The protest as an art form


A peaceful protest by thousands of people gathering across the nation with colorful signs and radiant smiles can be a beautiful sight to behold and can inspire a wonderful sense of solidarity. 

It can also be quite useless. 

The thousands of demonstrators who filled the streets in Washington, D.C. and other cities across the nation on the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration advanced no coherent demand and they achieved what they demanded. 

The demonstrators wanted all kinds of things and nothing in particular. This was the impression conveyed by participants and supporters of Women’s March on Washington to The Press, but don’t take my word for it. Here is what The Washington Post, which had scores of on-scene reporters in the nation’s capital, had to say on the subject in the Jan. 21 editorial: 

“The protesters wanted a whole host of things—reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable health care, action on climate change. Their demands did not always match up, but the marchers had this in common: Whatever they cared about most, they had traveled to the nation’s capital to do something about it.”

The “something” was massive. Its accomplishments so far have been minuscule—bringing little but flippancy and disdain from the Trump administration—and are likely to stay that way. 

Many of the march’s participants compared themselves to suffragists, but that comparison is deeply flawed. Suffragists had a clear demand—the legal right of women to vote—and a clear, though much-opposed by critics, solution for making it happen—the adoption of laws to enshrine women’s right to vote and the removal of any obstacles to women coming in to cast their votes. 

By contrast, the one thing the Women’s March seemed to make clear was that a lot of people in the United States are unhappy with Trump’s election as president. If somebody missed all the news reports and the posts on social networks of the past couple of months, the march might have helped bring that person up to date. 

Granted, it might be easier to bring together thousands of people in support of a vague umbrella call for some general good, whatever each demonstrator’s idea of that good might be, than to draw a similarly large gathering in support of a single specific demand. But a smaller group that advances a specific demand—as suffragists did—may see its demand met. A larger group that advances no particular demands usually achieves no particular results.  

The Women’s March might, however, qualify as an art form. As Oscar Wilde, the great creator and supporter of artistic beauty, wrote in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.”

Art serves no practical purpose. It usually brings no immediate political change. It does, however, have the power to influence public sentiment and challenge established views and can eventually achieve profound social and political shifts. 

Anna Dolgov is the editor of The Riverdale Press.