Art as Resistance: Turning Beauty into Power
Updated: Feb 13
Protest, struggle, and political activism are powerful tools of resistance. Power through mobilization of people can create measurable positive change in our world. In particular, using art as a nonviolent form of protest can carry immense meaning and strength, connecting people through their resistance. It can turn negative and fear-filled topics into something to rally behind. According to Belinda Lanks, the editor of Magenta Magazine, “protest art itself doesn’t create change, but it aims to embolden and galvanize enough people across socioeconomic backgrounds to mobilize for a cause. In order to do so successfully, a call to arms should be immediate, brazen, and most importantly, have soul” (Lanks). Art is a beautiful and curious thing, for when it is used to serve the purpose of creating change, unity, and power through resistance, it has great strength in connecting people with a common message.
Different forms of art can link people in different ways. Take music, for example. In his book, The Art of Protest, Professor T.V. Reed shares a story of a school in Tennessee in the 1960s where both black and white people gathered in order to talk about the emerging civil rights movement. While those inside feared for their lives, police charged in and forced activists to sit as they violently harassed them and searched their belongings (Reed 1). Then, in the midst of the chaos, a girl began to sing the anthem of the civil right’s movement, “We Shall Overcome.” In her courage, she embodied the lyrics as she sung the words, “we are not afraid, we are not afraid today” (Reed 1). Here, Reed analyzes the power of music by writing, “of course, she is afraid in this moment. Anyone would be. But in singing, she both indirectly acknowledges and directly challenges her fear. Singing away a bit of it, she asserts the rights she and countless others are prepared to fight and die for—the right to freedom and justice in their own land” (Reed 1) Singing songs of freedom has developed into a tradition at the heart of many movements. In fact, this same song was later sung during the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Tiananmen square, and during the Egyptian Revolution during the Arab Spring (Reed 2).
Eprile, a PhD student at the Oberlin Politics Department, tells of another story during the 2011 Egyptian revolution in Cairo, where millions of young Egyptians stood against the Mubarak government in Tahrir square. Music was the tool uniting all of these young people under one powerful message and one united front. Ramy Essan, a 23-year-old activist stood in the center of the square with his acoustic guitar and a microphone to sing the song, “Leave”, calling for the resignation of the president Mubarak. Once again, music was a uniting force that helped create and strengthen a common consciousness (Eprile 3). Music is a powerful art form that can give people strength and unity.
Visual art as protest is another way that art is used as a means of resistance in order to create change for the better. Lanks analyzes some of history’s most powerful protest art. For example, the clenched fist is a common recurring theme in protest art and has been used during the Mexican Revolution, the American students’ protest against the Vietnam war, the Black Panther Party, as well as French students during their socialist rebellion in 1832 against the monarchy (Lanks).
Lanks further explains that this symbol is universal and perfectly gets across the message that people carry grievances which they will fight for (Lanks). The Mexican American Chicano movement saw murals as a form of protest against the injustices harming their marginalized population. Reed explains, “to a large extent the modern mural art form is the invention of [Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros,] Mexican artists. Los tres grandes (the three greats), as they are known, were important models not only as major modern artists but also as political activists who rooted their muralism in support for the struggles of the poorest, most exploited members of their communities” (Reed 118).
Furthermore, in a time of crisis, art was used as a very visual way to act against AIDS. Reed explains that a lot of the cultural struggle surrounding AIDS was due to the notion of “contaminated blood” (Reed 214). To combat this harmful cultural construction, the organization ACT UP created posters and graphics to try and attract people’s attention and encourage conversation about the uncomfortable social and cultural truths surrounding AIDS (Reed 236). Shirin Neeshat, an Iranian artist, traces political and social change through powerful images of women within the context of Iran before and after the Islamic revolution. She explains the power of art as a form of protest, saying, "Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance" (TED).
Art is a common thread underlying countless resistance movements and protests that have united people and brought about positive societal change. Whether it be through music, visual art, dance, drama, or any other art form, art has a way of connecting with our human emotions and uniting us through hope and power. In this way, art has the power to turn Doom into Bloom and provide a platform for people to stand together, not alone.
Eprile, Brendan Thabro. “Songs of Change: How Music Helped Spark the Arab Spring Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.” Oberlin College Learning and Labor, 2017.
Lanks, Belinda. “History's Most Powerful Protest Art.” Medium, Magenta, 14 Dec. 2016, https://magenta.as/historys-most-powerful-protest-art-29150c02931.
Neshat, Shirin. TED, 2010, https://www.ted.com/talks/shirin_neshat_art_in_exile?fbclid=IwAR3D764-i3mzuMyEwZgS34QCZHnpVBPNdUlXKpcapp1zOaYiG-Aj5thUJFA.
Reed, T. V. “The Art of Protest.” JStor, 2019, doi:10.5749/j.ctvb1hrcf.