Art: Guerrilla war or performance?

Is it in bad taste to empty bags of sand in the regional governor’s office, or pour gallons of milk onto the road? Or what about writing political slogans on your bared backside or leaning up coffins outside ministry offices? Or are these acts just a way to make your voice heard when all other means have failed? We live in a society where performance is everything. If activists want to attract attention, they have to make an impression, arouse curiosity, amusement or disgust. They have to take off their clothes and write slogans all over their bodies, put a politician’s face on a mock-up of Pinocchio, let an image of an oversized black baby float on a river – (just a few days ago, in Rostock, Germany) to represent the the bloated bodies of illegal immigrants washed up on Mediterranean shores – hang animal bones on trees (a few years ago in Thessaloniki) or 15,000 white handkerchiefs outside the Brazilian parliament for the 15,000 lives lost this year in shootings. Another such gesture that has been made is to put «fresh forest air» in a can. A protest against the fact that women were represented in museums only as nudes in paintings done by men was made by women posing nude except for wearing gorilla masks. Demonstrators feel they have to make a grotesque representation of daily life (after all, isn’t art an imitation of reality?), a symbolic act of self-destruction so that a terrible truth can be seen, the light of another, ideal world. It is a form of protest that is as old as humanity itself. In the 4th century BC, Herostratus managed to rouse his fellow citizens by setting fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Isn’t art itself often a form of protest? Oscar Wilde once said that art is an intelligent form of protest, a courageous attempt to put nature in its place. However, do acts such as these achieve anything, or do they simply become yet more disposable material for the news programs? Veteran activists doubt whether these kinds of protests actually make people more aware, more militant, or the movements for social change more dynamic. Awareness of reality comes about in the mind, not the emotions. Are these happenings thought provoking or do they simply amuse? Does any clear message get through the media circus? How can the message avoid becoming a performance? That is a puzzle that activists have not yet solved. For the moment, these events are sideshows at summits, colorful food for the press. It is said that art should not be obvious, it should only be a vehicle for the message. That is as difficult as turning the light off and on in an attempt to see what the dark is like.

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