C H A P T E R12

Social Protest/Affirmation


Many artists protest injustice with their artwork. They identify villains, honor heroes, and promote causes with emotional and visual impact unequaled by the written word. Protest art is a form of affirmation, because it is based on respect for human dignity and the belief that change is possible.

  • What art has been made in protest of war, and when?

  • What strategies have artists used to make their work more effective for political and social change?

  • What is “normal” in society?

  • What do artists say about all-pervasive normalcy?

  • What types of social power are used to control or oppress people?

Two other chapters contain related images. Chapter 11 has artworks about war. Chapter 14 contains art that examines race and gender.


For thousands of years, artists have depicted war, sometimes glorifying the victors, sometimes showing the defeated and those killed or wounded. Not until two hundred years ago, however, did artists begin to make art that protests a particular war or the idea of warfare altogether. One likely reason is that a sizable percentage of past art was made for victorious political or religious leaders. Warfare was one means to gain power, and art was a way to display that power. Especially since World War II, however, growing numbers of artworks have protested full-blown war, police actions, covert operations, and guerrilla activity.

A pivotal piece in the history of protest art is The Executions of May 3, 1808 (Fig. 12.1), from 1814. The artist, Francisco Goya, based his painting on sketches he had made of the actual event as it happened six years earlier. The citizens of Madrid unsuccessfully rose up against Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupational army in 1808. The soldiers captured many of the rioters and executed them a short distance outside the city. Goya individualized the Spaniards trembling, praying, or protesting as they face the firing line, so that we identify with their horror. We particularly focus on the man in white with outstretched arms who is posed like the crucified Jesus, surrounded with light colors against the pervasive gloom. In contrast, Goya has dehumanized the soldiers, with repeated poses and hidden faces. The barrels of their pointing rifles are rigidly organized, like a war machine. Goya’s painting goes beyond partisanship and could stand for any mass execution.

Käthe Kollwitz dedicated her art to ending war and poverty. She lived in Germany through the two world wars, losing a son and a grandson in the fighting. In her artwork, however, she frequently turned to past conflicts to show the destructive energy of war. The Outbreak (“Losbruch”), dated 1903 (Fig. 12.2), is the fifth in a series of seven prints that tell of the Peasant War in Germany in the early sixteenth century. In the first four prints in the series, we see the causes for the peasant revolt: abuse by the ruling class, poverty, crushingly hard work, rape of the women. In the fifth image, The Outbreak (“Losbruch”), the peasants revolt, propelled by their wretched living conditions.

12.2 KÄTHE KOLLWITZ. The Outbreak (“Losbruch”), Germany, 1903. Etching, 20" 231/4". Reproduced from the collections of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The composition of the work is remarkable. The peasants group at the right, while already at the left they rush at deadly speed to attack their oppressors with crude weapons and farm tools. The dark woman in front becomes the leader and the conscience for the group. Her upraised arms incite them to action, while her bony, twisted hands and arms are documents to the incredible harshness of the peasants’ life. Stark blacks and whites flash across the image, visually conveying the emotional moment.

Kollwitz shows a woman leading the revolt, breaking old stereotypes about women’s passivity. This also attests to the misery of the peasants’ lives—in the end, the women rose up.

The uprising was unsuccessful, as the forces of the ruling class suppressed the peasants with brutality. The last two prints of the Peasant War series show a mother searching for her dead son among piles of bodies, and peasant prisoners bound together awaiting execution.

Fit for Active Service (Fig. 12.3), a 1918 pen-andink drawing by George Grosz, exposed the bloated doctors and self-absorbed officers, secure in their bureaucratic assignments, who sent elderly, sick, or very young men to the front lines to fight for Germany near the end of World War I. (All able-bodied men had been sent out much earlier.) With grim wit, the artist’s pen outlines the smug, laughing faces of the officers in the foreground. Farther back, two toadying soldiers stand at attention. The seams in their uniforms line up with the floor and the window frames. They are conformists subsumed into the structure, without independent conscience. The doctor at the center seems almost happy, since he has found another body for the front lines. Outside, factories contentedly belch out the machinery of war. In contrast to the spare and flattened manner in which the other figures are portrayed, the skeleton seems the most “human,” as it is rounded, detailed, and adorned with rotting organs and tufts of hair.

John Heartfield dedicated much of his art to exposing and condemning the horrors of Nazi Germany. He was born in Germany as Helmut Herzfelde, but later anglicized his name. Goering the Executioner, dated 1933 (Fig. 12.4), is a photomontage, in which news photographs are combined and manipulated with drawing. It appeared on the front page of the Prague newspaper AIZ (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung). The subject is Field Marshal Hermann Goering, one of the major leaders of the Nazi party. Heartfield pulled Goering’s head forward, increasing the thickness of the neck and emphasizing the aggressiveness of his bullying face. Behind him burns the Reichstag, the German parliament building, destroyed in 1933 by an act of terrorism that was likely perpetrated by the Nazis but “officially” blamed on Communists. The Nazis used this excuse to seize absolute power and end any democratic government. Black-and-white elements give the image an unvarnished, blunt quality. Goering’s meat cleaver and stained apron have the quality of factual truth, even though the artist added those props. Heartfield’s warnings of Nazi bloodshed proved to be prophetically true. Heartfield was forced to leave Germany and spent much of the 1930s and 1940s in England.

In the mid-1930s, Spain was engulfed in a civil war that in many ways was a prelude to World War

II. In 1937, David Alfaro Siqueiros painted Echo of a Scream (Fig. 12.5) in response to the horror of the Spanish Civil War. Siqueiros symbolized all of humanity with the screaming, helpless, pained child sitting amid the debris and destruction of modern warfare. The sky is filled by the large, detached head—the child’s head repeated—a massive cry that symbolizes the combined pain of all the victims we do not see. The dark tones and blue-gray colors of the painting add a somber note to the ugly surroundings. The painting also alludes to urbanization and industrialization, and to the endless piles of waste that are the result of “progress” and “innovation.” Siqueiros knew his subject matter firsthand. He was a Mexican citizen who fought in Spain in the International Brigade, composed of volunteers from fifty countries who fought for the Spanish Republic against the Fascists and their German Nazi backers. He was also a political activist and social reformer.

Connection See Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (Fig. 11.26, page 297) for another artwork that deals with the Spanish Civil War.

Later, Robert Motherwell painted the Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV, between 1953 and 1954 (Fig. 12.6), part of a series of over 150 paintings that mourned the loss of liberty in Spain after the Fascist forces were victorious. Although the paintings do not tell a story, Motherwell believed that abstraction communicated, in universal terms, the struggle between life and death and between freedom and oppression. The large size of the painting makes these struggles seem monumental. Motherwell was influenced by the Surrealist process of expression called automatism, which incorporates intuition, spontaneity, and the accidental when creating artworks, similar to the Abstract Expressionist style. His black-and-white forms suggest several Spanish motifs, according to Robert Hughes (1997:496). They are bull’s testicles, the patent leather berets of the Guardia Civil, and living forms (represented by the large, ovoid shapes) being crushed by the black bands.

12.5 DAVID ALFARO SIQUEIROS. Echo of a Scream, Mexico, 1937. Enamel on wood, 48" 36". Gift of Edward M. M. Warburg (633.1939). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. © Estate of David Alfaro Siqueiros/SOMAAP, Mexico City/VAGA, New York.


Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV, USA, 1953–1954. Oil on canvas, 80" 100". Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y. © Dedalus Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.


Woman with Keloidal Scars (from the series 11:02 – Nagasaki), Japan, 1966. Gelatin Silver Print, 11.5"

16". Courtesy of the artist.

From the other side of the world, Tomatsu Shomei’s Woman with Keloidal Scars (Fig. 12.7) is one of a series of photographs of victims of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II. The blast was so powerful that it vaporized the victims who were nearest the center of impact. Those farther away suffered terrible injuries and deformities. Tomatsu’s photograph is technically beautiful, with a full range of deep blacks and silvery grays. But the lacy texture is excessive fibrous tissue stretched over the woman’s skull. With her pained, fearful expression, her psychological and physical injuries still seem fresh, although

12.8 LEON GOLUB. Mercenaries I, USA, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 116" 1861/2". The Broad Art Foundation. © Leon Golub/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

inflicted long ago. Yet there is a strange sense of normalcy, as if she were out sightseeing. Tomatsu made this series to document past horrors and to protest against U.S. troops stationed in Japan for decades. Since World War II, some Japanese have pushed for complete, permanent demilitarization of the country.

Leon Golub’s painting, Mercenaries I (Fig. 12.8), from 1976, shows two “guns for hire” dangling a bound victim between them, using brute power to bolster a repressive government. These professional fighters are devoid of any ideological stance; they are simply paid thugs. The mercenaries are flattened figures against the flat background. They are pushed aggressively to the foreground, and we, the viewers, are dwarfed by the nearly eleven-foot height of the painting. Looking up, we share the same view as the victim, who has no identifying traits and could be anyone, even us. The paint, applied thickly at first, has been scraped repeatedly so that the surface seems raw and nasty. The flesh looks particularly repulsive, both on the cruel faces of the mercenaries and on the tortured victim. The colors are jarring and acid.

Golub worked from news photographs and insisted that his images realistically report atrocities occurring regularly in the world. His images have an immediacy to them because of the news and because of entangled global politics and economies.


Artists who fight for the rights and affirm the values of economically or politically repressed peoples use several strategies to make their points most forcefully. These include beauty, illustration, narrative, humor, and shock. Most social protest works are designed generally to affect public consciousness, rather than to prescribe specific changes.


Interestingly, beauty and excitement can be very effective elements in protest art. In Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, painted in 1830 (Fig. 12.9), Liberty has been personified as a partially nude woman— apparently flesh and blood—but reminiscent of a Greek goddess in her profile and in her idealized body. Energized and oblivious to danger, she carries a rifle and the flag of the French Revolution. She forms the peak of a triangle made up of merchants, students, laborers, soldiers, and even young boys who emerge from the smoke, debris, and dead bodies to move toward the light that surrounds Liberty.

The lower and middle classes revolted many times against European ruling classes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This painting is a homage to the Paris revolt in 1830. Delacroix’s painting mixes realistic, idealistic, and romantic elements. Realistic are the faces of the men, who look like Parisians of the day, and the details of the clothing, weapons, and the Paris skyline in the background. Ideal elements include the glowing, goddess-like figure of Liberty, and the belief that revolution will lead to a better way of life. The work is romantic in its portrayal of fighting as thrilling, dangerous, and liberating. Compare this work to Siqueiros’s Echo of a Scream (Fig. 12.5), where warfare is not romanticized.

One of the most direct ways to make social protest art is to illustrate the oppressive situation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, sociologist and artist Lewis Hine photographed miserable labor conditions and slum housing in the United States. He was particularly known for exposing child labor in mines and textile mills, where children were doing the lowest-paying, most tedious jobs. Leo, 48 Inches High, 8 Years Old, Picks Up Bobbins at 15¢ a Day, from 1910 (Fig. 12.10), shows a young boy who dodges under textile looms to pick up loose thread spools. Children in these jobs ran the risk of injury or death from moving machinery. They typically worked ten- to twelve-hour shifts in the mills, six days a week, making schooling impossible. Child laborers were destined to remain illiterate, poor, and overworked. Hine fully documented the youthfulness of the child laborers by giving his pho

12.10 LEWIS HINE. Leo, 48 Inches High, 8 Years Old, Picks Up Bobbins at 15¢ a Day, USA, 1910. Photograph, 81/2" 11". University of Maryland Library, College Park, Maryland. Reproduced from the collections of the Library of Congress.

tos long titles, yet in some ways, they were unnecessary. Hine’s composition emphasizes the large scale of the weaving machines—their great length and height—that dwarf the child. Leo seems very young and apprehensive. The factory is gloomy, littered, and staffed by women, another underpaid group. Hine’s pictures are harder to forget than wordy ideological arguments, pro or con, on labor conditions.

Hine worked with the National Child Labor Committee, a private group dedicated to protecting working children, and the loosely organized Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century, which sought reform for a number of problems resulting from urbanization and industrialization. He lectured and his images were published in magazines, making his work unusually successful in changing both public opinion and public policy. Child labor was eventually outlawed in the 1930s.

Ben Shahn used narrative as a protest strategy in The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, dated 1931–1932 (Fig. 12.11), to tell the story of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants who were active in labor organizations, avoided the draft in World War I, and were political anarchists. They were arrested and convicted for robbery and murder, despite several witnesses who testified that they were elsewhere at the time of the crime. Many claimed that Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted because of their politics, as the judge allowed the prosecution to make inflammatory

statements about their political beliefs during the trial.

In his painting, Shahn collapses time, showing simulta

neously the courthouse steps, the framed portrait of the

judge who presided over the original trial, and the

ashen faces of Sacco and Vanzetti as they lie in their

coffins. Prominent in the middle are three commission

ers who declared the trial to have been legal, thus

allowing the executions to take place. The commission

ers are dour and righteous, bolstered by institutional

rigidity. The harsh colors express Shahn’s distress at the

death of the two men, whom Shahn and many others

felt were heroes.

Jacob Lawrence also used narrative to recount the

accomplishments, challenges, and oppressions of the

African community uprooted to the Western Hemi

sphere by slavery. He made thirty-one paintings about

Harriet Tubman and twenty-two on John Brown. The

paintings reconstruct the past with lengthy, narrative

titles to make the story clearer and to inspire African

Americans today. Our example is No. 36: During the

Truce Toussaint Is Deceived and Arrested by LeClerc.

LeClerc Led Toussaint to Believe That He Was Sincere,

Believing That When Toussaint Was Out of the Way,

the Blacks Would Surrender (Fig. 12.12). It is one of

forty-one paintings made from 1937 to 1941 on

12.11 BEN SHAHN. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, USA (Lithuanian born), 1931–1932. Tempera on canvas, 841/2" 48". The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.


No. 36: During the Truce Toussaint Is Deceived and Arrested by LeClerc. LeClerc Led Toussaint to Believe That He Was Sincere, Believing That When Toussaint Was Out of the Way, the Blacks Would Surrender, USA, 1937–1938. Tempera on paper, 11" 19". Photograph courtesy of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence/Art Resource, NY © 2004 Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

François-Dominique Toussaint-L’Ouverture (or “Louverture”), a slave who led a revolt in Haiti that resulted in the abolition of slavery there in 1794. Toussaint then established a semiautonomous black government, resisting French, English, and Spanish attempts to control Haiti. He was eventually captured by French forces and died a year later in a French prison. Haiti finally overcame the French in 1804 and became the first black-governed country in the Western Hemisphere.

Lawrence completed forty-one preliminary drawings and then worked on all the paintings simultaneously, so that the series has formal cohesion with its bold, flat, simplified style. Colors are limited, with black and white punctuating the images, giving them strength and starkness. No. 36 shows the French soldiers’ crossed swords that pin Toussaint in the center. The floor tilts up, and the walls of the room trap him at the intersection of colors. The black chair reads like bars of a prison. Broad sections of yellow and green in the background unify the image, while the center, with its greatest density of detail, provides a forceful focal point. In his use of space and color choices, Lawrence was influenced by Cubism as well as the bright patterns of handmade rugs.

Connection Lawrence trained in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and was influenced by the vibrant community of artists, writers, and performers, as shown in Faith Ringgold’s The Bitter Nest, Part II: The Harlem Renaissance Party (Fig. 3.48). An example of a Cubist work is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (Fig. 11.26).

The Rent Collection Courtyard, sculpted in 1965 (Fig. 12.13), narrates instances of injustice from Chinese history in several scenes. Although the work is officially credited to an anonymous team of sculptors, the over one hundred life-size figures were made by Ye Yushan and others at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. Here, a bent, aged peasant farmer is bringing his harvest to the landlord to pay his taxes. Excessive taxation kept peasants in poverty, often forcing them to mortgage their future crops and sell their children into servitude. In another vignette from the work, not shown here, the landlord’s thugs drag a peasant to prison while one thug kicks kick the peasant’s wife, pleading on the ground with an infant in her arms. In the final scenes, the peasants are rising in revolt.

Realistic details and life-size figures make viewers feel as if they are witnessing the actual event. The poses make clear where our sympathies should lie, with the aged, bowing peasant in strong contrast to the relaxed, haughty, well-dressed landlord. The Courtyard was meant to validate the existing Chinese Communist government, which instituted land reforms in the 1950s that eliminated the powerful landlords. It was first displayed in the courtyard of a landlord’s mansion (Liu Wencai in Dayi) where the events depicted actually took place.

Connections Contrast the idea of the anonymous artist working at the service of others with the notion of art stars and the artist as genius in Chapter 5, Who Makes Art?

The Rent Collection Courtyard is similar to the USA Marine Corps War Memorial in Figure 11.27 (page 297) in that both are highly realistic, both memorialize past events, and both affirm the existing government of each nation. They do, however, commemorate different kinds of events.

Shocking ugliness can be used in the service of protest art. In The State Hospital, from 1966 (Fig. 12.14), artist Edward Kienholz criticizes the way society deals with people it deems incompetent. The outside of this work, not shown here, is a grim, boxlike cell with a locked, grimy door. Inside, a naked mental patient is strapped to his bed. His mattress is filthy and the bedpan is streaked with excrement. His head is replaced by a fish bowl with two black fish swimming aimlessly inside. Encircled in neon is the cartoon balloon above his head that shows another image of himself. The patient is completely isolated and has no life beyond this room. Kienholz’s props are actual institutional objects: the bed frame, the urinal, the rolling table (barely visible at left). The strongest impact, however, comes from the pathetic body of the patient—his bony knees; his sagging, exposed genitals; his leathery skin. As in The Rent Collection Courtyard, the realism makes the sculpture seem more immediate to the viewer.

To look inside, one has to peer through a barred window, which makes everyone on the outside part of “normal” society that supports such institutions in which the powerless are mistreated. Looking through the window, viewers take on the role of guards or surveillance cameras. Kienholz drew on his experiences as an employee in a mental hospital, where he saw, for example, a staff member repeatedly hit a patient in the stomach with a soap bar wrapped in a towel, so there would be no surface bruises.


(detail), China (Dayi, Sichuan), 1965. Clay, life-size figures.

Cildo Meireles made Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project (Fig. 12.15) in the 1970s in response to Brazil’s military government, which supported itself by “selling” the country to foreign investors, mostly from the United States. Much of the natural environment as well as the cultures of indigenous peoples in Brazil were being destroyed because of such policies. Meireles and others wanted to affirm Brazil’s autonomy and resist becoming a market for foreign goods, but art that was openly critical of the government was repressed. So Meireles took empty Coca-Cola bottles, screen printed subversive messages on them, and then returned them for refilling. The added writing on the bottles is almost invisible when they are empty. Only the person holding the bottle close while drinking the soda can easily read the message. Using Coca-Cola bottles as vehicles for political messages was clever in many ways: first, because Coca-Cola is everywhere; second, because Meireles took advantage of the already-existing system of reusing bottles; and third, because Coca-Cola is a popular symbol for U.S. culture.

Connection Some would say that writing “Yankees go home!” on Coca-Cola bottles is not art. Others would argue that an artist’s job is to increase the viewer’s awareness. For more, see Chapter 4, Deriving Meaning.

Humor is another strategy for effective protest. In Sun Mad, dated 1981 (Fig. 12.16), Ester Hernandez takes familiar imagery from popular, commercial culture and subverts it. For decades, the raisin growers around Hernandez’s hometown heavily used insecticides that contaminated the groundwater the local population used for drinking and bathing. Hernandez took the packaging of the best-known raisin producer, Sun Maid, and changed the usual image of healthy eating into a message of death. Her grimly humorous work is effective because the raisin industry advertising is so successful and we know the original image.

Hernandez chose an art form that allows her to

reach many people, just as advertising does. This work

is a color screen print that has been reproduced and

widely disseminated on T-shirts and postcards. Even

though Hernandez was reacting to a specific instance of

contamination, her work reaches out to everyone who

ingests pesticide residue or to farmworkers who were

sprayed with pesticides while working in the fields.

Yinka Shonibare uses historical quotes, clothing,

and humor to protest the colonial past and to show the

complexity of world trade and culture in his Mr. and

Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads, 1998 (Fig. 12.17).

A contemporary British artist of Nigerian origin (Nige

ria was a British colony), Shonibare has created a

three-dimensional parody of the famous eighteenth-

century painting in which the landed gentry show off

their estate. In his version, Shonibare has beheaded the

aristocrats, recalling the fate of the ruling class during

the French Revolution. The most complex aspect of the

piece, however, is the printed cotton cloth, the kind

12.16 ESTER HERNANDEZ. Sun Mad, USA, 1981. Color serigraph, 22" 17". © 1981 Ester Hernandez.

associated with idealized African culture, which Mr. and Mrs. Andrews are wearing. The cloth is not African at all, but is made in the batik method that the Dutch and English manufacturers learned in Indonesia and then sold in West Africa. Shonibare shows that all cultures are intertwined and hybridized, and although many people may like the idea of cultural purity, it does not exist.

Connection Shonibare based his sculpture on the eighteenth-century painting by British artist Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews(Fig. 2.10).

Some art dealing with past injustices and oppressions is met with mixed responses, even from those who are descendants of the oppressed. Kara Walker is an African American artist who creates life-size, cutout silhouette figures based on racist imagery of the slave era in the United States. Petticoated plantation mistresses, slaves with their masters’ heads under their skirts, bastard children, black women squeezing out multiple babies between their legs, slaves being tortured or murdered—all are depicted as elegant flat shapes,

12.18 KARA WALKER. “They Waz Nice White Folks While They Lasted” (Says One Gal to Another). Cut paper and projections on wall, 14' 20'. USA, 2001. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York City.

both humorous and shocking. The imagery is based on fact and fantasy, primarily from pulp fiction sources dealing with subjugation and titillation. In works like

“They Waz Nice White Folks While They Lasted” (Says One Gal to Another), from 2001 (Fig. 12.18), Walker’s cutouts are enhanced with projections in darkened galleries, so that viewers participate in the action by casting their own shadows on the wall, joining the animated and raucous silhouettes hung there. Walker has received many letters of protest from black people who believe that she should refrain from presenting negative images of African Americans. Walker responds that she makes these images because they are controversial and should be discussed.


When a group of people is oppressed, their way of life tends to be discounted or ridiculed. Art is an especially effective tool for affirming the lifestyles and values of downtrodden groups.

When Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted the fresco Allegory of Good Government: The Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country, dated 1338–1339 (Fig. 12.19), Italy was a patchwork of city-states regularly thrown into turmoil by competing political fac

12.19 AMBROGIO LORENZETTI. Allegory of Good Government: The Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country (detail), Italy, 1338–1339. Fresco. Sala della Pace, Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy. © Scala/Art Resource, NY.

tions, overthrown governments, and petty tyrants. In contrast, Lorenzetti showed how common citizens prosper when Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude reign, represented by hovering allegorical figures. In a climate of security, businesses flourish, culture thrives, and the fields are fruitful. This late-Gothic painting is full of delightful details of everyday life in fourteenth-century Italy. The sweeping panorama was a remarkable achievement in Italian painting of the era. It still attests to the right of people to live free of tyranny.

Likewise, in Northern Europe, power was concentrated in religious and secular rulers, but their absolute authority was being questioned (see Art and History in Context on page 350), while the idea developed of the worth of the ordinary individual. In 1527, Hans Holbein the Younger painted the portrait of the Christian humanist Sir Thomas More (Fig. 12.20), who was a scholar, author, and statesman. An independent thinker, More saw that his daughters received a classical education normally reserved for young men. He invented the

12.20 HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER. Sir Thomas More, Flanders, 1527. Oil on oak panel, 291/2" 233/4". Frick Collection, New York.

term utopia and wrote a book envisioning a state practicing religious tolerance and free of political and economic oppression. He criticized the Catholic Church for its abuses and secular power. But it was his opposition to King Henry VIII of England’s divorce and remarriage that cost him his life, despite the fact that he held the highest political office. Holbein’s portrait shows More’s intelligent eyes and ordinary mien, under the richness of the regal robes. The work, as well as More’s life, affirmed the importance of the individual’s conscience even when it opposes authority.

Art can affirm the history and culture of a people even as that culture is being attacked and eradicated. The Aztec Codex Borbonicus (Fig. 12.21) is a religious calendar that was made during the period of the Spanish conquest, either just before or just after the fall of the Aztec empire (see Art and History in Context, page 330). The Codex Borbonicus and the handful of other manuscripts that have survived from this era preserve the pre-Columbian culture. This image depicts calendar glyphs surrounding the large image of two gods, Quetzalcoatl (light and sun) and Tezcatlipoca (moon and destruction), who are devouring a man. Traces of Aztec culture survive in Central America to the present day.

Aboriginal artists have used art to affirm their cultural values, which have been suppressed by Australians of European descent. Because of colonization, many Aborigines lost their land or were killed. While the rest of the country was celebrating the two hun

12.21 Codex Borbonicus, early 16th century. Detail depicting Quetzalcoatl and Texcatlipoca. Paint on vellum, 39 cm 40 cm. Aztec. Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée Nationale, Paris, France.

dredth anniversary of Captain Cook’s “discovery” of Australia, the Aboriginal population commemorated “Invasion Day.” Forty-three artists collaborated to make The Aboriginal Memorial, installed in 1988 (Fig. 12.22). The work is composed of two hundred logs, one for each year of settlement, hollowed out as traditional Aboriginal coffins. They are memorials to all the native peoples who died as a result of European settlement and were never given proper Aboriginal mortuary rites. Artists painted the logs with their important clan Dreamtime symbols, affirming traditional Aboriginal culture, which was undermined and, at times, outlawed. Poles reach as high as ten feet and seem like living growths springing up with vibrating patterns and vigorous animal imagery (Caruana 1993:206).

Connections For more on Aboriginal culture and Dream-time imagery, see Witchetty Grub Dreaming in Figure 7.2 (page 151).

Like the Australian Aboriginal artists, many contemporary Native American artists continue to reference traditional imagery and art processes in the work they produce today, as in the late- twentieth-century Bowl by Maria Martinez (see Fig. 3.41).

Puerto Rican–born Pepón Osorio’s mixed media installation, The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?), 1993–1999 (Fig. 12.23), affirms the worth of Puerto Rican culture in New York, while protesting how the people are depicted in mass media. He has re-created a “typical” Puerto Rican house, cluttered with kitsch statuettes, inexpensive religious objects, plastic plants, sentimental family photos, trophies, covers of TV Guide, and so on. Police tape and bright lights indicate a crime has happened, and a mannequin corpse lies face down at the back of the installation, but everything is remote and no details are given. A welcome mat in front reads: “Only if you can understand that it has taken years of

12.22 PADDY DHATANGU,DAVID MALANGI,GEORGE MILPURRURRU, JIMMY WULULU, AND OTHER ARTISTS FROM RAMINGINING. The Aboriginal Memorial, Australia, 1988. Natural pigments on 200 logs; heights: 16" to 128". National Gallery of Art, Canberra. © 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ VI$COPY, Australia.

pain to gather into our homes our most valuable possessions; but the greater pain is to see how in the movies others make fun of the way we live.” Because much is obscure or just out of sight, viewers’ reactions are based on stereotypes or narratives from mass media, including assumptions of drugs and crime in the culture, or class-based condemnations of the décor. Like Kara Walker (see Fig. 12.18), Osorio at times has received negative responses, some from Latino viewers who want to distance themselves from these cultural stereotypes.

Mona Hatoum is an artist of Palestinian descent who has lived in London since 1975, when she was forced to flee the fighting in Beirut. Her work deals

12.23 PEPÓN OSORIO. The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?), Puerto Rico/USA, 1993–1999. Mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Bronx Museum of the Arts. Purchased through funds from the

H. W. Wilson Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, 1999.1.4. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

12.24 MONA HATOUM. Light Sentence, Palestine/England, 1992. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. © Courtesy the artist and Jay Jopling/White Cube (London). © CNAC/ MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/ Art Resource, NY.

poetically with personal identity, the body, surveillance, and control. Light Sentence, 1992 (Fig. 12.24), is an installation of wire mesh lockers in a dark room, stacked to human height. In the middle, a bare light-bulb swings around, casting wildly rocking shadows so that the cell-like room seems to sway. The swinging bulb is like a sometimes-blinding prison searchlight, implying surveillance. Lockers should hold private possessions safely, but here everything is exposed. The piece suggests animal cages in an experimental laboratory and connotes the oppressively uniform high-rise housing for low-income people. Light Sentence reveals the instability that those without power endure.


The status quo is the existing state of affairs, which appears natural or inevitable instead of constructed and evolving. In this section, artists take a critical look at the “normal,” at all those underlying and ingrained systems, beliefs, and ways of operating within a culture.


William Hogarth satirized the English upper classes in a series of six paintings called Marriage à la Mode, dated c. 1745, a comedy mixed with criticism and condemnation. In the second of the six images, Breakfast Scene (Fig. 12.25), the wall clock indicates past noon, but the couple is just meeting over the breakfast table in their lavish mansion. The disheveled, bored husband has been out all night. The puppy sniffs at his pocket where another woman’s lingerie hangs. The young wife stretches after a night of cards and music at home. The overturned chairs indicate that the evening became a bit raucous. The paintings on the walls indicate a taste for sexual intrigues, despite the presence of classical busts and religious images for propriety. At left, a servant rolls his eyes, clutching unpaid bills.

The young man is a penniless nobleman whose father arranged this marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant. For her part, the arranged marriage brings status and a title, Lady Squanderfield. She casts a flirting glance at her husband, but he is completely unresponsive. A vacuum of unconcern separates them. The series ends miserably with infidelity, scandal, and death by duel. Hogarth’s paintings were turned into inexpensive prints that were enormously popular and received widespread distribution among the English middle class.

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Backs, dated 1976 to 1982 (Fig. 12.26), consists of eighty slumping, hollow backs that are more than life-size, but without legs, heads, and hands. They hunch forward, immobile, in

12.25 WILLIAM HOGARTH. Breakfast Scene (from the series Marriage à la Mode), England,

c. 1745. Oil on canvas, 28" 36". National Gallery, London. © National Gallery Collection; By kind permission of the Trustees of the National Gallery, London/Corbis.

lines all facing the same direction. Backs alludes to the human condition in times of great distress. Abakanowicz lived in Poland during World War II, saw her mother’s arm shot off at the shoulder, and witnessed death, pain, and destruction. In postwar Soviet-dominated Poland, she encountered many hardships in her struggle to make artwork.

Backs suggests the modern malaise of uniformity, of loss of self and of individuality. Organic fibers were pressed into the same plaster mold to make all eighty backs, so that each is very similar to the others. However, small degrees of individuality emerge in the twist of the fiber and in the slight variations created as each back was removed from the mold. The thick, matted fibers resemble wrinkled skin, knotted muscles, and visceral tissue. Their organic quality emphasizes our physicality and our ties to the natural world. The weary backs also suggest endurance, strength, and survival.

Jenny Holzer focused on the mass of implicit beliefs that are widely accepted in the United States today, in Untitled (Selected Writings), dated 1989 (Fig. 12.27). Holzer wrapped electronic signs around the spiral interior of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City and placed a circle of red granite benches below. The stream of words jumps out from the darkened interior of the museum, starting at the bottom, and then swirling up until they disappear at the top of the spiral. The phrases seem familiar, but as a whole, they sound contradictory or even a little idiotic. As Holzer herself says, “They’re about how we drive ourselves crazy with a million possibilities that are half correct” (Auping 1992:55). “A sincere effort is all you can ask” is countered with “Enjoy yourself because you can’t change anything anyway.” Another example is, “Protect me from what I want,” written in a culture where money can buy almost anything. The electronic signs flash words like a mass media attack, and then they quickly slip away almost before we can grasp them. In contrast, the words carved in the stone benches below are permanent, but just as conflicting. The sheer number of phrases, the speed at which we see them, and their contradictory messages destroy thought, although we normally think of words as the carriers of meaning.


In Chapter 11, Power, Politics, and Glory, we saw art that promoted the personal glory of a ruler or the power of a state. In this section, we will see art that pokes at the political status quo.

The political cartoon has a long history of challenging politics and society in Western nations. In France, Honoré Daumier was especially known for his pointedly satirical caricatures, until an 1835 government crackdown outlawed works like the lithograph, The Legislative Belly (Fig. 12.28), from 1834. Here, members of the French legislature are mean-spirited, sleeping, or arrogant. The curving walls echo their fat bellies. Although Daumier depicted specific politicians (who would have been recognized by the French public at that time), his great composition and caricatures are an indictment to corrupt lawmakers at any time, in any place.

Portrait of George, dated 1981 (Fig. 12.29), by Robert Arneson, is a bust portrait of George Moscone, a popular mayor of San Francisco in the late 1970s. Moscone’s smiling face is distinct and lively, animated by splattered colors. The bust sits on a column casually covered, graffiti-like, with phrases recalling Moscone’s background, some of his more memorable sayings, and events from his life and death. Moscone and another politician were assassinated in 1978 by a disgruntled San Francisco city supervisor named Dan White, who had disagreed with Moscone on most political points, including issues concerning homosexuals.

The bust was made for a new civic center in San Francisco. Arneson’s Portrait of George departs from the status quo of bland, bronze portrait heads of political leaders that are common in parks and in lobbies of public buildings. This sculpture is irreverent, colorful, and very large. Bullet holes apparently pierce the pedestal and a yellow, phallic Twinkies snack cake is prominent. At his trial, Dan White received a light sentence for his crimes, because his lawyers argued that he was unbalanced at the time of the shooting from eating too many Twinkies. Many San Franciscans protested the sentence, and there was a night of rioting. Because Arneson’s sculpture was a vivid reminder of the murder and riots, Portrait of George was officially removed from the civic center after one week because the pedestal was deemed crude and inappropriate. The work was later sold to a private collector.

In South Africa for many years, the economic and political status quo was based on apartheid, a system of laws and social standards that repressed the native population. William Kentridge created charcoal drawings and film animations based on the causes and injustices of apartheid. Kentridge’s work, however, goes beyond the specifics of the South African situation. The Drawing from Mine, from 1991 (Fig. 12.30), shows the white businessman with tangled financial tapes wrapped around sculptural heads of Africans, very much like the Crowned Head of an Oni (Fig. 11.3). Kentridge’s art points out the moral difficulties that attend all instances of power, ownership, and oppression on a grand scale. This charcoal drawing and others were photographed repeatedly, while Kentridge drew and erased, to create the short film sequence called Mine.

Connection Another artwork that protests against apartheid in South Africa is Hans Haacke’s MetroMobiltan in Figure 4.7 (page 90).

Our last example of protest art is from contemporary El Salvador, with Miguel Antonio Bonilla’s The Knot (Fig. 12.31), from 1994. The two ominous figures represent the country’s police and politicians, who conspired in the 1980s to create an oppressive regime in El Salvador. The knot that connects them seems to be made of two extended, elongated phalluses. In this way, Bonilla referred to the chauvinism in his culture that allows factions to oppress others and also causes

12.30 WILLIAM KENTRIDGE. Drawing from Mine, South Africa, 1991. Mine is a 5 min. 49 sec. film. Charcoal.

domestic violence. Bonilla took a political risk in this painting because of its criticism of the political status quo. He also took artistic risks, making the painting purposefully ugly and shocking. The style of this work was contrary to prevailing Salvadoran aesthetics for painting at that time.

12.31 MIGUEL ANTONIO BONILLA. The Knot, El Salvador, 1994. Acrylic on canvas, 51" 78". Museum of Latin American Art.


1300 – 1550 CE

Map 6 Patterns of World Trade. Courtesy of Replogle Globes, Inc., Broadview, IL.

he world in 1300 was still a patchwork of relatively autonomous, relatively isolated regions. Two hundred fifty years later, much of that had changed.

China during this period was ruled by two dynasties: the Yuan dynasty of the Mongolian invaders, which ended in the mid1300s, and the native Ming dynasty, known for its territorial expansion as well as its amazing building program, which included rebuilding the Great Wall and constructing the Forbidden City. Wealth was distributed to lower classes through the Civil Service and land ownership. This was a period of stability, prosperity, religious tolerance, and a high standard of living. Chinese ships traveled to India and Africa, and the Portuguese landed at China’s ports in 1514.

Islam continued to expand in Asia, Africa, and southeastern Europe. Around 1280, the mighty Ottoman Empire was established with Turkey as its center, and it expanded its territories in North Africa and the Middle East. Many Ottoman rulers were art patrons, great builders, and conquerors. They generally tolerated other religions. Likewise, the Mughal Empire in India was known for its ambitious building program, its humane rulers, and its illuminated manuscripts. The Safavids ruled Persia after 1500.

At this time, Europe saw the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. The rise of Christian humanism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries brought an emphasis on reason, human abilities, and intellectual achievement, as exemplified by scholars such as Sir Thomas More (Fig. 12.20). This humanistic tradition has continued to grow, and, because it promotes the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, it is the basis for much social protest art. Small areas of Italy had republican governments, notably Florence and Siena, as shown with the Allegory of Good Government (Fig. 12.19). In Italy, the era brought increased prosperity and the rediscovery of Greco-Roman culture.

Beginning in 1300, the secular power of the Catholic Church slowly declined in Europe. The Church’s religious authority was challenged in the 1500s when the Protestant Reformation divided European Christians between the Protestants and Catholics.

This was the beginning of the age of exploration and expansion. European sailors undertook amazing voyages of discovery, most notably in the Americas in 1492. Advanced civilizations had flourished earlier in Central America, especially the Maya/Toltec culture, with hieroglyphics, ball courts, and palaces. In 1500, the Aztecs dominated central Mexico and had a complex society with accomplishments in painting, architecture, astronomy, and cosmology. The Aztec Coatlicue (see history box illustration) is a colossal freestanding sculpture of a deity representing sacrificial death as well as the potential for new life. The Codex Borbonicus (Fig. 12.21) is an example of Aztec bookmaking and painting accomplishments that also shows the culture’s calendar system. In 1519, the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs and attempted to wipe out their culture; later, they also conquered the Incas of Peru and established a large colonial empire in America.

Other adventurers circled the globe, visiting ports in Asia and India. Trade expanded greatly in the 1500s and reached many parts of the world. For Europe, the spice trade with Southeast Asia and the slave trade with Africa were important. Other traded commodities included fur, fish, timber, tobacco, rice, silver, gold, sugar, cacao, coffee, diamonds, tea, silk, cotton, and ivory (see map).

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe flourished from 1300 to 1450 in Africa. Other central areas of Africa remained free of Europeans, but African slaves from coastal areas were brought to Europe and the Americas beginning in the 1500s. England, Portugal, and France as well as Spain established American colonies. In still-isolated Australia, the Aboriginal peoples were growing in population and developing long-distance trading among themselves.

Coatlicue. Tenochtitlán, Mexico, c. 1487–1520. Aztec. Andesite, 11'6" high. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.

Thus we have seen the beginnings of slavery, the expansion of Islam and European colonization taking hold as long as 700 years ago. The resulting injustices and conflicts are still the subject of contemporary artworks, such as Yinka Shonibare’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads (Fig. 12.17), Kara Walker’s They Waz Nice White Folks While They Lasted (Fig. 12.18), and William Kentridge’s Drawing from Mine (Fig. 12.30).


1000 CE

Chola Kingdom—India
Yuan Dynasty—China
Maya/Toltec Culture in Mesoamerica
Black Death in Europe 1300 Lorenzetti: Allegory of Good Government
Ming Dynasty—China
Great Wall of China rebuilt Renaissance in Europe 1400
Ottoman Empire in Turkey, North Africa, and Middle East
Christopher Columbus Coatlicue
1500 Codex Borbonicus Holbein: Sir Thomas More
Portuguese arrive in China
Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and Incas
Martin Luther and the Reformation
European colonies in the Americas
Slave trade begins: Africa, Europe, and the Americas
Spice trade—Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia
Mughal Empire in India 1600
Japan closed to Westerners 1700
Rise of merchant class in Japan
Hogarth: Breakfast Scene

1300 – 1550 CE

1800 Goya: The Executions of May 3, 1808
Daumier: The Legislative Belly
Displacement of Native Americans from Western U.S.
Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People
Aboriginal decline in Australia
Colonial rule established in Africa
Civil War, U.S.
End of slavery in U.S.
1900 Kollwitz: The Outbreak (“Losbruch”)
Hine: Leo, 48 Inches High . . .
Grosz: Fit for Active Service
Harlem Renaissance 1920
Great Depression 1930 Shahn: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti
Stalin and the U.S.S.R. Heartfield: Goering the Executioner
Lawrence: No. 36: During the Truce Toussaint Is Deceived ...
Spanish Civil War Siqueiros: Echo of a Scream
World War II 1940
U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
People’s Republic of China
Cold War, 1950–1990 Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV
Civil Rights Movement, U.S. 1960 Shomei: Woman with Keloidal Scars
Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers
The Rent Collection Courtyard


Art can depict the cruelty and destruction of war and can expose cynical military leaders. Even abstract art can express the human struggle for liberty against totalitarian forces.

Artists have protested many forms of oppression, such as the exploitation of laborers, repressive governments, and acts of betrayal. Art has been used to protest colonization and pollution as well as to affirm indigenous values.

“Normal” conditions are reexamined by artists and, in many cases, found wanting. Half-truths, stultifying bureaucracies, police states, and upper-class greed and mindlessness are all targets for artistic critique. Other artists look at consumerism, oppressive patriarchy, the status of women, and institutionalized discrimination.


Here are a few questions to think about in relation to protest art.

  • Is protest art in galleries or museums reaching a wide enough audience to be effective?

  • What about artwork that is sympathetic to a repressed group, like the 1849 painting of Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet (Fig. 12.33)? The hardships endured by the lowest classes in France are depicted here. Who would have been the audience for this painting?

  • With protest art, the artist often has a clear political message to deliver, presents it in a persuasive way, and hopes to cause change. Is that different from propaganda?

  • Can propaganda be art? Finally, some recent artists and art writers have been critical of social protest work such as Hine’s Leo, 48 Inches High . . . because it did not change the existing power structures, even if it did change public opinion about child labor. The wealthy remained insulated, powerful, and privileged, able to gaze upon people like the mill workers, who cannot see them in return.

The wealthy might be moved to “reform” the situation out of their own benevolence. Or they might not. What do you think of criticisms such as this?

Your Thomson Online Resources

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