Pondering the power of art in protest
“Beauty is in the Street” declares a poster of a young woman, rendered in red against a white backdrop, hurling a brick into the air.
The pro-revolutionary poster was among thousands produced by the Atelier Populaire, a group of artists and art students who occupied the École des Beaux-Arts (the School of Fine Arts) in Paris during the May 1968 student uprising, a seven-week period of civil unrest that brought France’s economy to a halt and inspired similar uprisings across the globe. The striking image, which captures the youthful exuberance and revolutionary fervor that defined the moment, exemplifies the marriage of art and protest.
“Beauty is in the Street” (La Beauté est dans La Rue) and other posters by the Atelier Populaire are among a wide range of artwork and protest-related materials displayed in a new exhibition, “Art, Protest, & the Archives,” on view at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, part of Yale University Library, which examines the relationship between art and dissent over the past century. The exhibition is on display through Jan. 7, 2024.
Drawn from Yale Library’s collections and covering a range of protest movements in Europe and the United States from the early 20th century to the present day, the exhibition explores the imaginative ways that these movements have harnessed artistic creativity to fuel their strategies and tactics, raise awareness of their causes, and mock the establishment. It probes what, if anything, art can accomplish that other forms of defiance cannot. And it considers the role of museums and libraries in preserving art that was produced in the service of struggle.
“The exhibition invites people to consider the power of art to change the world,” said Kevin Repp, the Beinecke’s curator of modern European books and manuscripts, who organized the exhibition. “The role of art in protest isn’t always obvious. Can art really inspire change? What can it do that other forms of activism can’t? What’s the line between art and propaganda? How have protest movements shaped avant-garde art? These are the kinds of questions the show explores.”
Materials displayed in long, flat cases on the north and south sides of the Beinecke’s ground floor are arranged chronologically, providing examples of art merging with protest across generations, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Black Lives Matter. It traces the formation of new movements addressing myriad causes, including racial injustice, women’s and LGBT rights, and justice for Indigenous peoples.
Objects featured on the Beinecke’s mezzanine are organized thematically, including how protest movements have utilized underground media, approached the issue of violence in dissent, and embraced artistic devices to promote their causes.
The exhibits introduce visitors to cases when avant-garde artistic movements, such as Dadaism and surrealism, influenced protest movements.
And it depicts the innovative approach of the Situationist International — an organization of social revolutionaries that from 1957 to 1972 developed unique forms of artistic expression to critique of modern capitalist society — and its continuing influence on later protest movements and events.
One of Situationist International’s primary techniques, known as detournement, transforms fragments from mainstream media, such as advertisements, into collages and other images that subvert and lampoon aspects of the status quo. For example, a flier on display from May ’68 pairs a seductive image of a female model clipped from an advertisement with a speech bubble. “Considered in itself, ‘Youth’ is an advertising myth,” the model explains, “profoundly tied to the capitalist mode of production as an expression of dynamism.”
“One of the primary ways that art can serve protest,” Repp said, “is by being a means to counter the mainstream media and its narratives.”
The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a grassroots group that emerged in the late 1980s, orchestrated a powerful example of detournement when it repurposed the pink triangle used by the Nazis to target and identify gay men, featuring it on posters, stickers, and billboards to shock the public out of its complacency and force the government to address the AIDS crisis.
Guy Debord, a founding member and leader of the Situationists, came to believe that art cannot be revolutionary because it is too enmeshed with the establishment and expelled artists from the group, Repp said.
“Whether art can be revolutionary is a question that comes up again and again in the show,” he said. “One reason given was that it’s too tied to the art market and inevitably becomes all about making money.”
Two posters produced during May ’68 exemplify the two sides to this question. One, designed by Debord, is devoid of images and composed exclusively of text. The other, created by Dutch artist Jacqueline de Jong — a Situationist who rejected Debord’s view of art in protest — is awash in color and arresting images. De Jong painted over much of the poster’s original text, which was prepared by the Atellier Populare and distributed to artists to illustrate, deploying detournement against the very people who created the technique, the label text explains.
The exhibition also wrestles with the interaction of protest and violence. A poster by graphic artist Emory Douglas, minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, deftly captures the interaction of art and violence. It depicts a Black woman wielding a paintbrush like a lance. A rifle is slung over her shoulder.
“Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed People of the world,” the poster declares.
In a black-and-white photograph by Tano D’Amico, a young woman, nose and mouth concealed under a bandana, stares down carabinieri — armed policemen — during a 1977 protest demonstration in Rome.
The image, displayed on the ground floor of the exhibition, captures the defiance of Il Movimento del ’77, an underground revolt that swept across Italy, championing an array of causes, including women’s rights, anti-imperialism, gay liberation, and class struggle. But it also conveys the threat of violence that loomed over the movement. The period is widely remembered as “the years of lead” due to the many occasions when gunfire accompanied clashes between protestors and the authorities in the streets.
Things came to a head in the spring of 1978 when militants of the Red Brigades, a far-left group, kidnapped former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Morro, killing his bodyguards in the process. The militants later murdered Moro, leaving his body in the trunk of a car. The bloody episode triggered a government crackdown that ended Il Movimento and led to the suppression of protest movements across Europe.
The exhibit closes by questioning the roles of institutions like Yale in preserving the history of art created in the pursuit of revolutionary change. A label positioned below an empty plastic mount asks: “What (if anything) should go here?”
“Should it be one of the many voices that are absent, often because the Beinecke Library has chosen not to collect them?” the label asks. “What would inclusion mean for those communities? Or should the mount remain empty because protest cannot really be protest inside these walls? What would absence imply? What if art and protest simply fade away along with their struggles?”
An opening reception for the exhibition will be held at 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29. In conjunction with the reception, an event to support the free flow of ideas and oppose censorship will take place starting at 4 p.m. in front of Sterling Memorial Library. Participants will walk to the New Haven Free Public Library carrying signs that each contain a word from the American Library Association and Association of American Publishers’ “Freedom to Read” statement and, from there, proceed to the Beinecke Library.
The Beinecke Library is located at 121 Wall St. in New Haven. The event is free and open to public.