History & Context of the Creative Industries: Protest Art – May 68

Art, as a vehicle for the expression of thought, can shape or reinforce the way we perceive events and issues. The aim of art as a form of protest is to create art that actively addresses cultural power structures, rather than solely representing them or describing them.

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Prominent artists, such as Pablo Picasso, have used art as a medium of expressing their displeasure towards socio-political circumstances. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, German and Italian warplanes bombed a village in northern Spain, Picasso reacted to this attack by painting the atrocities of war and the suffering of civilians in Guernica (seen above). Once completed, the painting made a brief trip around the world, publicizing the war to an international audience.

It takes visuals to get an important message across. Through this medium of communication, avant-garde artists can produce knowledge and interact with political systems. Protest art speaks to our frustration, hoping to empower us to do something about it.

It is meant to act as a messenger – a catalyst for change- reminding the population of the issues of the world we inhabit. It is an artist’s letter to society.



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A student hurling rocks at the police in Paris during the May 68 student uprising.
Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images


Fifty years ago, French Students began to strike over the rigidity and hierarchy of the French university system, defying the historical deference of young people to their elders; the same day, workers at a major factory walked out.

Within days, the strikes spread to other universities and factories, and garbage collectors and office workers joined in, By mid-May, more than 10 million people across France were on strike, and the country had all but come to a standstill.



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This year, for the fiftieth anniversary of May 68, an exhibition named “Clash of Images” was held at the Fine Arts School of Paris. It showcased posters from those days of social upheaval. When it comes to drawing, photography, cinema and art in general, 1968 is a turning point.

The Fine Arts School was at the centre of the revolt. Many of its students and teachers occupied the school: they turned the school into an artist’s workshop, where they created protest art which straddled the line between art and propaganda.

The students printed several thousand copies of the posters and taped them to lampposts and walls around Paris. These posters would be taken off by police forces during the night, so the students started spending their nights at the school in order to start the entire process as soon as possible the next day.

In an era before the internet, the posters became a trusted way to communicate plans for action as well as the protester’s political messages.

The posters displayed during the exhibition gave a sense of the idealism, rebellion and rejection of the status quo that permeated French society at the time.

There lies the secret of May 68’s longevity: it had the right imagery. It wasn’t just the sight of young and wild students taking up arms against their oppressor, it was also the art they used to convey their anger.


Here are some examples of the most iconic posters which have helped build the myth that is May 68:



One of the most iconic posters on display depicts a member of the French riot police (the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, or C.R.S.) as a baton-wielding member of the SS, the Nazi special police.



The words on a bottle of poison read, “Press Do Not Swallow,” a warning not to trust the state-owned news media. At the time, France’s television and radio stations were state-owned corporations.



In response to the protests, Mr. de Gaulle was reported to have said: “Reform, yes. Havoc, no.” The poster above reads “Once again, the havoc is him.” Until 1968, Mr. de Gaulle was primarily associated with the resistance in World War II, but in ’68 he tried to repress the strikes with armed police officers. His lack of sympathy for the strikers and his seeming inability to understand them made him the target of much of the protesters’ anger.



This poster shows the silhouette of Charles de Gaulle, a World War II general and the French president at the time, covering the mouth of a young man. “Be young and shut up,” he says. The expression was also an adaptation of a well-known phrase, sometimes used to denounce sexism, from a popular French film of 1958 titled “Be Beautiful but Shut Up.”

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