The Case Against Art as Protest

Richard Prince has just disowned one his Instagram portraits of Ivanka Trump. The portrait was a large inkjet print of the President-Elect’s daughter, bought by Ivanka and her husband. Prince has now declared the work illegitimate: “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny” he stated on Instagram. A direct response to the Trump family and the current political situation. Setting aside the possibility and meaning of disowning one’s work, it is clear that we are entering a moment of art as political action in the institution of high art.

Prince's post denouncing the work.

Prince's post denouncing the work.



Already, the voices of contemporary art critics and artists are nearly unanimous in their outcry against the imminent Trump administration. Their language is urgent, loud, and at times violent. Jerry Saltz, Vulture critic, has used his own Instagram (note the trend of social media) to call artists to action and rail against the other. The dominant narrative seems to be that artists are required to protest with the nature and content of their art. High art must use its power to save the world that the Trump administration is threatening. Art must protest or it will be irrelevant. However strictly this life of the protest artist is conceived, that is the life that is being recommended for the next for years.  


Should protest be the role of art? Has that ever proved a successful role in the past? In these past few decades, we’ve seen the effect of art that attacks, preaches, and politicizes. For the most part, the effect is… none. A large part of the country has ignored the institutions of high art because of its dogmatism, its abrasiveness. Artists create and solve their own problems. To walk into the most up-and-coming gallery in your city is to be lectured on what part of your race, gender, or belief system has been oppressing another person’s. So when art does trickle into the mainstream, people aren’t prepared for its tone or message.


Art as protest only serves to divide, not to heal. It splinters progress without furthering it. Each side - the artist who protests and the audience who is supposed to listen - will only become more stubborn and frustrated. This same approach defined the election season. Rhetoric drove our political parties apart, and as the volume increased, so did the gap. Flooding the art world with political statements may drive away the few outsiders that still lurk in the gallery space. Art has no credibility for political change right now.


I believe our culture needs a different strategy. The creative world has a critical opportunity to engage in what artist Makoto Fujimura describes as “Culture Care,” a mindset of healing our country through beautiful, generative art. Our artists need to listen and to welcome. We need optimism, not accusations. We need more public work that brings strangers together, more museum shows that nurture the souls of people searching for meaning. Don’t close the art museums in protest; people need to dialogue for change to happen.

There will always be a place for protest in the civil sphere. When a voice needs to be heard urgently, we must act. When injustice rules, we must respond. But act with dignity. Speak with grace. Escape the trap of politicizing - show, don’t tell. Make art that astonishes. Make art that transforms. Make art that listens. Make art that unifies. Be the first to give the “other” a chance. Don’t make the next four years a campaign of rhetoric that will exhaust you. Find ways to heal. Protest if you must, but earn the right to be heard.