Protest in Art

The place of protest and strikes in our culture seems particularly pertinent given last week’s student strikes, and having been myself a witness to some of these I began to wonder about how we use such political action in film, art and music, harnessing the power of the people to enrich our culture. 

Billy Bragg is known to many as a popular writer and singer of protest song, and indeed has performed close enough to my house that I have heard the music wafting over the garden walls during Levellers’ Day, commemorating the 17th of May 1649 when, on Cromwell’s orders, three soldiers previously loyal to him were shot whilst protesting his rule, demanding civil rights and tolerance. This annual event takes place in the small town in Oxfordshire where I live, Burford, and has fascinated me since childhood, as it provides an interesting opportunity to witness a huge procession of different groups parade directly past my kitchen windows, with signs such as ‘Anarchy Rules’ delighting my inner pun-lover. But perhaps the most important aspect of the day to consider is the concert which takes place, since here I have experienced the inextricable bond between music and protest. Bragg’s music envelops many different genres, perhaps best defined as folk, but maybe the clearest link is between punk and protest.

When released, ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols caused a huge storm, with its anti-monarchy theme extremely vehemently expressed. Music is something which is intrinsically accessible, and allows people to feel part of a movement without perhaps performing any protest action. Irish rebel music has become part of that country’s culture, with songs such as The Fields of Athenry expressing a desire for freedom whilst including incredibly beautiful melodies and moving lyrics. More recently, as a protest against the X Factor and Simon Cowell, there was a public drive to make Rage Against the Machine’s hit ‘Killing in the Name’ the Christmas number one single. They succeeded – I have always felt sorry for poor Joe McElderry who lost out with his valiant rendition of Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Climb’ – and I suppose this is evidence that there is still public desire to use culture as a means of expressing dissent. 

Related  Festive generosity

Art can be a highly effective form of protest, as artists such as the Chinese political activist Ai Weiwei demonstrate, whose exhibition at the Tate of hand-painted sunflower seeds cemented his role in our cultural psyche and who combines his artistic endeavours with protest. Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller’s exhibit at the Hayward Gallery in 2012 ‘Joy in People’ documented his artistic progress, and included stills from his famous project ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ which re-enacted the clash between police and protesters during the miners’ strike in 1984. 

In film and television, the visual impact of a protest can come across particularly effectively. In Hairspray, for example, a film which combines light-hearted elements of a teen romcom with serious messages about racial discrimination, the protest song led by Queen Latifah’s character is a moving and thoughtful moment of still amongst the usual cheer, and the visual impact of a crowd moving with one purpose is only compounded by the unity of their singing. 

A sense of objection and a desire to make a social impact are both excellent inspiration, and prompt creative expression which can pass on a message more effectively than many methods of communication.