture.

The performance oof protest is communicated through images and visual culture which have the potential to resonate because they demonstrate courage and defiance in the face of a powerful adversary or threat. In 1989, the Chinese government sought to crush an uprising in Tiananmen Square in Beijing by killing several hundred in a single day. tankmanThe following day, June 5th, a column of tanks was making its way across the city in a show of state strength when one lone man stood in front of the lead tank and refused to move, shaking his fist and shopping bags at the tank and placing himself in the path of the tank as it attempted to negotiate his act of defiance. Whilst his identity and fate are unknown, his protest was spread throughout the world by news media. This dramatic act signifies a public performance and represents the possibility of human agency. The fact that the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to suppress this image reveals the potential of protest aesthetics to inspire further acts of civil disobedience.

flowerpowerDefiance, usually peaceful, is a popular trope in protest aesthetics and has found expression in social movements around the world. In 1967, the iconic ‘Flower Power’ photo was taken in Washington D.C. by Bernie Boston during a national protest march against the Vietnam war. The war was a living drama whose political success depended on its cultural power: its ability to project powerful symbols, evoke emotions, and foster solidarity by defining ‘them’ and ‘us’ (Alexander 2011). Through protest aesthetics demonstrators changed the public discourse of the war from one concerning the defeat of communism and defending the interests of the United States abroad to one of peace or war, implying ordinary people had a choice and could influence politicians. This photo allows us to process a simple argument, asking whether we want peace or war.

When looking at significant moments of collective mobilisation, we will always find key elements: an opponent; solidarity; an action; and a representation of what happened. Whilst some inevitably argue that protest matters only if it brings about social change in terms of legislation, policy, attitudes, government, we should remain attentive to how the production of cultural texts and codes shape ideas, identities and values. An excellent example is provided by T.V. Reed in ‘The Art of Protest’ (2005) who examines the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash actupPower) which demanded medical research, legislation, treatment and policies to reduce the spread of HIV in the late 1980s. From 1987, protestors deployed diverse aesthetics in order to grab the public’s and a hesitant government’s, attention including the slogan ‘SILENCE=DEATH’ under a pink triangle, a symbol of gay persecution by the Nazis during World War 2.

The impact of AIDS and government inaction was reframed to place the emphasis on members of the LGBT community, particularly gay men, to do something about it due to the US government’s inaction. Failure to do so would mean more unnecessary deaths due to AIDS. Gay men, in the 1980s, were seen to deserve HIV due to moral deviancy and sexual perversion: ACT UP challenged this blame by symbolically representing their collective experience as a group deliberately excluded by the nation, as not being seen by the government as deserving of the protection of the state.

usflagThe US flag is re-appropriated bringing in intersectional identities including race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation to reflect the widespread impact of HIV infection, and places the blame squarely at the government’s door. Aesthetics of protest are inherent to the formation and communication of political demands and signify socio-cultural interventions with the potential to raise consciousness and effect social change. Aesthetics of protest are crucial for political struggle as they engage communities in the dynamics of shaping hearts and minds.

Alexander, J. C. (2011) Performative Revolution in Egypt: An Essay in Cultural Power. Bloomsbury.
Reed, T. V. (2005) The Art of Protest: Cultural and Social Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Image Citations

‘La beauté est dans le rue’, Affiche – Sans tampon [Montpellier] – BnF, Département des Estampes et de la photographie, ENT QB-(1968) /W3945. Modified from original. Accessed 03.11.16

Jeff Widener, ‘Tank Man’, Associated Press, 5 June 1989, Accessed 03.11.16.

Bernie Boston, ‘Flower Power’, 1967, originally printed by the Washington Star, 504 x 322, wikipedia Accessed 03.11.16.

ACT UP New York (organisation), ‘Silence Equals Death’, pink triangle on Black backdrop, 1987, Wellcome Library no. 669136i Photo number: L0052822. Accessed 03.11.16.

ACT UP New York (organisation), ‘American Flag ACT UP Poster,’ Greenwich Village History, Accessed 03.11.16.

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