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Protest Art both Historic and Contemporary

Makers of protest art have a long history of directing their pointed, vulgar, and assertive facial hair at patrons and governments while defying traditional oppression even in modern times with the Black Lives Matter art and other activist art.

“I always try to say something with my art. I feel like art is truly the last form of the freedom of expression.” – Ernest Dotty

From Picasso (1881-1973) to art activism from Banksy (b. 1974 ), Contemporary art has always been a stage for artists to express their frustrations with the political and cultural landscape of their time. All art conveys a message, but protest art and socio-political art has increasingly become an outlet for artists to practice freedom of speech in a sometimes subtle, but often evocative form of protest. Here are a few of the ways artists have used activist art as a weapon to protest some of the most challenging themes of the 21st century.

War and Protest Art

Today’s Contemporary artists certainly aren’t the trailblazers of this art activism movement. From Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which depicted a bombing during the Spanish Civil War, to the many illustrative artists that protested the Vietnam War through protest art, modern Contemporary artists are taking the lead by following those before them in socio-political art. In the early 2000’s, Colombian painter Fernando Botero (b. 1932) painted vivid scenes of torture and despair to protest the highly controversial Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. During one of America’s longest and most publicized wars, this activist art shocked Americans and brought a new spotlight to the issues of torture and war.

Black Lives Matter Art

The Black Lives Matter art movement has brought many creators of protest art into the spotlight. But, arguably the most effective maker of Black Lives Matter art is Theaster Gates (b. 1973). Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Gates uses repurposed material to build art activism that displays powerful messages in her Black Lives Matter art about today’s modern civil rights movement. One of Gates’ most poignant Black Lives Matter art and socio-political art pieces was a memorial for 12-year-old Tamir Rice complete with pieces of the playground where he was shot. Gates is using his powerful works of Black Lives Matter art and other activist art not only to protest the treatment of the black community but also to rebuild his city and promote healing and unity.

Gender Equality Art Activism

One piece of protest art gaining widespread national attention sends a simple, yet powerful message to those who walk past it on their way to work every day. In the middle of Wall Street, the iconic charging bull has been met with an unlikely opponent, a defiant young girl as part of an activist art sculpture. In 2017, State Street Advisors, the world’s third largest asset manager, installed the statue as a form of socio-political art ahead of International Women’s Day as a statement against the lack of gender diversity at the top of America’s corporate culture.

Economic and Socio-Political Art

After the financial crisis of 2008, the great issue of economic inequality in America came to the forefront of American culture and politics. One of the world’s boldest protest art makers, New York-based Sebastian Errazuriz (b. 1977) and art activist, replicated signs of the Wall Street Occupy movement, painting the messages from protesters on white chairs. He then sold these chairs for $2,500 each as socio-political art with the goal of literally putting the messages from the 99% into the homes of the 1%. His bold idea worked, earning him $30,000 in one day for his activist art. Errazuriz announced he would donate a portion of the proceeds to the Occupy movement, although he wouldn’t disclose how much.


In a world more divided than ever over politics and culture, the purpose of protest art and socio-political art has remained constant. It has evoked powerful messages, criticized world leaders, and protested against the racial, gender, and economic inequality of modern society. Contemporary artists and activist art have used their voices, not only to verbally attack the inequality and crimes they see in society but also to send a stronger message using the art activism of their hands.

protest art

Check out our pals at Wide Walls for more examples of protest art!



“Interview with Artist Ernest Doty at Sticks + Stones.” Art Enthusiast. 9 Dec. 2011. oaklandartenthusiast.com/2011/12/09/interview-with-artist-ernest-doty-at-sticks-stones. Accessed 29 Apr. 2017.


theguardian.com/world/2007/ sep/09/artnews.iraq

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