The question “Can art resist effectively?” has always been relevant, but has never had a clear-cut answer, partially because it’s impossible to find the equivalent of effectiveness, partially because the question itself belonged to the field of rhetorical discourse.

Nicolai Khalezin
Nicolai Khalezin
Co-artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre, playwright, director, journalist

Two narratives – “art of resistance” and “art about resistance” – are in the paradoxical copulation process in relation to the audience's perception, applying different signs of impact on the audience: the first one is motivating (look and take action!), the other one is comforting (look at others taking action). In the audience’s consciousness, these narratives are mixing together, creating meanings in contextual subordination.

Ivan Shadr’s The Cobblestone Is the Weapon of the Proletariat is one of the brightest phenomena in 20th-century realistic art. The sculpture is based on a turn of a diverging spiral. The sculptor captured the sculpted plasticity of the proletarian ripping up a cobblestone from the street and showed the state of elation, creating a heroic image as a symbol of the early 20th century, the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905. The proletarian’s strained posture is what makes him look similar to Myron’s Discobolus and Michelangelo’s David. At first glance, the author’s message is unambiguous and clear – it’s a call for resistance. This is how the artwork was interpreted in 1927 when it was created. That’s why the original plaster statue is carefully kept in the prestigious Tretyakov Gallery. What comes next is transformations.

In 1947, after World War II ended, the sculpture is made in bronze. But it is now perceived calmly if not indifferently. The country under total control of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, is trying to restore its economy ruined after the disastrous war, so the theme of resistance is as seditious as it can be.

Then comes a period of decaying communist dictate. Soviet society of the 1960-70s is a fusion of an amorphous absolute majority and a sarcastic layer of progressive intellectuals. The very name – The Cobblestone Is the Weapon of the Proletariat – becomes an ironic meme meant to demonstrate apathy and a lack of free will in the country.

The period of the 1980-90s is a time of significant social changes, taking society through a chain of brutal events from massive peaceful demonstrations to armed resistance. The expression “the cobblestone is the weapon of the proletariat” suddenly becomes relevant again. It is now taken without any signs of postmodern irony. The contextual spiral makes a full turn.

Things look different with the narrative “art of resistance”: there are no spiral movements and regular repetitions. The movement is linear and complies with easily detected logic.

The Guy Fawkes mask is a fetish of resistance, the face of struggle, the nightmare of any government and law-enforcement bodies for the past two decades.

The image first appeared in 1982 in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s comic book series V for Vendetta. The story set in dystopian Britain of the 1980-90s focuses on a mysterious revolutionist calling himself V who, relying on popular support, wants to overthrow the totalitarian regime. The graphic novel was named among the most popular comic books in the UK. Its impact on the youth became an example for authors writing for a young audience.

Anarchism against fascism – this is the frontline in Alan Moore’s book. The relevance of this duality turned out to be something belonging to the not too distant future. The spiral of this sort of confrontation began to unfold in reality in the mid-90s, transforming both poles of the permanent conflict.

The echo of the global confrontation even reached the graphic novel’s authors. It happened when Warner Bros. decided to make a film adaptation of the book. Alan Moore read the script and refused to participate in the project, explaining his tough stance: “The movie has been turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country.... It's a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives – which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.”

The Guy Fawkes mask designed by David Lloyd was first used in protests in 2008 by the group Anonymous in Project Chanology, a protest movement against the practices of the Church of Scientology. Fifty protesters wearing masks held a march in Boston.

The Guy Fawkes mask has become one of the most popular internet memes symbolising anonymity. The symbol is often used on imageboards. According to the New York Times, Rubies Costume Company sold over 100,000 masks in the US and 16,000 in the UK a year. It is one of the best-selling masks, beating out masks of Batman and Harry Potter. The Darth Vader mask still tops the list, but forecasts show it will soon find it surpassed by the Guy Fawkes mask. During the 2011 protests, the mask was available on Amazon and became a best-seller. Hundreds of thousands of masks were sold in that year.

Thousands of people wore Guy Fawkes masks during the Occupy Wall Street protests. It was the first massive use of the mask, which made it known not just as “a mask from the film”, but as a symbol of resistance.

By now, it has spread far beyond the English-speaking world and become an element of social protests in India and Hong Kong, Ukraine and Spain, China and France.

Obviously, the powerful integration of the graphic image into the social context became possible not only due to the expressive image conceived by David Lloyd, but also due to the literary story created by writer Alan Moore. His message took the shortest way from the author’s consciousness to the audience's consciousness and began to materialise in real life bypassing the “social adapter”. The artistic figural structure took the function of a number of social institutions responsible for forming an idea, creating a mechanism of bringing members of the audience together, structuring resources and providing energy to meanings.

In the case of V for Vendetta, we see the intersection of two narratives – “art of resistance” and “art about resistance”. In the case this intersection is found, we can look for an answer to the question “Can art resist effectively?” However, it seems we can do it only in this case.

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