Protest Art

Sam J Knights
9 min readOct 29, 2022

In May 1968, a group of left-wing students triggered a wave of occupations, strikes, and protests across France. What started as a small disciplinary dispute was transformed into a nationwide general strike; workers occupied factories, students clashed with the police, and millions of protesters marched through the capital. Throughout the city, revolutionary graffiti was scrawled on public buildings. “Boredom is counterrevolutionary.” “Power to the imagination.” “The passion of destruction is a creative joy.” In Paris, students and teachers at the École des Beaux Arts worked day and night to produce posters ablaze with many of these same slogans. “Beauty is in the street.” “Art is dead.” “Police at the Beaux-Arts, Beaux-Arts on the streets”.

Down the road, a similar idea was taking hold of the national theatre, the Odéon. Three days after the general strike, a group of actors and artists occupied the theatre in solidarity with the rebellious students. Kids ran through the streets in stolen costumes. Men dressed in suits of armour guarded the doors. Inside, protesters organised a series of debates on the possibility of anti-capitalist art and the theatre quickly became a hotbed of revolutionary activity. The graffiti above the doors read, “When the National Assembly becomes a bourgeois theatre, all the bourgeois theatres should be turned into national assemblies”.

Many of the students who participated in the May uprising were greatly influenced by the Surrealists and The Situationists. They were in conscious dialogue with the artistic movements that came before them and embraced the anarchic, freewheeling spirit of protest. Art was not merely a product of struggle, it was an active participant. It was both a tool and a target of the revolution. “The most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop’s head”, suggested another piece of famous graffiti.

This is not a new idea. Revolutionaries throughout the ages have sought to transform all aspects of their present society. Culture is a site of struggle. It is not divorced from political or economic change, and — perhaps counterintuitively — its transformations are often more enduring. Thus, all revolutions are necessarily also aesthetic projects. Look at the culture of storytelling in peasant uprisings. Look at the importance of song in slave rebellion. Look at the art of the Russian Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the Cuban Revolution.

Look at the artists of the Paris Commune. A hundred years before the student revolution, Paris was the stage of another failed insurrection. In 1871, the working class people of Paris rebelled against the conservative French government and declared themselves independent from the rest of France. Of course, this insurrection was brutally suppressed. The French army first broke through the fortifications of the Paris Commune as the revolutionaries were holding a public concert in the Tuileries Palace. They played Mozart and recited the poetry of Victor Hugo, as their utopian project came to a bloody end. As one critical contemporary put it, “they found time to laugh, to listen to verses, while guns on the walls of Paris were digging holes in French breasts”.

During the commune, the artists of Paris began to unionise. The federation that they established became responsible for the conservation of monuments, museums, and libraries. They tore down the Vendome Column and set fire to the palace; but they also found time to open exhibitions, arrange performances, and publish working class literature. They produced a manifesto, overseen by the great painter Gustave Courbet and drafted by the working-class poet Eugene Pottier, that called for “the free expansion of art” and “the birth of communal luxury”.

The Communards believed that art should be accessible to all, but they also believed that art was everywhere. They were interested in expanding the definition of art, so that every revolutionary was an artist, and every artist a revolutionary. During the final days of the commune, the shoemaker Napoléon Gaillard — who insisted on being called an “artiste-shoemaker” — designed a barricade that was the height of a two-storey building and was complete with bastions, steps, and a facade flanked with pavilions. Pleased with his handiwork, he declared the barricade a piece of art.

And why not? Why should a barricade not be a piece of art? Why should a banner not be a painting? Why should a speech not be a song? Why should a protest not be a poem? After all, the most beautiful sculpture in the world is a paving stone thrown at a policeman’s head.

Cultural revolution is necessarily connected to political and social revolution. In 1938, Leon Trotsky wrote a manifesto with the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the French surrealist Andre Breton that calls artists the “natural ally of revolution” and ends with two stated aims: “the liberation of art — for the revolution” and “the revolution — for the complete liberation of art”. As Herbert Marcuse wrote in 1977, “art remains marked by unfreedom; in contradicting it, art achieves its autonomy”. This central contradiction must trouble the mind of all revolutionary artists. How can art transform society when it is so compromised by the very conditions it seeks to transform? Art must change and be changed, transform and be transformed. It is both an agent and a subject of revolution.

We may think of a flower. In 1970, the anticolonial leader Amilcar Cabral spoke of culture as both the “fruit” and the “seed” of revolution. “In culture, there lies the capacity for forming and fertilising”, he wrote. I like this idea a lot, the description of culture as a natural process, disrupted by “unnatural” injustice. Revolutionary art ferments revolutionary sentiment, but the revolution also produces new forms, new styles, new means of expression. Art and politics are part of the same living ecosystem, they feed and nurture one another. What happens, then, when this ecosystem is disrupted? When flowers begin to wilt? Entire species die out? The presence of big money in art and politics is suffocating the possibility of true revolutionary art. In Britain, our cultural industries are dominated by the rich. We once had a thriving local theatre scene, a rich tradition of alternative working class entertainment. Now, no longer. Our actors are now being pulled from more privileged backgrounds than they were fifty years ago. The people writing the plays are even wealthier. The people commissioning them, wealthier still.

Today, it is fashionable to produce art that hints at politics, but never tips into propaganda. I have lost track of the number of plays I have been to which have been described as “radical”, the number of exhibitions which claim to be “revolutionary”. But, if this art does contain a revolutionary message, it is communicated in nudges, and winks, and knowing glances. Actual revolutionary art is looked down upon, mocked, scorned, and ignored. “It is so unsubtle”, “It is just propaganda”, “It is so embarrassing”. This generation of artists have convinced themselves, somehow, that art is useless. Unable to change anything around them. “Comedy never brought down a government, that is not the point.” How boring. How stale. How defeated are we all, that this is what we now believe? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every piece of art should aspire to topple governments. We need different types of art. We need art that will make us laugh, and cry, and hit the walls in anger. But why is one type of art mocked and ignored? And others so lauded and admired? Since when did believing in the power of art to change the world become so desperately unchic?

If we are going to create art with the ferocity of May 1968 again, or recapture the vision of the artists in the Paris Commune, then we are going to have to build artistic communities that support and sustain us. This is something many black artists intuitively understand. Malcolm X once said, “As long as the black artist has to sing and dance to please the white man, he’ll be a clown. But when he can sing and dance to please black men, he sings a different song and he dances a different step.” The Black Panthers understood that black art was important to the black community. They established cultural centres, taught people art history, and led workshops in writing, painting, theatre, and music. They needed to build their own infrastructure. Their own theatres, their own galleries, they own music halls. Much later, Dr Cornel West expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “Black art has always been something that the powers-that-be have to keep close control over, because it provides a foretaste of freedom for an unfree people. Every status quo does not want people to imagine alternatives to the present. Artists, in that sense, are the vanguard of the species.”

Communities still exist in which radical art is encouraged. You will find revolutionary artists working in many working class communities, in countercultural spaces, in siloes they have carved out over many bitter years. You will also find them in genuinely radical organisations. At protests, at rallies, on picket lines. This is an old joke of some comrades. “Go to any climate protest”, a friend once told me, “and you will find a bunch of arts students performing an interpretative dance about plastic waste.” It is, indeed, a shame that protest art today is often so tired and uninspiring. But then again, so too are our protests. If our art is so performative and cynical, then what about our rallies? The first time I attended the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, I was horrified to find that the conference space had designated “protest zones” that activists, by and large, stuck to. You applied for a slot and you were given an allotted time. You held your demonstration, you were ignored by the politicians, and then you left. It was a choreographed farce, and we were the willing performers. “People are afraid of being thrown out,” a friend told me, “You are either inside or outside the tent.” Protesters outside the conference were trailed by armed police, hounded by the press. Inside the conference, they were so scared of being thrown out that they had agreed to censor themselves. “Please, sir, may I have a protest?”

This might sound strange, but all protest sits somewhere on this continuum. Many of us are stuck on the wrong side of the line, performing acts of dissent to an audience which is no longer listening. Going through the motions. Trying to find our voice. What, today, is the difference between protest and art? Both have been stripped of their radical potential. Both produce a dull and uninspiring response. How are we going to recapture the energy, the essence, of true revolutionary art? Of true revolutionary culture? “Okay, calm down. Deep breath.” That, like the revolution, takes time. It is not something we can do alone, as individual acts of creative genius. The point of resistance, whether political or aesthetic, is to change the present and reinvent the future. That project is something we must embark upon together. Massimiliano Mollona writes, in his book Art/Commons, that “countering the movement of capital are the acts of commoning, the pooling and sharing of resources for the reproduction of life in common”. The communities we create now, the organisations we build, will be a bridge to the future. “If people were free, then art would be the form and expression of their freedom”, wrote Herbert Marcuse.

We need new forms of art. Radical art. Experimental art. Art that surprises and delights us. Art as warning. Art as dreaming. Art as understanding. The anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing suggests that precarity, or “the condition of being vulnerable to others,” is the “condition of our time.” Crisis does indeed define our age. Peter Osborne, in Crisis as Form, goes as far to suggest that today “crisis appears as form, in the crisis of form itself.” He continues, “What is increasingly referred to as ‘permanent crisis’, then, is no longer technically a crisis, but a new and terrible form of social reproduction — a form of social reproduction grounded in the temporality of systemic disjunction that is part of the temporal form of historical contemporaneity.” Can crisis be expressed in old forms of aesthetic expression? Or do we need new forms of art, new forms of protest, to express the preoccupations of the modern age? Climate change certainly requires us to rethink our old ways of working, rework our old patterns of behaviour. Our imaginations now need to be freer than ever. More radical. More experimental. Max Haiven writes, “We need, more than ever, powerful and inspiring stories of collective struggle and transformation. But even beyond new modes of verbal, written or artistic storytelling, we also need to tell ourselves such stories in the streets, in our actions, in the comedy and tragedy of material struggle.” Our political and artistic imaginaries are intrinsically linked. And artists have an important role to play in the movements for justice, for system change. Another meaningless performance? Perhaps, perhaps. But in service to the revolution? Yes, in service to the revolution. A real act of resistance. A true act of radical imagination. Well, that begins to sound pretty tempting. “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible”, wrote Toni Cade Bambara.

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Sam J Knights

writer, actor, activist, clown | writing about imagination, revolution, and the end of the world