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#ArtDept: The Art of Protest


For as long as we have had paper we have had Protest Art. It has been used by revolutionaries, activists and artists for centuries, yet the technological advancements of the 19th century made paper easily available and inexpensive because of steam-driven papermaking machines.

Honré Daumier (1808-1879) was a French artist who was well known for his aesthetic commentary on French political life in the 19th century. His work was received by a wide audience because he printed a weekly journal made possible by the medium’s distributive qualities. Of course, future issues of the journal were censored, and circulation challenged by the French government. Many artists used their art to protest including painters like Francisco Goya, but usually we think of protest posters as printed or homemade and tied to significant moments in cultural.

Daumier “The Uprising”

In the 20th century, it typically started with social constraints, wars and political battles. The urgency and tensions involved in creating protest art to provoke change is nothing new. From local issues like Gentrification, Racism, Police violence, Immigration and Homelessness to national organized resistance, the individuals and groups associated with these movements share a commonality of the use of posters to make their point.

From the Mexican Revolution to the marches against the Trump administration, posters have been used as a powerful form of protest and a symbol of discontent. The skills used to make posters range from folk art to eye-catching graphics done by professional artists and designers, yet the impact and energy really come from how they are utilized once they leave the artist’s studio. Does the poster empower? Does it call others to the cause? At its best, the art is repeated, and the message is multiplied as energy and enthusiasm for the cause provokes meaningful, real change.

Wikimedia Commons

In the 16th century, Martin Luther and followers of the Protestant Reformation posted Luther’s 95 Theses on to church doors. The message communicated a discontent and ultimately provoked a split within Christianity.

1970, Alexander Turnbull Library Archives

In contrast to the patriotic, colorful war propaganda posters of the first half of the 20th century, the 1960s and 1970s brought another type of political poster: The simple, sometimes sobering protest poster. Tacked on bulletin boards and telephone poles, posters served as rallying cries for Peace, against Richard Nixon and the federal government, and tributes to the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement.

In the 1980s with the HIV/AIDS plague, LGBTQ activists created one of the most iconic and lasting images that would come to symbolize a movement: A protest poster of a pink triangle with Silence = Death.

Act Up

The protest poster is a powerful tool. Usually anonymous and for a specific moment in time, protest posters are ephemeral. They are received as a harsh criticism or a call to arms depending on who is being challenged.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote:

“There may be a time when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Even with social media, protest posters in the 21st century still have impact; they are shared on Twitter, Instagram and other sites. The emotion that is embedded within the words and graphics of protest posters carry a passion for the creative process and a need to make the planet a better place.

Natalie Good

Alexis Lovely

Shepard Fairey

Ben Shahn

Copper Greene (2004)

John Heartfield (1940)

National ArchivesDept

Photo by Leah Millis via YouTube

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