Politically engaged art is thriving again, finding new ways to challenge in a complex digital world. We look at the rich history of protest art and, on the eve of a new group show, talk to radical artists about their work. By Tim Adams.
In repressive states, the role of the artist is unambiguous: to assert the individual imagination, the singular power that all dictatorships fear. I remember once talking to the Czech dissident and writer Ivan Klima, who had been subject both to the arbitrary horror of a Nazi concentration camp as a child and the long grinding years of Soviet occupation in which he had become a “non-person” for two decades, harassed constantly by secret police and unable to speak or write in public. He survived by “living in truth”. “I have always pursued inner freedom,” he said. “I have never been censored.”
Klima was part of that group of artists and writers who gathered in the Magic Lantern theatre in Prague in 1989 to orchestrate the “Velvet Revolution” and see their dreams of liberation realised. And how did it feel to experience freedom, to have the external world finally correspond with that interior life for the first time?
“It is interesting that a man very quickly accepts freedom as a normal thing,” Klima said. “Though we had fought for it for so long, after a few weeks or months we did not think about it. Rather you start to see things you would like to change, things that make you angry, corruption and so forth, environmental problems, the obsession with the market…” Habits of protest die hard.