Opinion

Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Protest

Public witness can’t really be found in a shout or an insult. It can only be found when we witness an openness between people.

Protests at the second inauguration of G.W. Bush, January 2005 (photo by Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)
Protests at the second inauguration of G.W. Bush, January 2005 (photo by Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)

CLEVELAND — At this summer’s Republican National Convention, I got to observe a familiar sight: a small group of cordoned-off people shouting at the sky while no one listened and protesters’ hands worked at cell phones to stage events as tweets. I also heard a familiar sound: Short messages aimed at no one. Overgeneralizations. Insults. Basically, a lot of sound and fury. This would have been acceptable if we’d been at the balcony of a king. But there were no officials in sight. No discussion. Basically, this wasn’t democracy.

It’s a stunning thing to consider that, with all the aesthetics purportedly in protest at least since the World Trade Organization demonstrations of 1999 (I am thinking of the attention paid to street theater, puppetry, mimicry, and even monochrome statements such as Code Pink), there is little clear evidence that the aesthetics of protest have been thought through. We need the artist in every protester and the protester in every artist to start doing so.

To begin, protest takes place as a democratic action. This means it is supposed to move between people and to help people collectively consider how to shape life together. If protests do not speak with people who differ, it is hard to see how they move between people. And if protests simplify and otherwise muck around issues, it is hard to see how they help anyone consider anything. They are scarcely considerate.

Considerations open out into the world and into shared life. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire said they point to limit situations on which people differ — for instance, how to deal with global restructuring, with manufacturing and industrial outsourcing, immigration, and intensified poverty. Some people take one side on such issues, others another. This is a limit situation. Asserting one side of it in a shout is not considering it, and it is not liberation.

Aesthetics means attention to how things appear. The aesthetics of protest, then, should be about how sense becomes sense between people, pointing away from what we currently do and toward conversation. Or, as I like to put it: consideration, of people and of social reality. I wager that until protests take this democratic direction seriously, they will remain aesthetically blocked.

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I thereby propose that we work on the aesthetics of protest in three ways. First, we reconsider setting. Suppose that, for every protest, we insist on asking: How can we actually deliberate with officials or fellow people who disagree with us?

Second, we rework timing. Suppose that, for every protest, we insist on asking: How can we construct the protest over enough time to actually discourse with others, to consider the social reality around which there is contention? 

Finally, we revisit purpose. Suppose that, for every protest, we insist on asking: How can we frame our work so that from it a next, concrete step in law-making or policy-making is pursued? 

To follow design constraints like these (I don’t mean to prescribe, but to suggest!) and develop similar axioms of engagement point to a different kind of public witnessing (Latin, protestari) than we’re used to when people march up to a wall of police and shout at the sky.

We might go to where officials actually work, with prior arrangement, and stage an in-depth conversation aimed to educate all sides. We might document the entire process and insist on a social media setting that keeps discussion going, rather than allowing people to insult each other (we have one in Cleveland Heights). We might emerge with a next step for understanding or conflict resolution, and then reiterate the process along with the next step.

Donald Trump’s plane in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, summer 2016 (photo by US Customs and Border Protection, via Wikimedia Commons)
Donald Trump’s plane in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, summer 2016 (photo via US Customs and Border Protection/Wikimedia Commons)

We might go to the places in the US where people widely voted for Donald Trump and — instead of tricking them with a bus that could be taken by many Trump voters as a condescending way of making fun of their serious situation — actually discourse with them about social reality. We might give our own power of imagination to their reality. And we might try to explain our own heartfelt conviction that certain forms of disrespect for people are an existential threat to democracy. We might do this by living in a place for a time, or by returning, or by creating a Skype portal over time for hundreds of us to hold repeated coffee conversations with those with whom we disagree.

We might convene in Cleveland’s Public Square and talk, rather than shout. And we might draw the police surrounding the square in, asking them why they supported Donald Trump in their Patrolman’s Association. We might document our own conversation if no one would listen to us in the city, state, or national government. When the dialogue could not go external, it could still go internal.

All this — very simple ideas that socially engaged aesthetics could so thoroughly improve upon — is the meaning of going high, when democracy goes so low as to no longer be, aesthetically, democracy. Public witness can’t really be found in a shout or an insult. It can only be found when we witness an openness between people. This is what being public means.

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The stunning results of the US presidential election make clear that a change is more needed than ever. There are two countries. One thinks it’s smart; the other hates smart-asses. One loves art; the other hates art snobs. It doesn’t matter that these characterizations are stupid and offensive all around. What matters is that the current form of protest hardens them.

We need a protest that works between the two countries and finds a way to bring out the reasoning locked deep in acts of consideration (cf. “What was behind that warm greeting?”). Let’s be real — this is a new kind of protest altogether (or a different one), and it is not flashy. It is not easy and tweet-ready. It is slow and takes the work of getting to know people and contemplating our shared reality.

Sticky notes of solidarity cover multiple walls in NYC's Union Square subway station after the 2016 presidential election. (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)
Sticky notes of solidarity cover multiple walls in NYC’s Union Square subway station after the 2016 presidential election. (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

One bit of irony: this was, apparently, Clinton’s strength one on one — her listening. It was also what she didn’t do in her canvassing machine. She didn’t dare really go into the other country. But in democracy, we all must consider each other’s lives truthfully and earnestly at some point, starting with empathy, fairness, and a healthy sense of imperfection.

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