Róza El-Hassan

Your Victims My Victims

The Aesthetic of Protest


In the eighties I was repelled by the posters of the greens, the completely banal schematic tree in the compulsory round badge was dispersing boredom, it was one of the bleakest fields as aesthetics go.

I was similarly distressed by the stereotypical repetition of the horror vacui decorations on the walls of houses taken by the youth of Berlin-kreuzberg, the sprayed walls of alternative culture which fought for the rights of women, homosexuals or Kurds. I'm still puzzled why the struggle for moral good and peace had to be attended by visual boredom. Can art and aesthetics be tools of agitation, even if it is propaganda for peace?

My old-fashioned critical judgement is opposed to the practice of pacifists and anti-globalization activists, who have been painting the sings of freedom and peace for decades, to carry their banners around on the street, and who would never make art that could serve exhibition-goers with aesthetic pleasure. I have talked a lot about this with Toma Sik , who for decades was an activist of the Israeli peace movement, Gush Shalom, and is now first and foremost an eco-gardener near Budapest . He too would prefer not to be associated with artists who sell and live on what they make, nor would he want to have anything to do with art, and says “the exalted attitude of art diverts people's attention from the most important issues of humanity.”

His claim that art makes us forget about urgent humanitarian issues and neglect humane behaviour is a serious charge, not to be dismissed easily.

And further questions arise :

Can the aesthetic of protest and resistance be studied without letting the aesthetic approach distance us emotionally from the cause represented?

And can art speak in a simple, forceful imperative mode (Stop War!)? Or does it always have to assume the form of subversive questions? Is it possible to telescope the two levels into the same work, the “humanistically simple” and the tradition of “contemplative doubt”? And what sense would it make to advise artists to give up their exaltedness and art-specific doubts? And to have them create, from now on, only the fantasy world of agitation?

When we can no longer find an answer to our questions on a conceptual level, there is still the opportunity of findings it through pictures, works of art.

When I see tens of thousands of hand-made peace signs march on the street (as I did last week, in Washington against the ongoing war in Irak and Arab world ) I begin to love all this, yet there is no way to formalize these images. My belief in the formal simplicity of the hand-made spectacle disperses as I look at a shop window in Zurich. It happens to be the advertisement of clothing company “Diesel,” whose campaign this year uses the aesthetic of protest. Large groups of young people run with banners, shouting, in torn T-shirts.

What has been changed and domesticated is the message of the banners. Instead of “Peace now!” and “Leave autonomous peoples alone!” we can read messages like “Kiss your neighbour!” or “More green traffic lights!” or “Plant a plant!”

The scene apparently perfectly imitates the aesthetic and feel of the protests of 2001, only turns it into fashion and life style.

Yet, on a more careful examination, we can find similarities and differences when comparing it with real commitment and its documentation. Which leaves the shift of   meanings and the turning of agitation for good into art an open issue.

Your Victims My Victims

a double memorial for the victims of the Holocaust and today's victims of wars

The work is a chain of people standing before the words My Victims Your Victims during the opening and a video, which is based on the performance .