‘The Art of Protest’ Doc Profiles Activist Artists on a Pressing Mission

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A Shepard Fairey mural, as seen on a building at 161 Bowery, New York, on August 27, 2014. The mural reads, "We Own The Future, Transform Our World With Creative Response."  (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Art of Protest is not a measured, neutral or objective documentary. It’s an unabashed call to action for protesters, outspoken artists and radical musicians—and it’s not in the least bit interested in being anything else. If you don’t fall into any of those categories, there’s a good chance at least some of its content will offend you. If you are a person upset with the state of the world, it’s likely to provide inspiration. But, more than anything, The Art of Protest is a succinct snapshot of an America dominated by political divisions.

The film is divisive because of who produced it: INDECLINE. The anonymous art collective has been active in the Bay Area—along with major cities across the country—for nearly 20 years. You might remember them for the naked Donald Trump statue they installed in the Castro back in 2016. Or the “1-800-GOT-JUNK?” billboard in Emeryville they transformed into an anti-ICE statement in 2018. As this film explains, the group has also, at various times, built a cemetery on a Trump golf course (“Here lies decency” read one of the tombstones), and built a rat-infested cell inside a Trump Hotel room.

But The Art of Protest is not simply an advertisement for the activism of INDECLINE. The 45-minute film also features a fairly astonishing array of voices from the art, music and protest worlds, all of whom passionately share their views about the important role art can have in changing the world. And many of them are brazen about their willingness to cross legal lines to do it. Monica Guzman of LA’s Sunrise Movement notes: “Breaking a law is a reminder to young people that the laws have to change. Why are we supposed to be following laws when corporations are destroying our planet?”

Featured artists include Ralph Steadman, Shepard Fairey, Fabian Williams and Ash Nash, Monica Canilao, Eric Drooker, Jodie Herrera and many more. All speak passionately (and punchily—some are reduced to swift soundbites) about their motivations and methods. As do political practical jokers The Yes Men, photographer Glen E. Friedman, West Memphis Three survivor Damien Echols, trans activist Buck Angel, and former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas. Douglas describes how art was an essential method of spreading the group’s message. “The power of art,” he says, “is that it tells the truth that you won’t get from a bureaucrat, or politicians.”

Musicians interviewed include Moby, Tom Morello, Dave Navarro and members of Anti-Flag, Youth Brigade, Agnostic Front, Rise Against, Crass and Pussy Riot. (“We were prepared to die for what we believe in,” Nadya Tolokonnikova casually notes.) Bay Area punk mainstays like Jello Biafra, Fat Mike from NOFX, and Winston Smith all pop up. As does San Francisco-based Burning Man co-founder John Law, who firmly states, “Fucking shit up is really fixing things.”

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Just as the interviewees hold nothing back, the documentary’s visuals are equally unfiltered. That means sitting through some deeply upsetting (though already infamous) footage of Black men and protesters being harmed by police officers, as well as clips from racist rallies. Footage of children playing soccer with replicas of prominent politicians’ heads also does not fail in its goal to shock.

The Art of Protest then is a single-minded attempt to win viewers over to the ideas of revolutionary action. And it does so with a passion and urgency that, at times, feels infectious. But it’s in more sedate moments that the film has the greatest impact. Like when musician Grandson makes activism in art seem like merely a matter of good mental health: “Art parallels with the pent up anger—the unresolved calls for justice.” Or when Shepard Fairey points out that all art is capable of sharing something valuable with society. “The more contributing their voice in a creative way,” the Obey mastermind says, “the better the world will be.”

The Art of Protest can be streamed in full at RollingStone.com.