After last week’s sensational scrotum story, Laura Wilson nails down art as a protest.
Last week, Pyotr Pavlensky grabbed the attention of the public by nailing his scrotum to the pavement of Red Square, Moscow, in a political protest towards what he called the ‘apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.’ Whilst Pavlensky was able to sit in the Kremlin staring at his testicles for almost two hours, he could now face five years imprisonment for hooliganism. Evidently, the not-so apathetic Russian society reacted to Pavlensky’s protest by protesting against it themselves, and this circular idea of protests through art begetting protests against art is far from a new reaction.
Making a statement is a key element of creating art, staging a protest, and combining the two. Many schools of art arise from challenging the status quo, such as Cubism’s deliberate opposition to the classical representation of objects and Pop Art as a self-aware, ironic reaction to consumerism. This relationship between forms of protest is expertly demonstrated in the defacement of Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, which occurred in early February this year. Delacroix’s painting represents the ‘vanguard’ of the French Revolution, with Lady Liberty and her followers protesting against the monarchy of France. This term is often seen as the etymology for the Avant Garde movement, a school of art that prided itself on pushing boundaries and reacting against social norms. The woman who defaced the work scrawled AE911, a message relating to a 9/11 conspiracy, in permanent marker at the bottom of the canvas, thereby inscribing yet another level of protest onto an already multi-layered work of objection.
Perhaps the reason for many of these protests atop protests is the knowledge that a piece of art able to draw public attention can be manipulated so that the true focus is placed onto your particular cause. Damien Hirst’s work has often attracted attention for its controversial nature, so where better to get across your political opinion than by spray-painting ‘Occupy’ onto the leg of his anatomical sculpture Hymn? Here, the protesters directly linked Hirst’s ‘capitalist approach to art’ to their act of graffiti, yet betrayed a dependence on the artist’s reputation to gain greater recognition for their own fight. It would seem that art needs protest as much as protest needs art.
Mainly art-related protests come from performance artists who see themselves as ‘engaging’ with the works. Another Russian political activist, Alexander Davidovich Brener, has performed a number of stunts as part of the Moscow Actionism movement which included defecating in front of a Van Gogh and painting a dollar sign onto a Kazimir Malevich painting. When questioned in court for this outburst, Brener defended himself by claiming to be in ‘dialogue’ with Malevich’s work.
What’s more is that almost half a dozen performance artists have attempted to ‘contribute’ to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, considering it the greatest triumph to have succeeded in urinating into his mounted toilet bowl. Hans Richter, a friend of Duchamp’s told him of art in society: “you threw the urinal into their faces as a challenge” clearly labelling the original work as a protest against aesthetics. Therefore, whilst these public pees may look like protest, when considered in relation to the statement Duchamp was making with the work, they are actually continuations of some Dadaist ideals.
In these, and many other examples, art and protest appear inextricably bound up together, making statements, having conversations with one another, and, perhaps most importantly, keeping the public talking about art.
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