Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Art as protest

It seemed fitting to talk about art on this day.

Yesterday marked 23 years since the political protests of Tiananmen Square in China.  For anyone who lived through that moment in history, there is doubtless one iconic image that is etched into your mind from your TV screen.  It is that of the still-anonymous “tank man;” a young student who stood defiantly before an oncoming column of Chinese Army tanks.  You can see the legendary photo here at The Atlantic, along with a powerful gallery of other images from those days of pro-democratic protest.  So iconic have the “tank man” photograph and other images become that they almost take on an artistic quality all their own.

It’s nothing new, really.  Art has been inseparable from political protest since time immemorial.  Indeed one of the central images of the Tiananmen protests was the Goddess of Democracy, which you can see an image of at the Atlantic link.  A cadre of art students created the plaster sculpture in front of the Great Hall of the People, proclaiming:  "Today, here in the People's Square, the people's Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun!" 

Unfortunately, the sculpture met its end five days later under the treads of a tank as the army swept into Tiananmen Square.  But you can’t kill art any more than you can kill a political idea.  Numerous copies of this sculpture have sprouted up in many corners of the free world, this time the artworks are made of enduring materials such as bronze, iron, marble, and so on.
The same kinds of artistic expression are happening today in Syria as people literally risk life and limb to speak out against their leaders.  Check out this bit of street art.  It appears that the influence of The Joker is truly worldwide.  Score one for pop culture and take that old school academia. 

I need not go so far away from home to see examples of artistic expression hoping to affect political change.  Last month, Chicago was the scene of the NATO Summit as I wrote about previously.  An abandoned storefront in Pilsen became an art factory in the days prior to the summit.  In that space, disparate groups of people met to work in a communal, collaborative manner on visual representations of what political issues they cared about most.  These expressions ranged from handwritten signs to colorful placards to eight-foot tall puppet head recreations of greedy CEOs.  While he wasn't especially political, I believe Warhol would have approved.

As the global village becomes more and more capable of sharing art and visual expressions across the world with but the touch of a button, we can expect the arts to become an even more vital aspect of protest than it ever has been.  No wonder shady political leaders always distrust artists…and in this new era, they have more reason to do so than ever before.

Or so you’d think.  “The new era has begun” proclaimed the Chinese art student at the foot of the Goddess of Democracy.  That “new era” has yet to fully materialize for the people of China.  Not only did I live through those demonstrations, watching them unfold on TV, but I received a refresher a few years back.  In my graduate program, we read "Tiananmen Square" by John Simpson, a work of literary nonfiction.  Dr. Sirles, the DePaul professor for the class, had to explain what happened in Tiananmen for a few of the younger members of the class.  As he put it, the army eventually went in and “cleaned house.”

The pain on the man’s face while saying those words was evident.  For those who remember, the stomach still churns at the thought of what happened to the protestors at the hands of the Chinese military. 

Fortunately, art will always will have a unique voice...even for those who no longer have one.

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