By Ron Eyerman
Understood in the broadest sense to include music and street theater as well as all forms of visual representation, artistic expression has an undisputed place in contemporary social activism. There is a long, perhaps even ancient history of wall writing and what we would today call street art and graffiti used as means to express discontent and catch public attention. Recall the humorous scene in Monty’ Python’s Life of Brian, where an occupying Roman soldier corrects the Latin grammar in a rebellious piece of street art. While this may be fanciful fiction, it reflects a reality in the current Palestinian conflict (think local activists as well as Banksy), as well as in our own Occupy movement. More stylized and professional art forms, and artists, have been involved in political protests and movements throughout the modern era and the linkages between aesthetics and politics, art and propaganda has been long debated. Can political art be good art, can good art be political? How effective is politicized art and the artists who make it? What exactly does art do in demonstrations of political protest? These are some of the issues I would like to address.
Adorno famously wrote that all art is an uncommitted crime. What he meant was that as an exemplar of free subjective expression art challenges the status quo by its very nature. To the extent this is true all art is political. From the same perspective however, all consciously ‘political’ art is propaganda, an attempt at thought-control not worthy of true art. Many practicing artists have sought ways of balancing their commitment to art, as a representation of unique sensibilities and their political commitments. In constantly re-inventing the role of activist-artist, some at least aim at creating political art that is not propaganda, but rather acts to evoke and stimulate a critical stance to the world. An example might be the Ad Buster campaigns which were influential in the Occupy protests. These might not meet Adorno’s criteria of true art, or even the art world’s notion of good art, but were very effective in mobilizing the aesthetic consciousness of the audience they were aimed at. What such artistic representations do is to jolt the viewer into problematizing an all too familiar and taken for granted media saturated world; the status quo of imagery.
Art and artistic expression serve many functions in political protest, some of them aimed at producing knowledge and solidarity within the group of protesters and others as a means of communicating to those outside what the protest is all about. Music and song are very important in forging group solidarity, a sense of belonging and common purpose. They also are means of overcoming fear and anxiety in trying situations. Music is a great recruiting tool which has been used by all sides of the political spectrum to transmit ideology. Music, song, poetry and works of visual representation are important in creating and communicating a collective narrative, articulating who we are, where we come from, what we stand for and what we are against. Art forms part of the text and texture of political protest, and once codified and objectified serves as a bridge between movements, past, present and future. The songs and other repertoires of labor movements were reinvented by civil rights and student movements around the world. In the United States, activists in the 1930s dreamed they saw Joe Hill at their rallies, at least as they sung the now famous song of that title written by Earl Robinson from an original poem by Alfred Hayes. Hill was an activist who transformed Christian hymns into politically useful messages for the International Workers of the World (IWW) in the early years of the 20th century. During New York City protests against the Iraq War, Joan Baez dreamed she saw Joe Hall (alive as you and me) amongst the protesters, just as she did years earlier at Woodstock. Phil Ochs sang of the same dream during the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, when he appeared at rallies along with Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary. Today, Billy Bragg, the British singer/activist, dreams he sees Phil Ochs as he currently sings at concerts and protest rallies. The dream, one could say, lives on through these songs and singers. What exactly that dream is however, is dependent on the context and who the dreamer is.
This last point raises the issue, discussed by Rob Rosenthal and Richard Flacks in Playing for Change (2012), namely can music, or more widely art and artists, have a negative impact on social protest? After elaborating on many of the positive aspects contributed by art and artists, they note that artists and musicians can use social movements as a career opportunity and that many of those who hear their songs of protest will do so as fans and not as activists. In other words, whatever ‘political’ message lyrics may contain would go unnoticed in the cult of personality, the charisma attributed to the singer, not the song. They make a valid point, one that the punk movement for example struggled with, where style rather than substance eventually won out, especially in the United States, as the current exhibition of ‘punk fashion’ in New York City reveals. One of the most powerful songs/video of protest that I know of in the recent time is Lil Wayne’s Georgia (Bush), written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Watch the youtube video and see if you don’t agree. Yet, this was just a short blip in the career of one of the commercially most successful rap artists. Luckily we have the internet, for there one can view not only this powerful piece of protest art, but also capture Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger dreaming of Joe Hill. The internet offers what a CD or a record cannot, a visual representation of singer/song in full context, we see as well as hear the meaning and the message is transmitted in a much more powerful way. While the meaning of the dream must always be interpreted, one of its earlier manifestations is now readily available to the dreamer in a meaningful context.