Art and protest are intertwined: art has always been used as a medium to convey dissent. In some cases, art has allowed to expose social injustice and the excesses of power structures. In what ways can art become a tool to denounce the failures of society?
I) Artists and war
1) War poetry
During World War I, many British writers were sent to the front. During his time in France, Wilfred Owen described the atrocities of war in some of his poems. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (1917) laments the loss of young soldiers by depicting their deaths on the battle field and the mourning of their families.
Owen’s point of view contrasts with the position of other poets like Thomas Hardy who were employed by the British government to write and publish patriotic poems. The latter poets glorified the war and introduced soldiers as heroes dedicating themselves to their country.
2) The counterculture
The counterculture was an anti-war movement from the 1960s and 1970s. Artists associated to the counterculture were openly opposed to US military intervention in Vietnam. For instance, “Give Peace a Chance” (1969) by the British band The Beatles became the anthem against the Vietnam War (1955-1975).
The Woodstock festival (1969) is now seen as a decisive turning point in the counterculture: it promoted peace and showcased artists who actively campaigned against the war in Vietnam, such as Joan Baez, who is known for her political songs. Joan Baez even travelled to Vietnam in 1972, three years before the end of the war, in order to report on human rights conditions.
II) Fighting oppressive governments
1) Denouncing totalitarianism
After World War II, several European artists voiced concern about the expansion of the Soviet power in Eastern Europe and their fear that dictatorships would develop all over Europe. George Orwell, a British writer, was one of the strongest opponents to the Soviet power. The dystopian genre allowed him and other writers such as Ray Bradbury to criticise the Soviet Union’s repressive Communist regime at the onset of the Cold War.
Dystopian literature introduces frightening worlds that have roots in existing societies such as totalitarian regimes.
In his novel 1984 (1949), Orwell describes policies and techniques used by a dictatorship in a close future. Big Brother is the leader of Oceania and the subject of a cult of personality, though it is not sure he even is a real person. His face is made omnipresent through numerous posters and a network of “telescreens”. This fictitious system of audiovisual devices illustrates the merging (intrication) of propaganda and surveillance in a totalitarian regime.
2) Condemning colonialism
After the decolonisation of African countries, many authors denounced the harmful consequences of colonisation. Chinua Achebe, from Nigeria, was one of the first African authors to be recognised internationally.
His “African trilogy”: Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964) is an account of the disruption of Nigerian life and traditions caused by the arrival of British colonisers and religious missionaries in the end of the 19th century. The series goes on to depict the struggle of Nigerians who receive a British education and who are torn between their origins and the colonisers’ mode of life.