‘The Lie Which Enables Us to Realise the Truth’ – Activism Through Art

imprint explores Picasso's statement that ‘Art is the lie which enables us to realise the truth’ and how art can push us into individual action as a means of political and social protest.


by Esther Bancroft

'there is a longevity to the statement made on the canvas: it contains the collected thoughts and feelings of the time'

Picasso said that ‘Art is the lie which enables us to realise the truth’. Art is there to move: to emotionally touch, test and to physically push us into action, and has been used as a means of political and social protest for centuries. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is a pertinent, if obvious example of an artwork which condemns the horrors of war we see knotted on one sprawling canvas. If someone cannot physically protest, they can protest in paint. There is a longevity to the statement made on the canvas: it contains the collected thoughts and feelings of the time. Artists respond to issues through their own creativity: the production of art in crisis is a defiant response, a statement of refusal to be crushed. Artistic reactions to political disputes and social upheaval have been varied. In more recent years artists have given vital warnings of the effects of the climate crises. A melting landscape can be secured with paint, but for his Ice Watch artwork in 2014, Olafur Eliasson wanted to make a more terse and palpable statement. With the help of geologists, he transported twelve blocks of melting glacial ice to Paris’s Climate Change Conference. His work refuted criticism: it was an urgent statement perhaps beyond artistic critique.

Tan Zi Xi’s immersive installation Plastic Ocean (2016) also formed a patent protest against environmental degradation. Zi Xi suspended 20,000 pieces of waste plastic to create a physical reminder of the impact that the excess of our living has on the oceans. By providing tangible proof of the climate process, these artists hope to engender action.

The piece of art I think is perhaps most evocative of the world’s ecological collapse is a burning, apocalyptic John Martin scene - something a bit like The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3). Response to disaster - biblical cataclysm or otherwise - has led artists across time to draw upon the instabilities of their age to create pieces which embody a political message. German artist Anselm Kiefer explores the history and identity of his country through raw materials which evoke the texture of experience. Speaking about his work, Kiefer said ‘Art is difficult. It is not entertainment’. It is protest, and like protest it can often be uncomfortable, but is all the more important for the conversations it starts. Kiefer is known for his massive broiling canvasses which strain the partition between statue and canvas: objects jut out from his work in disorder. His piece Die Lebenden und die Toten (2019) incorporates torn root, black paint, concrete and burnt paper to create an apocalyptic, dislocated parliament. That the work looks as if it has been pulled from a burning building compounds Kiefer’s point that the political world is rotten and has corrupted the world thus. This is fierce viewing but it also forces the observer to reflect upon the haunting effect of German history upon German identity. In this way Kiefer’s work is not all doom and gloom; with his protest there is an earnest desire to clear the mud of a runic past in order to better interpret and navigate the present world.

'the art demands that the audience remember this by creating a permanent symbol of democracy out of the seats which previously symbolised the oppression of Ghanaians'

Ibrahim Mahama is an artist who also confronts his country’s difficult history through his artwork. In 2019 his immersive piece Parliament of Ghosts was presented at the Whitworth in Manchester. His work assembles worn plastic seats taken from abandoned trains which have been repurposed to form a vast parliamentary chamber. The second-class carriages are flotsam salvaged from Ghana before its independence in 1957, remnants of British Colonial rule under which the railway system was built to transport exports of cocoa and timber. His use of recovered material invites conversation as the viewer of the installation is drawn into Ghanaian history. Through the salvaged material he is excavating the Ghanaian and British colonial past and, like Kiefer, the materials he uses target an uncomfortable heritage. The art demands that the audience remember this by creating a permanent symbol of democracy out of the seats which previously symbolised the oppression of Ghanaians. 


Similarly, John Akomfrah’s work Purple has ‘grown out of a series of frustrations and dissatisfactions’ regarding the lack of urgent action concerning the climate crisis. The piece, exhibited in 2017, comments upon the effect of the climate crisis on our fluctuating landscape. The vertiginous video installation transports the viewer across ten countries, choreographed alongside spoken word, music and footage cut from the BFI and Natural History archives. Akomfrah states ‘this is not the 18th century anymore, it’s not unlimited landscapes and unlimited space to explore ad infinitum, wasting away, trashing away as we go along’.

Through his work Akomfrah hopes to induce activism irrespective of the culture or identity of the observer: we all share responsibility for the neglect of the planet and the irrefutable consequences of our selfishness. He chooses to display the natural beauty of the earth in a hallucinatory film loop whilst urging action so that the film does not become a relic of a lost past.

'the abstract whorls of the sea which connote so much motion could almost have foreshadowed the rapidly shifting margins of the coast'

Whilst these artworks are explicit in their use of politics to inspire change from the viewer, art does not have to be overtly politicised to engender action. Lyrical pieces are striking and form space to reflect upon the beauty of the natural world and thus encourage the observer to conserve it. Cornish artist Peter Lanyon was a pilot in WW2 and took up gliding in his spare time ‘to get a more complete knowledge of the landscape’ in which he lived. His art is layered with impressionist swirls of paint depicting his native Cornish coast from an aerial view. His Silent Coast (1957) is one of my favourite pieces of art; it captures the serenity of the landscape from an isolated perspective which it is rare to experience. His artwork still resonates because it preserves the softened traces of a landscape which is undergoing drastic coastal change. The abstract whorls of the sea which connote so much motion could almost have foreshadowed the rapidly shifting margins of the coast. Facing up to the realities of the climate crisis has never been more urgent: earlier this month residents in Kent were forced to evacuate their homes due to coastal erosion. However, Lanyon’s pieces are also more poignant as they create space in a disordered world for moments of contemplation. The colours and lines don’t seem to make sense or follow a pattern, but form an engrossing, calming whole. In this way art can help us take a step forward by stepping back. By experiencing an artist’s vision of our messy, fractured but beautiful world, we are reminded of the need to conserve it.

Art can shock to provoke a public response, but it can also help people to heal in the wake of trauma. In the BBC 4 series Age of the Image, art historian James Fox describes how the art produced post 9/11 helped people come to terms with the tragedy: ‘if the terrorists had turned atrocity into spectacle then Americans have reclaimed spectacle to help heal their wounds’. Artistic responses to 9/11 saturated the media with a glut of powerful, haunting images. German artist Gerhard Richter was flying to New York on 11 September 2001 when his plane was diverted to Canada for safety. His response to 9/11 was September (2003) and is notably rather abstract; in fact, you would be forgiven for not knowing what the painting was about at all. September was the artist’s second attempt to translate the tragedy with his own brush. He originally painted a photorealistic work of the second plane crashing into the south tower, complete with burnt building and broken aircraft. But it didn’t sit quite right. Instead, he painted the towers and then, in his own words, ‘had to destroy it’, taking a kitchen knife to scrape away the detail. The result is impressionistic: no planes, no fire, just a grey blur; Richter stated ‘I made it banal’. In Fox’s words: ‘Richter was unmaking the image just as the terrorists unmade the twin towers’. He also presented his response on a canvas the size of an average television, referencing the medium through which most watched the catastrophe unfold. This was a reaction to an atrocity, but a nuanced one. The dreamlike painting says something more about the simplicity of activism: by refusing to sensationalise the painting, by physically removing the detail of the fire and destruction, Richter is offering a moment for the observer to reconcile and rebuild.

‘this series is painful to revisit, but I’m trying to use the pain to fight against them, rather than have them break me' - Adrian Brandon

Others reflect society back to itself by posting their work on public platforms, such as Instagram. In a world in which social media dominates, having an active online presence can enable artists to spread their work globally. More recently Instagram has been used by artists to call people to act on the murder of George Floyd and respond to racial injustice. Adrian Brandon (@ayy.bee ) has returned to his Stolen series after Floyd’s murder. He has created a series of portraits of victims of police racial violence which include Eric Garner, David McAtee and Tony McDade. For each year of their life lived he applies a minute’s worth of colour to his sketches. In an Instagram caption he wrote, ‘with deep sadness, I’m revisiting my Stolen series. George Floyd, 46 years old - 46 minutes of color. How badly he deserves a full portrait - a full life’. He continues in the caption: ‘this series is painful to revisit, but I’m trying to use the pain to fight against them, rather than have them break me […] this is how I want to be part of the conversation’. His portraits are a poignant means of making tribute to the victims but also support the Black Lives Matter movement by creating a shareable memorial which can gain traction and be easily spread. In this way Brandon has been able to spark social change and promote anti-racism by provoking vital conversations.

Pete Fowler’s A Bigger Fash (June 2020) is another recent example of art being used to reflect current public disenfranchisement. His collage is a response to the felling of the statue of slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston, and its subsequent depositing in Bristol harbour. By modifying David Hockney’s infamous A Bigger Splash (1967), his artwork has gained momentum by developing an iconic image into an emblem of political activism. This reinvention of Hockney’s work speaks of a broader change of sentiment: a call to action.

'if we don’t continue to break down these barriers to access, these vital messages of protest derived from these works of art risk being unheard and ignored'

It is important to consider how accessible these pieces of protest art are. Attending art exhibitions and lectures is often the privilege of the middle classes and those without disposable income are neglected. Further, whilst some exhibitions are free, the apparent exclusivity of the art world may cause people to feel a sense of intrusion when entering a gallery space in which they feel unwelcome. The largest art galleries often exist in big cities, leaving those who live rurally with few means of accessing exhibitions and events. Lockdown has caused galleries and museums to take some steps towards making their exhibitions more accessible: art galleries all over the world, including the RA and the National Gallery, have streamed free tours of their most recent exhibitions. The BBC have also created a series Museums in Quarantine which effectively breaks down the walls of museums, allowing virtual visitors to explore the exhibits from their homes. If we don’t continue to break down these barriers to access, these vital messages of protest derived from these works of art risk being unheard and ignored. Picasso stated, ‘others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not’. I think his words encompass the effort of the artist to create a unique voice and probe artistic possibility. But they also illustrate the way in which art engenders activism by asking questions and illustrating difficult truths. Art creates its own movement; it dismantles the normal and reflects the world back to itself - altered and shaped: the activism and the activists.



Esther Bancroft is a writer and is about to begin an MA in English Literature at Bristol University. She loves reading - particularly sea-based novels - and dabbles in painting and playing the piano in her spare time. Follow @theeverydaymagazine, @afacelike.thunder and @theidiotfilm to see more of her work.