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On Art as Protest

Opinion | February 6, 2017

The morning after the election, my girlfriend and I were in a grocery store outside Boston. As we were browsing, I absentmindedly reached for her hand and then almost immediately withdrew mine. I had seen a large “Make America Great Again” sign near the parking lot, which made me feel nervous and uncertain about showing affection in public. However, this fear and discomfort felt small compared to the realities that many Americans woke up to that day, or have been facing in this country for years. Recognizing the power in that sign to make me feel so uncomfortable was a spark for me, and I started making art in an attempt to do the opposite.

I wanted to create a space to show solidarity, love, and community for people who were the most affected by this election and its aftermath—a place to demonstrate that although many of these issues have existed in America for years and years, we will not accept the normalization of our leader spewing hate and lies. On November 28, I created a Facebook group called “30 Days of Art as Protest,” in which I dedicated myself to creating a piece of protest art every day for 30 days. The project did not pretend to be a solution to the issues that we face, nor did it claim that these issues only began post-election; rather, it was a place to gather anger, hope, and support. Over 1,000 people joined, friends and strangers alike, and many posted inspiring art over the 30 days. While the project began as a reaction to the election, it grew from being centered around Trump and his administration to addressing broader emotions and issues—because it was never about just him. He is just a byproduct of greater societal problems, a mouthpiece for those who accept racism, sexism, xenophobia—the list goes on.

Art is successful as a form of resistance if it accomplishes three things: creates hope, amplifies underrepresented narratives, and inspires further action. As a queer woman attempting to start an art initiative, I was interested in the resistance art movement centered on LGBT+ rights and the HIV/AIDS crisis. I began by researching the rainbow Pride Flag, which has become a symbol of the diverse and inclusive nature of the LGBT+ movement. According to Julia Zorthian, an artist named Gilbert Baker designed the flag for San Francisco’s pride parade in 1987. With the help of his boyfriend Jomar Teng, as well as 30 others, the flag was dyed and stitched with the colors of the rainbow to represent the different colors, genders, and races the community welcomes. The flag amplified the queer narrative by giving the community a symbol to rally around, creating hope for a growing movement in San Francisco, and inspiring action as people waved and hung the flag to show their pride.

As the government and mainstream media largely ignored the HIV/AIDS crisis, a guerrilla art group emerged to resist: Gran Fury. This group, according to Steven Heller, created the iconic “SILENCE = DEATH” graphic in 1987, and in 1989 they began disseminating their piece “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do.” Their advertising campaigns appeared on buses, in museums, and across a variety of public spaces to counter stigma around HIV/AIDS and increase awareness. Around this time, another artist, Keith Haring, was creating art with a similar message around embracing sexuality and the disastrous governmental passivity around the AIDS crisis. Haring’s art created a unique visual language to portray radiant queer love and rally people to act on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. By discussing LGBT+ issues at a time when it was still taboo, Baker, Gran Fury, and Haring used art to shed light on this marginalized narrative, give support and hope to the queer community, and inspire people to act, therefore creating a successful resistance art movement.

Seeing the vibrant community that formed around “30 Days of Art as Protest”—a community that exists in the nascent post-election movement to make America love, learn, and listen again—has been humbling and powerful. The watercolor dreams that people posted, the redolent inky poetry, and the passionate videos are all seeds of hope. Their art discusses issues that mainstream media has been too uncomfortable or oblivious to publicize, and it has inspired me (and hopefully others) to action: making phone calls, signing petitions, and showing up to marches and rallies. Although there are days when the injustices and tragedies seem overwhelming, I no longer feel the way I did in the grocery store that morning. I am louder and prouder than ever—fueled by the hope that in some small way we can continue the resistance of artists that came before and join those who are creating radical art now.

In America today, there seems to be a growing empathy deficit—two sides, each struggling to understand the experiences of the other. I see art as one solution to bridge this gap because, in a way, all art is resistance. It brazenly defies boundaries, resisting the binaries we are relentlessly tempted to fall back on: good or bad, liberal or conservative. With its unending nuance, art prevents us from succumbing to these binaries because it can be interpreted 100 different ways by 100 different people. It can never be distilled into just one side or one argument. Now, more than ever, art holds a crucial place in our resistance. It has the ability to restore hope, represent the marginalized, and inspire people to take action. Over the next four years, I urge everyone capable to make as much art as possible—cover your walls with art, turn streets into chalk murals. Let’s inundate the current administration with art until they are drowning in paint and their ugly actions are covered with radiant brushstrokes.