Thatcher may have “inspired” a generation of protest art, but a new show reveals an emerging generation using art for political means.
Can protest be curated? Or does the act of curation defuse its anger, rendering it quaint or bathetic, like an old badge demanding Coal, Not Dole? The Art of Protest exhibition, due to open in its definitive incarnation at The People’s History Museum next month and featuring emerging artists’ work alongside established artists, was provoked by the riots that followed the shooting of Mark Duggan by police in August 2011. It frames itself as a “creative response” to the disturbances, aiming to articulate non-violent dissent.
The extent to which it will be successful depends ultimately on the strength of the submissions it has sought from the present generation. Certainly, the historical precedents it cites (Gillian Wearing, Billy Bragg, Katharine Hamnett) illustrate the limitations and contradictions of protest art, the occasional hell of good intentions. Considering them shows just how thorny it can be to unpick the tangle of ego and anger that fuels such works. Viewed outside its historical context, for example, Lennon and Ono’s Bed In seems less a critique of the war in Vietnam and more the narcissistic prank of two would-be “counter-cultural” celebrities. Indeed, there is something about celebrity that leaves protest compromised; however well intentioned, the persona of the famous can alienate perhaps more effectively than it galvanises.
Hamnett used the visual to make the notoriously inflexible Thatcher see what she didn’t want to see
Side-stepping the distraction of personality, Banksy’s vivid stencil images have a simplicity that lends itself to Tumblr posting and re-Tweeting; a strategy that now seems remarkably prescient. His works’ potential for meme virulence is a guillotine that cuts two ways, however – their very over-familiarity can defuse them, and, in contrast to the graffiti that angrily defaces the New Islington redevelopment propaganda (an impassioned response to the Ancoats Dispensary debacle), Banksy’s considered images can seem somewhat mannered.
More effective, both as an image and as a “happening”, was Katharine Hamnett’s 58% DON’T WANT PERSHING t-shirt, created by the designer to wear to a 1984 meeting with the then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, as a means of protesting against proposals to store Pershing nuclear cruise missiles on UK soil. Although the t-shirts themselves enjoyed a Mayfly lifespan, there is a real sense of disruption in the photograph of that meeting, one that shows an uncomfortable handshake between Hamnett and Thatcher; an insistence that the notoriously inflexible PM see what she does not want to see.
The fascination of this particular exhibition, then, will arise from the opportunity to consider how this generation has chosen to articulate its concerns, and what exactly those concerns are. With a government whose agenda seems still more polarising than the aforementioned Thatcher’s, and one that is apparently in the process of irreversibly dismantling the welfare state, the need to protest has rarely been more urgent.