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ART: BEUYS, Art Rebellion and Protest in a Post-Post Modern World

Protest isn't an event any more. Real movements of change seem few and far between.

I chuckled then cried a bit (not really) when hearing Jerry Seinfeld and Trevor Noah discussing 'modern protesting' in an episode of "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." After stop-and-going across New York in a 1985 Ferrari 308 GTBi, the two sat down in Brooklyn to enjoy a fresh brew. Following what's got to be the most lovely exchange about American football vs. soccer (real football), Jerry and Trevor breach the topic of twitter, social media and underwear:

Jerry: "Doesn’t it seem like we’re striving to take the entire life experience and have it in our underwear? You can socialize, do work, get entertained and get information all in your underwear."

Trevor: "People are now able to protest in their underwear. And that almost defies what protesting should be about. The whole point of a protest is to get out of you bed, put clothes on, walk out in the cold and say: I stand for this. I march for this. But now, you don't really have to have that conviction. No. Because you're on your couch, in your underwear, going: You know what? I don't like it either."

Jerry: "In this ten-minute time frame."

Trevor: "Exactly." 

It seems in art, Protest and Rebellion have become a commodity as well. Definitely not to the degree as described above, but the more vehemently an artist protests nowadays, the more it may become ridiculous, a persiflage of itself.  I'm not speaking of Ai Weiwei, Pyotr Pavlensky or other artists creating art under totalitarian oppression.

Pyotr Pavlensky. M outh sewn shut  in political protest against the incarceration of Pussy Riot members. July 23, 2012.

Pyotr Pavlensky. Mouth sewn shut in political protest against the incarceration of Pussy Riot members. July 23, 2012.

From the beginning, Modern Art movements have always been one continual protest against its predecessor. But there are some movements birthed in a certain place and time, seen and heard before the age of social media, that managed to push art into a new direction entirely. In my growing middle-age with symptoms of early onset grumpiness, I probably sentimentalize certain movements with nostalgia, but I remember spending hours at the Landesmuseum Darmstadt back in '96 while dating my wife, enjoying the brilliance and messiness of Joseph Beuys. Wax-covered objects, animal fat and felt, styrofoam shapes died in dark brown, his Ausschwitz exhibition, his theory of social plastics...I remember feeling inspired by it all, granted while in my youth with a never-ending list of artists still yearning to be discovered. But, it taught me that chaos and art can coexist beautifully, without a gallery, without the flashiness of an art world. It also taught me that Beuys himself was: "Protest-Art incarnate." One of my favorite statements from him is, "Was soll denn Kunst, wenn nichts dabei herauskommt?" - roughly translated: "Why art if nothing results from it?"  


Andres Veiel's documentary "Beuys" uses inexhaustible archival footage, photographs and art. It is the definitive Beuys documentary, an academic and meticulous organizational compilation of thoughts, provocations, interactions, performance art and personalization of an icon. Challenging, long and important. Yes, pretentious too, but what do you expect from an art film about an artist? 

I have to admit that it was only very recent that I learned about the Fluxus movement as I was pointed to an article by Artsy. Author Karen Kedmey highlights its founder, George Maciunas who formed Fluxus and Joseph Beuys is listed as a leader. Clearly, he was somehow bunched in since Beuys himself is his own movement and institution, but understanding the origin and manifesto of Fluxus did at least highlight parallel trends, and the artists making way for and coming out of the Beuys era, steeped in various artistic disciplines. When trying to dig deeper, Artsy is not a bad choice. The site is trying to create a comprehensive database, reaching beyond the slick online slideshow art galleries, publishing articles and expanding via the Art Genome Project: an attempt to map art through a myriad of characteristics (called “genes”) connecting artists, artworks, architecture, and design objects across history. With over 1,000 characteristics, the Art Genome Project offers extensive content on art historical movements, subject matter, and formal qualities. Definitely worth looking into and using along the way as a reference and cross-reference resource.

But back to my original question: Can any form of protest in art today be taken seriously?

Well, I'll let these articles answer the question. There is certainly a big YES out there.

A survey of more than 50 respondents from over 30 countries from

Article on Protest Art: From Picasso to Pussy Riot and Banksy... 

Tim Adam's Guardian article

Last not least, the Artsy Fluxus movement article by Karen Kedmey as well as Tracy DiTolla's overview:

What is Fluxus?