Freedom of expression has always been one of the key elements for the democratic development of societies. Taking it away from people only leads to the accumulation of anger and frustration, until they reach the boiling point. When the written word was censored and the information scarce and extremely biased, there was only one way to achieve common goals: taking to the streets. As history taught us, numerous examples of such actions of people determined to achieve or defend their rights. From the great French Revolution of 1789 onward, they started making use of the public sphere and, more precisely, of the public places in order to make statements that would otherwise go unnoticed. The authorities may have silenced them with nightsticks and bullets, but at least their goal was achieved: they have been heard.
Later on, people found other ways of eluding the censorship or the intentional omission of the most ardent social subjects by the state-owned media. Even if the culture of protest has never been abandoned (people still gather in the streets in the most sensitive or tense moments), starting with the 20th century, it has gained an important and unignorable ally: art itself, along with the artists creating it.
Throughout the years, political claims and issues have been reflected in the work of numerous acknowledged or anonymous artists, as a part of the link between arts and politics. In this article, I will leave aside the question of institutionalized art and I will concentrate on the one happening on the streets, analyzing the relationship between street art and politics during moments of political and social tension through the study of the politically themed graffiti in France (May 1968), and in nowadays Bucharest (after the mass protests against corruption of January-February 2017).
Graffiti as a means of political expression have a longstanding tradition. They are one of the preferred vehicles of extra-parliamentary political comments: graffiti provide a means of expression, a means to be heard immediately, without authorization, without the need for clear definition or a pre-formed consensus. (Johannes Stahl, 2013: 67-68[i])
Taking into account the French case, we can trace the relationship between the writings on the walls and the urgent need for a medium of free speech up to the period of the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe I. When the king formally forbade the caricatures and the pamphlets directed against him in the French press, people turned to the streets, drawing the face of the monarch in a pear-like figure all over the Parisian walls (Johannes Stahl, 2013: 65). Later on, during the German occupation of the Northern France and the Vichy regime, the Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï captured the Lorraine cross, sign of the resistance to the collaboration with the Nazis, painted on the walls.
In the ‘60s, when artists rediscovered their political voice, choosing to place their art at the center of the most important debates and social events, the trend was in favor of political contestation, whether we talk about social rights, the government’s decisions at large or about the Vietnam War (Claudia Mesch, 2013: 7[ii]). In a world suffocated by the consumerist tendencies, traumatized by conformity, young artists pleaded for the recovery of the quality of ultimate space of liberty of expression and manifestation by the work of art. For the first time, political engagement came to be understood differently, giving rise to the famous phrase “the personal is political”. This explains why streets were taken by assault and walls were flourishing with writings and paintings.
Street art, in an early form, gained momentum in 1968, when students started striking against the government’s decision to close the University of Nanterre, as a consequence of an earlier protest against the war in Vietnam. As the social movement came to attract more and more adherents, students and workers from all fields, messages expressing people’s displeasure with the conservatism of the De Gaulle regime and with the intellectual and cultural conditions existing at that time appeared everywhere with untamable vigor. One of the main claims was that of liberating speech (libérer la parole), also elaborated in an interview between the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and on of the leaders of the movement of the 22nd of March, which sparked the events that followed. The slogan L’imagination au pouvoir, omnipresent around Paris (Jacques Guilhaumou, 2010: 168[iii]), raised awareness of the fact that state-controlled media suffocated all individual initiative, by also rebelling against the extreme authority of the regime, displayed mainly through the frequent interventions of the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité).
What people used to write on the walls was being turned into posters by the dissident artists working for the clandestine Atelier Populaire in no time. As Jacques Guilhaumou, a historian who happened to be studying at the University of Nanterre when the protests occurred, put it in his recollection of the events, while also citing Jacques Ranciere, it was all about not leaving any available bit of space unoccupied, nor any bit of time. This was why students had begun writing their griefs all around the University and Paris in general long before the students of the School of Fine Arts started transforming them into posters carried around by all the protesters. Guilhaumou links this phenomenon to the modern arsenal of revolutionary practices and gestures, tying it to the claim for a less mediated democracy fueled by the untiring and utopian élan of the social actors. The purpose of these writings on the walls was to get as close as possible to the core of everybody’s discontent, while appealing to the rawest emotions of the passers-by.
Slogans such as It is forbidden to forbid, To enjoy without hindrance or There is poetry in the streets passed on the message that the free spirit of the civil society could no longer be contained by the policies of the government or by the laws. Some kind of parallel state, thirsty for reform and modernization was formed, in a collective attempt to transform the world in order to change the life (as proclaimed by the Situationist Manifesto), by means of voluntary action and direct involvement of the concerned citizens. The political idea of free speech on public walls, as well as the practice of conceptual art, which had been established in the 1960s, have led artists to experiment with the combination of words and action. (Johannes Stahl, 2013: 113) The importance of the political graffiti of these times, which gives an idea of what l’esprit de mai means, is underlined by Philippe Rassaert and Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, in their article on Lyon’s “graffiti museum” (Philippe Rassaert & Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, 2009: 61-78[iv]), an anti-monument we must at all costs protect, since it contains a new kind of historiographical source necessary for the analysis of modern-time historical events.
In 2017, Romanian people united in order to protest against a previous decision of the social-democratic Minister of Justice to loosen up the legislation regarding the punishments for bribery and abuse of power. The news sparked mass protests all over Romania, which carried on for weeks in a row. It was the biggest public manifestation to happen after the Romanian Revolution of 1989 (which wasn’t speared of the vandalistic acts either, this including graffiti).
An impromptu monument of corruption was “erected” close to the governmental building, stickers reading #REZIST (I resist/ I carry on, in relation with the long interval during which protests continued) were spread around the city and explicit messages directed against the political class appeared everywhere. Stencils bearing political figures, accompanied by specifically targeted messages can now be found in every spot of the city, even though the exact point from which this movement began is unclear (it may be traced back to the second term in office of president Traian Basescu). Romanian people’s disapproval with the political class, however, is an old subject, and its link with the current tendency of denouncing fraud and corruption only comes as natural.
Yet the landscape is not as dark and grim as it may seem. Much like the French case, where poetry and beauty were associated with the actions of the determined people, despite the negative aspects of the official politics, there’s enough room on the walls of Bucharest to express the other side of the story/event as well. If one looks a few feet away from the stencils and the engraved distress, one may also find encouraging messages, meant to channel the energy towards positive goals and actions, inciting the passers-by to Make love, not war, because Everything will be alright. Street art follows the social tendencies all along the way, for better or for worse, therefore it is essential to look around and document what’s written on the walls, because not all means of expression following historical periods and major trends make it through the time or to end up in history books.
[i] JOHANNES STAHL, Street Art, H.F. Ullmann, 2013
[ii] CLAUDIA MESCH, Art and Politics, a small History, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013, London
[iii] JACQUES GUILHAUMOU, Mémoires d’un étudiant en mai 1968 : le flux des manifestations et le protagoniste de l’événement, La Découverte, 2010
[iv] PHILIPPE RASSAERT, MICHELLE ZANCARINI-FOURNEL, « Visitez le musée du graffiti, il va bientôt fermer » Un non-lieu de mémoire à Lyon : le musée du graffiti, Cahiers d’Histoire, 2009
Irina-Andreea Bădescu, Political Science student
Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest