Activist art has diversified in the digital age.
As Bob Dylan iconically declared, the times, they are a-changin’—and so are our mediums of expressing discontent. Dylan is today not only recognized for his distinct, throaty melodies, but also for his protest songs, which gave a voice and a persona to protest movements across 1960s America. While his songs are still repurposed for a variety of contemporary social ills, Dylan’s music is only one form of protest art that has captivated and mobilized activism throughout American history.
“The way that I define protest art is some form of art, literature, or music that offers some kind of critique of something wrong in the culture, something troubling to the artist or writer, and often that seeks explicitly or implicitly to offer a solution,” says Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, a program director at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. McCarthy recently co-taught a General Education class on American protest literature with English and African and African American Studies Professor John Stauffer. What differentiates protest art from art that simply makes a statement, he says, is a certain element of political intentionality.
That intentionality results in what Classics Professor Richard F. Thomas calls “finger-pointing songs.” Thomas taught a freshman seminar focusing on the literary and cultural impacts of Bob Dylan’s music, and he believes that one of the key features in a successful work of protest art is its ability to connect emotionally with the masses. “A protest song appeals to the group mentality....which is working towards something that it’s obviously crying out against,” Thomas says, “Some either real or perceived injustice.” This connection, he says, allows the viewer or listener to link the artist with the message being shared.
The very nature of protest art, which is meant to influence or effect change in society in some manner, lends itself to changes in form as well. With the expansion of social media, mediums of modern protest art have changed greatly in appearance and function from older art forms such as protest literature. Protest art has evolved not only in the mediums used but also in the manner of production, shifting from the work of renowned artists to a mass-driven instrument of change that has flourished in the digital age.
PREACHING TO A DIFFERENT CHOIR
While it may not be recognizable at first glance, American protest art has existed since the foundation of the colonies. “If you go back to the Puritans, some of the Puritan sermons that were preached in the early 17th century have a Jeremiah tradition,” McCarthy says. “These were meant to be sermons that both critiqued the things that were wrong in society.…but also [were] a kind of celebration of the possibility of society living up to its heavenly ideals and aspirations.” Limited literacy meant that these protests were predominantly oral, and were thus able to reach a wide audience within the community.
Beginning in the mid-18th century with the growing availability of printed materials and a higher literacy rate, however, the oral tradition of protest art shifted to a focus on literary publication, such as the works of Thomas Paine and Walt Whitman. Of particular note is the case of Upton Sinclair, McCarthy says, adding that Sinclair is a perfect example of the sometimes unintentional impacts of misinterpreted protest art. Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was originally meant to incite conversions to socialism by raising awareness of the working man’s plight. However, instead of focusing on the main character’s struggles, as Sinclair intended, readers were more interested in the repulsive conditions within the slaughterhouse, which led to expanded regulation of the meat and drug industry. Sinclair famously said of his book’s reception, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Despite the rapidly growing literacy rate, literature as a form of protest art was and is limited in its impact. “I tend to think that the genres that have the most impact are those that are readily accessible and impactful to the broadest possible public,” McCarthy says. “Whether or not you interpreted it in the way it was meant to be interpreted is another question.
“Songs, sermons, speeches and visual art of all kinds, particularly visual art that is available to a broad public—not visual art that is rarefied and placed on display in a museum and costs you $25 to enter—those forms are the most impactful,” he adds.