The Art of civil unrest

Just where and when the history of street protest art commenced is unknown. Though the unconventional and irregular surfaces of buildings, walls, and landmarks have held images of the art of popular discord since times ancient to us, the graphic of demonstration, protest and revolution that links aesthetics to politics and justice in public spaces is still a medium that communicates and resonates.

The candid flavour of local art and artistic expression serve many functions in political protest – with most 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. The legacies that these visual landscapes create are increasingly recognised as catalysts that have fuelled the radical social and political changes recently witnessed in varied regions; the Arab Spring, Ukraine’s revolution, and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement – as recent examples – have all delivered striking messages of discord through an artistic movement.

Despite the rapidly growing literacy rate and access to social media, literature (even in the form of a Tweet) as a form of protest, was and is, limited in its impact. The chronicles of the imagery from art activism are more striking, and subsequently more easily retained than quotes or sound bites from those who lead, or those who fall.

Just as battleface identifies with the role and importance of the freelance journalist in conflict zones, this blog recognises the unique role that artists play in protests. The art that evolves in war, in unrest, in any conflict area is often representative of the endeavour of the moral majority – and the artist, through anonymity, above the trappings and bias of power, or greed.

As an online community we can sit as voyeurs and [art]-critics of the imagery from past and present that chronicle the rise, or fall, of governments, despots, wars, movements and causes. And in the comfort of distance from any struggle, there is something seductive within the concept of the brave artist who paints emotively on spaces where danger increases with each stroke. That is, I’m told, the fascination and power that drives the art of protests. Zones of conflict are places with tremendous intensity, grief, and horror, where human beings are tested in their most basic instincts: the desire to survive and the desire to win or be free.

Whereas a conflict zone journalist bears witness to the events and chronicles facts, conflict artists have no boundary in any context of the art they deliver. Our mainstream media content does not make satire out of horror, nor report irony in human suffering. Protest art is created for the sake of others, and evidenced from the longevity of the images generated by protest artists, society has shown its understanding and appreciation of the medium.

Last year battleface interviewed #codefc is an Italian-born artist based in London whose work can be found in galleries, clubs and on the street. His stencil-based street art often addresses social, political, and historical issues. See part 1 & 2