Diana Margarit, PhD, currently works as a lecturer at Alexandru Ioan University in the Department of Political Science, International Relations and European Studies, Iasi, Romania, where she lectures on globalization and social movements, political ideologies, international organizations and comparative politics. She wrote International Organizations (with A. Carpinschi, Polirom, 2011) and On the Edges of Democracy. From the nation-state to the global sphere (Alexandru Ioan Cuza Unversity Press, 2013), both in Romanian. Since 2014, she has been conducting research on the Romanian uprisings in the context of global social movements and some of its results have already been published in international journals and collective studies. Starting with March 2017, she has been writing the monthly column #Protest for the cultural magazine Timpul, on the up-to-date protests and social movements.


(article based on a discussion with the participants of Mobile Biennale)

The term `civil disobedience` was first used by Thoreau in his homonym famous essay where he explained his refuse to pay taxes as an act through which he condemned the injustice made by the government of Massachusetts. In his opinion, disobedience had become a necessity and a moral duty when laws transformed people into agents of injustice towards other people (in the American context, it concerned the relationship between society and government concerning slavery). Therefore, disobeying the laws meant condemning the state for the legalized injustice.

Thoreau’s act or later on, Theresa Park’s refusal to obey bus segregation rules in 1955, among many others similar cases, became the symbols of individual resistance against arbitrary and discriminative decisions. Their civil disobedience consisted in individual actions through which they intentionally broke the laws for the purpose of declaring their disapproval and raising awareness. Thus, their actions had a disruptive effect as long as they could send the signal both to society and government that injustice had a formal and institutionalized character and it should have faced opposition.

An act of civil disobedience, be it individual or collective, is always controversial because of its illegal, openly declared and assumed, based on conscience and non-violent manifestation. In Theory of Justice, Rawls underlines the fact that those actors who act as such not only disrespect the laws and/norms of society, but also have the willingness to accept punishment for their behaviour. In every act of civil disobedience there are the germs of martyrdom. The disobedient one condemns the injustice, but what lays behind his/her acts is the conscience that the violence reaction of the state may raise attention more than the act of disobedience itself. Martin Luther King’s words written on April 16th 1963 in Birmingham City Jail express the same idea: “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.” Thus, disobedience requires some qualities, namely sensitivity to unjust norms and decisions, moral conscience, disrespect towards hierarchy and illegitimate authority, strength, willingness to act and heroism.

Civil disobedience displays the dynamic relation between two opposing forces, on one hand, the one which disobeys and on the other hand, the one which demands submission. The confrontation between these forces is therefore a competition of forces based on the symbolic power of messages depicted and the means to express them. The disobedient one will choose the most appropriate tools according to the message he/she intends to send. The disobedient persona has at its disposal a plethora of tactics that seek to force the change of a law or decision (political change) and in extenso to determine the society to reconsider its beliefs and ideas (cultural change). Differently put, disobedience oscillates between coercion and persuasion as different angles of the same blade. From this perspective, disobedience is similar to a sharp blade used by a firm and precise hand to open the wound.

In my opinion, disobedience has always run through the veins of art. The idea of art as statement for autonomy and against authority is brilliantly reflected in Oscar Wilde’s essay The Soul of Man under Socialism. “Art is this intense form of individualism that makes the public try to exercise over it an authority that is as immoral as it is ridiculous, and as corrupting as it is contemptible.” I would add however that the individualism of art sets boundaries to the sphere of interference of the public and, at the same time, creates autonomous spaces within the world of art.   In this context, art breaks rules and finish by imposing new ones. Thus, we can assume that it carries a continuous struggle against norms, but it can never be depicted outside the logic of norms.

What happens when art intentionally escapes its nutshell? Art and politics have always had an intricate and sophisticated relationship, mainly because of the instrumentality of art in praising or criticizing political leaders, parties and/or decisions. In the context of the recent waves of civil unrest all over the world against oppressive governments and unjust decisions, the role of art as expression of both discontent and solidarity has become prominent. Visual and performing arts descended in the street, depicted on walls (be they material or virtual), pavements, banners and so on (for instance, Banksy or Dan Perjovschi).

Mobile Biennale: Moldavian Tour in 7 Days which reunited artists, curators, cultural managers with different artistic experiences, from heterogeneous geo-political and social spaces. I could not have found a more appropriate context for discussing the relationship between art and civil disobedience than this one. I took advantage of this rare and precious opportunity by proposing a workshop for and with all the participants (including the organizing committee of the Biennale). In terms both of logistics and human interaction, it was a challenge. The dynamism and mobility of the Biennale offered me the possibility to interact with people different from the ones I am used to meet frequently (the academic communities usually work as enclaves with few if not with no communication to other disparate fields of research and groups; in this respect, politologists make no difference) in new environmental conditions, others than conference rooms or art galleries. The workshop intended to explore the relationship between art and civil disobedience according to the personal beliefs, ideologies and experiences of the participants. Thus, it focused on the individual’s perception on what civil disobedience represented to them, how they could/did express themselves through art in order to determine cultural and political change and last, how efficient is art in mobilizing people and manifesting their discontent.

I was rather interested in the honesty of the participants and not in the reproduction of discourses we hear and read in the public space. From a methodological point of view, a focus group seemed the most suitable tool for answering questions. The diversity of people coming from different artistic areas (music, visual arts, performative arts) selected according to the visibility and the role they played in the artistic field, in a friendly and non-threatening environment (a beautiful orchard in Bukovina) represented the key-ingredients for a rich and thoughtful exchange of ideas. The questions mentioned above have been asked in an interactive setting where the participants were encouraged to express their opinions and to freely talk with the other members.

Even though the discussion reached many levels of interpretation and perspective, I would emphasize three significant conclusions: a) despite the difficulty to distinguish between an activist and an engaged artist as hypostases of the same individuality, he/she uses many forms of contesting the order and existing norms, even when the immediate purpose of the artistic act does not explicitly stresses it; b) social and political activism may have a negative impact on the artistic autonomy; c) however, art should be more socially engaged. As politologist and activist, I was rather intrigued by many participants’ (mostly artists) reticence to define their activity as activism. In a world which praises the impact of art on civil activism and disobedience, such a conclusion is quite baffling. Where does this reluctance towards activism come from? The MIT List Visual Arts Center on civil disobedience, Critical Art Ensemble, Jonas Staal’s projects, 1000 Gestalten during G20 Hamburg Summit, Disobedient Film Art Journalism, The Center for Artistic Activism, Ai Weiwei, Petr Pavlensky, Suzanne Lacy represent only a drop in the ocean of names and projects on artistic activism. Moreover, the specificity of contemporary protests and social movements lies especially on emotional triggers that mobilize people against injustice. This is the reason why art in the street has become a symbol of resistance against oppression, inequality, discrimination, hate. Erdem Gunduz, the Turkish dancer who protested silently by standing in Taksim Square during the 2013 anti-governmental protests and Wuilly Arteaga, the violinist who played his violin during the demonstration in Caracas in July 2017, used art as a political instrument and became symbols of those manifestations. In my perspective, this is the right moment for art to be socially engaged. Some may think that art can make protests more cheerful (see for instance the aestheticization of the last February Romanian demonstrations) and potentially non-violent, but what matters most is its capacity to communicate messages which are more powerful than a thousand words.

During the workshop and the non-formal discussions with artists, I could see that socially and politically engaging art embodied the compromise with authority and the public (tension highlighted by Wilde in the quotes mentioned above). I understood that civil disobedience meant renouncing the autonomy of the art itself and of the artist’s status. Being engaged does not free the artist; on the contrary, it encapsulates and makes him/her captive of the public. Society is capricious, voracious, demanding, never completely satisfied and every attempt to please it turns into a dramatic failure. In an imaginary battleship between artist and the public, it may be a win-win or a win-lose one; in both situations, public wins. The same Thoreau who I quoted at the beginning of this text declared its sympathy for the following idea: “That government is best which governs least”. Less oppressive and abusive a government, lesser are the chances of contesting it. These quotes are relevant because they express his view on the relation between individuals and authority. According to its hierarchical and submissive attributes, authority feeds itself with the individual’s autonomy. Mutatis mutandis, the autonomous artist is threatened by perpetual changes in the culture sector, the dynamics between galleries, museums, art collectors, dealers, art financers and investors. Having in mind all these actors and their interactions in the capitalist artistic market, individual’s autonomy and especially the artistic one can be considered the Holy Grail of the contemporaneity.

On the other side, curators, cultural managers and art critics (the so-called `non-artists`; the term `non-artist` does not have a pejorative understanding) insisted on the necessity of a more engaged art. For them, it was not enough to criticize social relations and governments and blame the guilty ones. Differently put, a consistent critique signified to engage art itself in the social and political arena. The false-pretended neutrality and autonomy of art were simply fata morgana. Moreover, the idea that artists did not make wars and therefore it is not their duty to fix dysfunctional societies seemed to them problematic and inconsistent as long as art has always been umbilically tied to politics and society.

In conclusion, I confess that the workshop Art and Civil Disobedience did not seek to provide definitive answers or to set an ultimate truth. What interested me most was to create a challenging and inspiring arena where participants with different perspectives could express their ideas on a matter familiar or, on the contrary, ignored by them. Lastly, this encounter convinced me that this transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary experiment could become a valuable contribution to the scientific literature focused both on politics and art.