The Art of Protest: Radical Hope Envisioned and Embodied

Amy Hay

John Dixon


Some of the visual texts examined include the scribbled pictures in the meeting minutes of an ecumenical group formed to protest state inaction. The doodle showed various individuals as puppets, and included scientists and public officials, and in the process reveal a particular understanding of the world. One group used a striking picture of a young child getting their blood drawn in a fundraising letter and in the process identified the state as the enemy. Another environmental activist used striking visuals for the letterhead of her monthly newsletter. Sometimes there were dancing demons or dioxin-labeled chickens that had come home to roost. An examination of such visual texts offers important understandings of the ways activists effectively frame and challenge scientific and state authority while at the same time offering a different entry point, and potentially a more positive one, for us to understand difficult and unpleasant issues connected to environmental degradation and catastrophe.

Activism represents an especially important recovery project, not only because activists persevere in the face of significant and often depressing obstacles, but because meaningful change frequently happens incrementally, obvious only in hindsight. While many environmental social movements appeal to emotion and morality, they also ground themselves in the lived experience. Thinking about the things that sustain social movements offers hope in times when an individual or group may be a solitary voice in the wilderness, or when such forces transform society. We all may need to practice the art of protest as we address the realities of environmental loss and need for resilience and recovery.

How do you define radical hope?

Hope that nurtures change, often in the face of daunting opposition. Activists work to make change happen, and visual images and rhetoric offer one way to measure their hopes, fears, understandings, and determination.

How does radical hope emerge from my case study?

The various visual texts produced by environmental activists represent activists’ awareness, critiques, and humor as they pursued challenges to entrenched power. These texts often embody the idea of radical hope – a consciousness and commitment to determination, perspective, righteous anger, and biting humor while engaged in changing society and the world. Examining the materials produced by anti-toxic activists, an understudied area of environmental protest, provides a lens by which to understand the visual culture of protest and the emotional state(s) which sustain them.

Required Texts (Readings, Images, and Film):

  • Thomas W. Benson, excerpt, Posters for Peace: Visual Rhetoric and Civic Action (Pennsylvania Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, reprint, 2015).
  • Linda Gordon, “Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist,” The Journal of American History, 93, No. 3 (Dec., 2006), 698-727.
  • [Gordon examines the work of noted photographer Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. Lange’s photographs captured the effects of the economic crisis in rural America and made an argument for government intervention.]
  • James M. Jasper, “The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions in and around Social Movements,” Sociological Forum, 13, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), 397-424.
  • [Jasper discusses the centrality of emotions to collective action and protest.]
  • Nicolas Lambert, A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements (New York: The New Press, 2015).
  • T.V. Reed, “ACTing UP Against AIDS: The (Very) Graphic Arts in a Moment of Crisis,” in The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
  • Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Press, 2015).
  • Ralph Young, Make Art Not War: Political Protest Posters from the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
  • DamNation (2014)Documentary Film: Activists focused on river and wetland restoration make a film about America’s “deadbeat” dams. These are dams that no longer serve the function for which they were built and which now disrupt and destroy local ecosystems. The documentary provides a historical overview, interviews with activists, and contemporary encounters in advocating that these dams be removed and watersheds restored.
  • Finis Dunaway, Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)
  • 1971, “Crying Indian,” Public Service Announcement