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War, What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing! A Protest Art Story

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia

20th century

War, What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing! A Protest Art Story

The following article could contain a depiction of violence. It’s intended only for mature audiences.


From Guernica to Vietnam: a protest art story

Points awarded to anyone who recognizes that the lyric in the title is from the 1969 Motown song ‘War’ by Edwin Starr.

Protest art, especially around war, has a rich global history, in visual art, installation art, in music and in literature. German philosopher Adorno famously said: all art is an uncommitted crime, meaning that art challenges the status quo by its very nature.

'War' by Edwin Starr, released by Tamla Motown Records in 1970, is one of the most famous protest songs. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘War’ by Edwin Starr, released by Tamla Motown Records in 1970, is one of the most famous protest songs. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Truly great artists reflect back at us the culture, social conditions and politics of our society. Art can witness our pain; it can outrage us and it can provoke us. It can nudge us gently or it can push us over a cliff. Art opens up spaces for the marginalized and the excluded to be seen and heard.

Let’s take a look at two pieces with a complex and inter-connected relationship. One from 1930’s fascist Spain and one from 1970’s capitalist America. So far, so different, but these two artworks, ‘Guernica’ and ‘And Babies’ are intimately connected.

Protest art

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia

‘Guernica’ is a huge, mural-sized oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Completed in June 1937, it is 3 and a half meters tall and almost 8 meters wide. It is painted in sombre shades of black, blue, grey and white.

The painting was Picasso’s immediate and passionate reaction to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica. It is based on real events, when Guernica was bombed by planes from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The work was widely acclaimed and helped bring world-wide attention to the Spanish Civil War.

Protest art

Picasso as a young man in 1904. Photograph by Ricard Canals. Source: reedit.com

In showing the awful inhumanity of war, Picasso’s work provided inspiration to the modern human rights movement, and the work has gained a monumental status as an anti-war symbol.

There is an anecdote about Guernica which sources claim is absolutely true. During the second world war, Picasso is living in an apartment in Nazi occupied Paris, and is visited by a German officer. The Nazi officer is incensed when he sees a photograph of Guernica. He asks Picasso Did you do that? Picasso replies No. You did.

However, our protest art story does not end on that classic punchline. Guernica continued to play a part in protest art years almost 40 years later.

It’s 1970 and ‘Guernica’ is on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Tony Shafrazi, leader of a group called the ‘Art Workers Coalition’ unfurls a lithograph banner beneath Picasso’s giant mural.

Tony Shafrazi, ‘And Babies’, V&A’s collection

This poster, called ‘And Babies’, protest the mass killing of Vietnamese families by American soldiers in 1968 at My Lai. The My Lai massacre prompted global outrage, and the chilling title is a phrase from a television interview with one of the soldiers who was present. Just like ‘Guernica’, ‘And Babies’ vividly depicts the suffering that war inflicts upon innocent civilians. As you’d expect, the photograph used in the lithograph is very disturbing.

Now fast forward four years to February 1974 – and meet Tony Shafrazi at MOMA again.

Brandishing a can of spray paint, he cries out call the curator! I am an artist!

"Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns" at Tony Shafrazi Gallery Protest art

“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns” at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, with an image of Shafrazi’s 1974 arrest for defacing Picasso’s Guernica. Source: artnet.com

Shafrazi spray-painted red letters, four feet high, over ‘Guernica’ which said ‘KILL LIES ALL’, in protest at the release of a US lieutenant, William Calley, who played a part the My Lai massacre. Calley was found guilty of multiple murders at a court-martial but was released within three days on the personal instructions of President Richard Nixon.

Curators clean graffiti from ‘Guernica’ at MOMA New York. Associated Press Photo.

As it happens (and as I suspect Shafrazi knew himself), Guernica was covered in heavy varnish and the graffiti did no damage at all. However, his protest made headlines across the world.

Protest art

Headlines from Los Angeles Times Source: blogs.unah.edu.hn

Shafrazi said:

I wanted to retrieve the art from art history and give it life. I tried to trespass beyond that invisible barrier that no one is allowed to cross; I wanted to encourage the individual viewer to challenge the art, to see it in its dynamic raw state, not as a piece of history.

Picasso had said in 1937: I express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death. Almost 40 years later, Shafrazi uses that same horror, that same image, to violently protest the American war machine.

Protest requires a focus, and art gives us a public space where we can have a conversation, with the artist and with each other. Shafrazi was in conversation with Picasso and with us.

The impact of war is shocking; it’s after-effects have a huge effect on a population. Some artists shy away from vivid representations of this. Others pour their anger out onto the canvas. Or even, like Shafrazi, onto other people’s canvases. As lawyer Michael Ratner said is this desecration or revitalization?

How far should artists go in their pursuit of truth? How far would you go?

Find out more:

  • Last year, Daily Art Magazine writer Wendy Gray wrote movingly about ‘Guernica’. Read her piece here:

How Artists Portray Tragedy: Guernica

  • Rethinking Guernica website by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia here.
  • Julia Bryan-Wilson, ” Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era”, University Of California Press, 2011

Candy’s remote, rain soaked farmhouse clings to a steep-sided valley in rural Wales. She raises sheep, chickens and children with varying degrees of success. Art, literature and Lakrids licorice save her sanity on a daily basis.

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