The Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring of 1968 and the consequent Soviet occupation gave rise to an anti-politics movement established by cultural leaders who felt artistically oppressed by the government. The non-conformist rock band The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) was not created with the intention of challenging the political system, but soon drew a large audience united on the desire for freedom of expression and human rights. The band represented creativity and freedom of thought and asserted that their motives were artistic rather than activist, but their trial on the grounds of “disturbing the peace” instead suggested the political significance in the ensuing movement against an oppressive regime. Thus, in the post-Prauge Spring Soviet Communist nation, the underground music culture represented the group of dissenters articulating opposition to the political tyranny. Eventually, the band became the leading catalyst for the drafting of a political decree Charter 77, which challenged the human rights and legal violations from the Communist government.
“ACT UP, as much as any movement yet invented, has made self-conscious cultural struggle part of its core work. Those of us who now see culture everywhere, even in movements from earlier centuries, owe a great debt to groups like ACT UP, which have brilliantly highlighted the impossibility of fully separating cultural from political dimensions of movement activity.”
– T.V. Reed, The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT Up established one of the most dynamic and successful social movements with the motive of instigating political change. ACT UP was established in 1987 by individuals “outraged by the government’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis” (Act Up NY). Through a commitment to direct but non-violent action, demonstrations, and creative exposure through the use of visual and performing arts, the movement challenged traditional media packaging of protest and trivialization of movements.
The “Silence=Death” logo was created in 1987 by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
As outlined in the above quote, the movement addressed political issues through cultural movements, and consequently broke the barrier between the two spheres for the future of art. As a result, the mass publication and broadcasting of aesthetically rich and moving images in addition to witty cultural slogans successfully reached and educated a mass audience that may have previously been numb or ignorant to the political context of the health crisis. Ultimately, ACT UP revolutionized the use of images, art, and slogans to bridge the barrier between the social and political realms and therefore demonstrated the drastic effectiveness of educating and appealing to a mass audience rather than specifically those most interested in the political.
In August 1961, the first pieces of barbed wire were added to the Berlin Wall, which served as a physical barrier between Soviet controlled East Berlin and West Berlin of the Allies until 1989. Trapped on the eastern side, one would see a barren wall without human interaction due to the fact that individuals in East Berlin faced imprisonment if they were caught even attempting to mark the wall (Tzortiz) . Conversely, the western side was covered inch by inch with colors, images, words, and overall life and zest. The two sides of the walls could not have more starkly contrasted each other. To graffiti artists of West Berlin, the wall was their Mecca—the ultimate, unobstructed canvas in which they could freely express themselves to an audience of the entire public. Moreover, there was no better medium to express political ideology that the physical representation of grimness, oppression, and a harsh geopolitical reality. Graffiti may have associations with criminal activity and vandalism, but the political context of the Berlin Wall’s art suggests the possibility of political activism through graffiti (Schmemann).