We’ve entered a new era of protest poetry, activist art, and other creative means of political engagement and resistance. For many, this is entirely new territory, so it’s understandable that, well, we’re not very good at it.
Here’s where we fall short: the moment we mention his name, or evoke his image, or cite his words, we’ve only furthered his agenda, and failed at ours.
That I do not have to say his name proves my point: it’s always at the front of the mind, the tip of the tongue. For the past year, a day hasn’t gone by where it hasn’t dominated my Google News feed’s “Top Stories.” Those stories are determined by volume of mentions and clicks. They’re indices of our obsessions.
It could be argued that protest art is critical of its subject, calling him to account. That’s true, but it’s also beside the point. As Elias Canetti explains in Crowds and Power, “Fame is not fastidious about the lips which spread it. So long as there are mouths to reiterate that one name it does not matter whose they are.”
It’s the name itself that matters. Canetti: “Names collect their own crowds. They are greedy and live their own separate lives, scarcely connected with the real natures of the men who bear them.”
More: the critical art works, especially the ones that zero in on our subject’s most outrageous claims or tweets, only help his cause. Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, explains that it’s easy for the offender to weaponize the offensive. By “deliberately attracting the attention of the people who hate what you do and get[ting] them to denounce you as loudly as possible,” you transform them into a perverse megaphone for your ideas. “If 9 out of 10 of the people that hear it hate you but 1 out of 10 hear about you for the first time and are open to the ideas, you have made a new fan. It’s a jujitsu move, really.”
But it goes beyond the name. Every aspect of him is branded. He’s a walking collection of logos: the hair, the mouth, the tie. He even has a branding color, as recognizable as UPS brown. He speaks in slogans and repeats them endlessly. Referring to him in your artwork is the equivalent of product placement in a movie.
So that’s the problem. The solution—how to protest without becoming an unwitting mouthpiece of what you’re protesting—is another matter. In a sense, it’s a problem each artist must solve in his own way. Yet it may be instructive to look to artists who have made protest/politically engaged art their life’s work, and who have managed avoid the many pitfalls of the genre.
Consider Ai Weiwei’s Remembering, his response to the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake, many schools collapsed, killing over 9000 school children. The true cause of this tragedy was the Chinese government’s corner-cutting substandard construction, which is why it tried to cover up the extent of the devastation. Remembering consists of 9000 backpacks placed on the façade of the Haus der Kunst, arranged to spell in Chinese “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”
Remembering is devastating. It goes beyond outrage, though that’s part of it, and makes us confront the magnitude of loss. Instead of focusing on the perpetrator’s outrageous actions (and inaction), it exposes the consequences of those actions. Instead of stating the self-evident, it transforms a number that could easily slip into abstraction into something palpable and unforgettable. It honors the victims and makes the tragedy real, without evoking those who, in effect, orchestrated it.
Of course, the magnitude of the event that prompted Remembering is unmatched by anything we’ve had to endure under this administration (yet). But its lessons apply to our current situation. It demonstrates how an artwork can shift our focus away from the self-evident and irrelevant—say, an individual: his personality and his outrageous statements—towards what matters: the real consequences of his rhetoric, actions, and policies. It allows us to feel those consequences at a personal level. Artwork that engages its viewers in this vital way has the capacity to change minds and to provoke change.
Images of Ai Weiwei’s Remembering: