Art and Activism (book review)

The textbook for the Art Appreciation class I taught last year offered a chapter on protest art, an umbrella term encompassing artwork related to contestation – from caricatures of the 18th and 19th century to Pussy Riot performances. I asked students: why do the first examples of protest art – according to the textbook, at least – came into existence only a couple of centuries ago? Was conflict not there before, or perhaps it didn’t employ art? While this depends on the definition we choose for conflict and for art, what is normally conserved and transmitted through time is institutionally sponsored art; if it expresses conflict, that will be with other institutions and it would definitely not be considered protest art today. This led to an interesting discussion on how conflict and art intersect and how protest can be even identified in past cultural phenomena.

It has been a rough stretch of days (and weeks). So as a remedy, here is a review of a book that may make things better and offer an alternative to actionless frustration.

Edited by curator and theoretician Peter Weibel, this book came to be on the coattails of the exhibition global aCtiVISm, held at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe (Germany) in 2014. At its 700 pages, it is a peculiar combination of case studies of art activism, short theoretical essays on activism by authors ranging form Zizek to Bruno Latour and Malala Yousafzai, as well as sections with tips on how to do activism through the arts by noted practicioners of it. Despite the cover image, it does not limit itself to armed conflict but touches upon networked disruptions and other art interventions. It is a resource book for activists, a compendium of ideas for artists but also a springboard for those considering theoretical issues in curatorial and art education studies.

As such, it manages to be surprisingly deep-delving, for its lofty ambition and only 700 pages. For example, Weibel’s introductory essay includes a section on the invention of the concept of people in Ancient Greece which offers insight on the textbook-related question I started with and the notion of protest through art. Of course, in its vernacular iterations, art has always been used for protest – the medieval carnivalesque, for example, was definitely such a mode. However, conflict turns out to be an ephemeral notion that may not be recognized as such across time, or its art tools may not be preserved and identified as such after they have worked their role.

Highly recommended.

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