A tradition of creative dissent

September 18, 2010

The use of art as a commentary on social and political injustice is becoming increasingly innovative. Artists are embracing their varied mediums to share stories and ideas calling for a challenge to the status-quo.

From radical independent art, to mainstream artists using their influence, the fusion of social justice and art has been embraced by photographers, musicians, painters, filmmakers, fashion designers and more.

Many commercial artists who have enjoyed mainstream success have used their reach to convey messages of protest and encourage social change.

It is easy to criticise popular artists over the authenticity of the message they promote, and question the agenda of their art. However, the impact made by high-profile figures in the mainstream creative world is undeniable; their message has the ability to reach millions of people around the world.

Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has used her influence to add weight to the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Ironically, she has also spoken out against consumerism.

Music is often also used as a vehicle to call for peace.

Motown artist Marvin Gaye asked us "What's Goin’ On?" in 1971 as the Vietnam War raged. It was this same year that John Lennon asked us to “Imagine” a world without war.

Even the current smash hit Broadway musical Wicked could be considered a form of protest art. The production claims to offer the “untold story” of a tale we thought we already knew — questioning which characters are actually good and which are 'wicked'.

The script at one point tells us “a way to unite people is to give them an enemy”, as it challenges our perspectives of renowned character stereotypes.

We could view mainstream efforts to question social order as commodification of protest art, or we could look at these as examples of artists using their reputation to raise questions about accepted norms.

A notable modern artist operating on the fringe of the mainstream is Banksy. Despite receiving international acclaim, Banksy has chosen to obscure his identity — allowing the focus to remain on his work.

Banksy has used his distinctive street art to comment on consumerism, war, climate change and even graffiti. Banksy said in his 2005 book, Wall and Piece: “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.”

An early example of “protest art” was Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica. It was a response to Germany's bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in Spain.

It depicts the suffering and destruction inflicted by war. It is unfortunate that this work is as relevant today as it was when it was created 73 years ago.

Another example of anti-war art is a much more literal and modern portrayal of opposition to conflict. In 2007, Mark Wallinger won the Turner Prize for his replica of the demonstration staged by British anti-war protester, Brian Haw.

Haw set up his one-man protest camp in 2001 in Britain's Parliament Square, in protest against the war on Afghanistan and later Iraq. Haw covered his camp in anti-war banners and displayed a clothes line with cloth reminiscent of baby clothing stained red to represent spilled blood.

He has left the camp only to attend court hearings. It has been nine years since Haw first began his protest and he remains in the Square, still calling for peace.

Wallinger’s replica was installed in London's Tate Britain.

Like Haw, activists around the globe use rally banners as an artistic display of social discontent.

A recent campaign encouraging social change came in the form of a competition run by Greenpeace. After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Greenpeace called on activists to create new versions of BP’s logo to represent the oil giant’s responsibility for the catastrophe.

The winning work added a pelican emerging from a black slick to BP’s well-known logo.

Climate justice is at the heart of local artistic endeavours, with Australia’s export coal trade a prime target.

Newcastle based visual artist Fern York has used her art to oppose the burning and exporting of coal. She has created a series of works illustrating Newcastle’s coal port, the largest in the world, captioned with text such as “proudly polluting for 219 years”.

Fellow Newcastle-based artist Conor Ashleigh uses photography to document the work of local activist groups during protest rallies. He has also used his photography to tell the stories of farmer in drought-affected rural New South Wales.

In the 1980s, Peter Dombrovskis used photography to inspire a generation of activists to preserve the pristine, sparkling beauty of the Gordon River from the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania.

These artists used different forms but share a vision for the role of the socially aware artist.

The idea that creating objects (really commodities) for the art market is a small portion of what artists can do with their skills is not new.

It is this tradition that Live Red Art, a grassroots radical art project in Sydney, carries on.

Live Red Art offers an alternative space from the commercial realm for artists to showcase their work. Existing to encourage the collision of social justice and art, Live Red Art is calling on artists to submit work that explores the motto: “Another world is possible, but we must fight for it.”

All people who believe another world is possible are invited to submit their radical art proposals. The best entrants will be part of an exhibition and festival at Addison Road Community Centre, Marrickville, on October 17, from 11am-3pm.

The festival will be followed by an after-party gala, featuring progressive Sydney funk outfit the Fuji Collective, from 3-9pm. The winners of the $3000 first prize, and $500 people’s choice prize will be announced.

[For more information, check out liveredartawards.net.]

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