The Social Importance of Protest Artwork in a Consumer Culture
Unlike the commercial illustration seen in a free-market economy, protest artwork does not seek to influence people’s purchasing decisions. Instead it aims to express a specific opinion to its audience. Protest artwork typically opposes policies, entities, or social phenomena. In this non-commercial context, the artwork is disseminated by whatever means are available.
The pairing of illustration with a consumer economy becomes apparent when a society undergoes industrialisation. But of course, citizenship is more than being a consumer. The struggle for civil rights, anti war protests, and legal reform are some of causes that have called for illustrated protest artwork.
A Rallying Cry for a Just Future
Shortly before his passing in 2017, former AOI chairman Paul Bowman wrote ‘Educate Agitate Abdicate’. His manifesto called for a socially engaged illustration practice beyond making artwork for commercial clients.
Commercial work can exist beside work that exposes injustice, questions our lives, and helps understanding. Commercialism and commentary for change are not creatively in opposition. Time must be allocated to develop work and communication questioning injustice.Paul Bowman (2017)
It bears mentioning that when illustration output is driven by societal objectives, they can capture the spirit of the times. In his position as Minister of Culture for the Black Panther party, Emory Douglas created visuals that now firmly stand within the tradition of protest artwork. His imagery was central within the publication of The Black Panther Community News Service, which sought to identify and dismantle systemic racism. Similarly the liberation artwork by Judy Ann Seidman embodied the people’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The cut-up décollage work of Jamie Reid stood in opposition to social nationalism and Thatcherite government policy. The feminist screen-print collective, See Red Women’s Workshop, pushed against sexism in the media, exploitation and inequality. And of course, the murals that appear throughout the world are frequently expressions of dissent.
However protest artwork is made and disseminated, we find it is created to reach people in the spaces where their lives are being lived. Not in galleries, and not, as Paul Bowman wrote, in the “elitist, opulent, academic culture of large areas of fine art practice.”