Response to the Prompt: "How Important is Art as a Form of Protest?"

Walead Beshty

Published in Frieze, Contemporary Art and Protest, no. 186April 2017


Art is a discourse about aesthetics staged through aesthetics (here aesthetics is being used in the original Greek sense, referring to perceptible things, the study of which concerns the means by which something becomes perceivable, i.e. knowable to the senses). Art’s political potential derives from expanding the conditions of aesthetics, of what can be perceived, and distributing this perception in new configurations while being grounded in a set of parameters, i.e. its history, its venues, and its conventions. In this sense, art modifies what is held in common, and it does this by tweaking and thereby challenging aesthetic conventions a few at a time; its movement is an improvisation within tradition, and its effect is gradual.

Art’s most potent political impact is achieved by its ability to intervene within conventions that are intertwined with histories of dominance and subordination, inclusion and exclusion, denaturalizing them and by extension democratizing experience. But to exist, art requires infrastructure – to call something art is to assume a massive system of institutions and professionals, buildings and bureaucracies, histories and discourses. For this reason, art rarely, if ever, can intervene in civic life on its own terms. Instead, it acts within the systems it is inextricable from – and these systems are slow to evolve. Protest, on the other hand, is an expression of institutional crisis. It is a civic act in both production and execution. Protest is quick, fluid and forceful and, by definition, it eschews the solidity of institutions. Protest appears when the social contract has been violated in some way; it defies the institution’s authority to decide who has permission to speak and who does not, and the form that speech can take. Protest arises when institutions can no longer adequately contain the flow of the polis. It is a rupture and is evidence of a failure of institutions, thus it acts outside of and in opposition to institutional strictures. Protest circumvents the orderly arrangements of institutions; it does not negotiate with institutional parameters as art does, it does not tweak its rules, it refuses them on the basis of their corruption. Protest is a means to become a public, a citizenry, outside of the avenues prescribed by institutions.

In the face of crisis, art often recourses to the false promise of institutional inclusion, for it claims, albeit tacitly, that the institutional voice can speak for the excluded, the very failure that gives rise to protest. In the moments that necessitate protest, the voice of art is insufficient at best and oppositional at worst, for the institutional system through which it speaks is the very thing protest questions. When art masquerades as protest, it undermines its own capacities to expand perception, but more troublingly, it nullifies protest by creating a false representation of it, institutionalizing that which is opposed to the institution itself. The former is relatively harmless – it just results in mediocre art – but the latter is insidious, for it forecloses the pathways that only protest can open-up, offering a placebo where real action is required.