Lesson: Unmonumental: War, Politics, and Protest

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Global Studies, Social Studies, Literary Arts, and Studio Arts
  • "Passe-Partout (New York)," 2006."Passe-Partout (New York)," 2006.
  • "Rabble Rouser," 2005."Rabble Rouser," 2005.
  • "Hacer es la Mejor Manera de Decir (To Do Is the Best Way to Say)," 2004."Hacer es la Mejor Manera de Decir (To Do Is the Best Way to Say)," 2004.
  • "Bale Variant Number 0011," 2005."Bale Variant Number 0011," 2005.


Written by Marc Mayer and Cathleen Lewis, Manager of High School Programs

The first decade of the 21st Century has been violently marked by terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and failures in democracy around the world. During this in-class session teachers will investigate the work of four artists to explore questions of war, displacement, genocide, disappearance of public space, and different forms of resistance and protest. What is at stake in a time that is being described as “Post September 11th”? We are enduring an increase in surveillance, loss of civil rights, increase of border patrols, harsher immigration laws, and a struggling economy that has been over worked by an expensive war in Iraq. How do artists reveal these issues through their art practice? How can art increase a sense of awareness around political and social issues as well as advocate for change?


• Students will investigate how artists engage in political issues
• Students will make connections to larger political events both at home and abroad
• Students will consider how arts can facilitate awareness around critical issues and impact society


Resistance is the act of resisting, opposing, or withstanding systems of power, like the government.
Displacement is a situation in which a person or people are forced to abandon their home because of natural disasters or political and social situations.
Genocide is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.
Activism is the use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause. To fight or advocate for a social or political cause.
Rabble-rouser is a person that stirs up masses of the people, often to hatred or violence.
Passepartout is a skeleton key or master key that opens any lock.


Computer and Projector
Sam Durant Hacer es la Mejor Manera de Decir and …For People Who Refuse to Knuckle Down, 2004.
Lara Schnitger Rebel Rouser, 2005.
Claire Fontaine Passe-Partout (New York), 2006.
Shinique Smith Bale Variant Number 0011, 2005.

Lesson Strategy

Begin the discussion with Lara Schnitger:

Lara Schnitger
Rabble Rouser, 2005
Handmade anti-war T-shirts from 2003, “I Love NY” T-Shirts, parts of Gridlock, buttons, cotton, wood, ribbon, pins
116 × 67 × 87 in

• Looking closely, what objects or materials do you recognize in this artwork?
• What do the T-shirts, buttons and slogans say? (Some examples: “We are creating enemies faster than we can kill them”; “Anybody but Bush”; “Life’s a bitch and so am I”; “Kill yourself and save the planet”; “My other car is a broom”)
• Are the slogans always political? Do they represent one perspective or multiple perspectives? Do they contradict each other?
• Where do you think the artist might have found these materials?
• Who might wear this T-shirts, buttons etc? Where would people wear them?
• What type of protests do you imagine that these buttons might have come from?
• Describe how this artwork was assembled or made.
• How does the artwork create tension?
• Are there any similarities between the T-shirts in the sculpture or the T-shirts you wear? Differences?
• What does it say about the people who buy and wear slogans on clothing?
• Why do we purchase clothing that makes such a public statement?
• What does the artwork say about the act of protest? Consider the title Rabble Rouser.
• What does rabble rouser mean?
• Is the act of protest successful? Why or why not?
• Why do people feel compelled to protest?

Lara Schnitger applies domestic arts, such as sewing and quilting, to her art practice in a style that merges design with architecture. In Rabble Rouser, T-shirts and fabric sewn together are stretched over a wooden frame that seems to transform the sculpture into a figure that express pent-up aggression, in this case over what seems to be a political cause.

Sam Durant
Hacer es la Mejor Manera de Decir, 2004
Steel street barricade, megaphone, nylon banner, rocks, concrete, cobblestone, bricks, hardware
287.5 × 370 × 370 in

• Looking closely, what objects or materials do you recognize?
• What is a street barricade used for? Megaphone? Banner? Rocks?
• What happens when these objects are gathered in the same context? What might these objects be used for?
• If you were to imagine a scenario where there are people in this scene what might be happening? What type of protest might the artist be speaking about?
• The banner proclaims Debajo del pavimento, la playa, which translates as below the pavement, the beach. Does the banner add meaning to our understanding of the work? How? What does the slogan mean?
• The title of this artwork is Hacer es la Mejor Manera de Decir, what does it mean? (The title translates as To Do Is The Best Way To Say)
• What is the difference between doing and saying?

In this work, Durant creates a mobile of all the necessary objects for a street protest. This artwork references the student protests in 1968 across the world including France, Germany, and Mexico. It also draws strong parallels to our current time.

List some moments of protest or civil disobedience that might have happened during our time. Make connections to protests and acts of civil disobedience during the 1960’s. (Teachers may also want to draw connections to the different movements of the 60’s including Civil Rights, the Stonewall Riots, Richard Perry Loving, Mildred Jeter Loving v. Virginia, opposition to the Vietnam War.)

Shinique Smith
Bale Variant Number 0011, 2005
Clothing, accessories, twine, and wood
72 × 72 × 28 in

• Looking closely, what objects or materials do you recognize in this artwork?
• Can you read the labels of the clothing?
• What other objects, in addition to clothing, do you recognize?
• Why do you think the artist includes them?
• What adjectives would you use to describe the materials in this work?
• What is its texture?
• Are there any items in this sculpture that remind you of your clothing? Which pieces or articles?
• Where do you think this clothing comes from?
• How would you describe the size and shape of this sculpture?
• How is this artwork kept together?
• This work by Shinique Smith is titled Bale Variant No. 0011. Does the title make you think differently about the artwork? What ideas are conjured by the word bale?
• Do you think this bale is being transported? Where do you think it is going?

Smith’s bundled sculptures of clothing, fabric, accessories, and household items is inspired by the use and disposal of materials that line streets in machine compacted bundles; the surplus value of used clothing being exported to Third World countries in 1,000-pound bales remark on recent world events which have displaced people and caused them to lose their belongings.

• What current events have displaced people and caused them to lose their belongings?
• How might this artwork speak to trade and humanitarian efforts across the world?
• How does this artwork speak to themes of war, politics, and protest?

Sam Durant
…For People Who Refuse to Knuckle Down, 2004
Chain-link fence, steel, wood sign
90 × 82 × 82 in

• Looking closely, what objects or materials do you recognize in this artwork?
• Where are some places that you might see a chain-link fence? What do fences do?
• How has the artist transformed everyday objects into art?
• Describe the shape of this artwork. How would you describe this object?
• What do you think the artist means by the sign “Obedience to the Law is Freedom”?
• Who do you think he is talking to/about? Who is caged and who is free? How do we know? What are some moments in history where people have been caged or imprisoned? Why?
• How does the complete title influence the reading of this work? (_…For People Who Refuse to Knuckle Down_)
• How might you interpret this artwork through ideas around politics and freedom?
• How does this work compare or contrast to Shinique Smith’s work? (Consider shapes, scale, materials, etc.)

Sam Durant’s politically engaged artistic practice is realized through photography, drawings, text, and sculpture. Transforming activist gestures into sculptural objects (and vice versa), the artist has extensively explored the notion of protest both as a subject and as material for visual art.

Claire Fontaine
Passe-Partout (New York), 2006
Hacksaw blades, bicycle spokes, mini Mag-lite, key rings, allen keys, paperclip, safety pins
Dimensions variable

• Looking closely, what objects or materials do you recognize? (Keychain light, Statue of Liberty keychain, diaper pin/safety pin, skeleton keys, lock-picking kit, held together by a larger key ring)
• Is there anything on this keychain that you use regularly? What is it? How do you use it?
• What might some of these other objects on the key ring be used for?
• The title of this work is Passe-Partout (New York), which basically means skeleton key. How do you now understand meaning in the artwork?
• Where might these keys give you access? What areas or neighborhoods are targeted?
• How might these lock picks serve as a metaphor? What does it say about power and rights in our society? What is the role of freedom in our culture?
• What barriers do you face everyday that these keys would help you unlock?
• If you could use these lock picks and skeleton keys to get access anywhere in New York City, where would you go?
• How might you consider this work in terms of politics?
• How might a work like Passe-Partout (New York) be seen as promoting anarchy?

Claire Fontaine is a Paris-based collective, founded in 2004. After lifting her name from a popular brand of school notebooks, Claire Fontaine declared herself a “readymade artist” and began to elaborate a version of neo-conceptual art that often looks like other people’s work.


• In this discussion, artists have addressed such issues as activism, resistance, displacement, and war. What issues in contemporary culture do you think might incite you to take action?

• Not everyone is a politician, but art can be a powerful tool to highlight injustice inequality around the world. Do you think this is an effective tool discuss important issues? Why?


Create a recipe for a protest. Ask students to define protest and give some examples of protest in their journals. Discuss the definitions and record their ideas on the board. Ask students the following questions:

• Why would somebody protest?
• Who generally protests?
• How have people protested when they thought things were unfair? What are some examples?
• What are different methods of protest?
• What method (or methods) do you think is the most effective? Why?

Brainstorm issues and current events with students that impact our lives and warrant protest. Consider laws and rules as well as domestic and international issues. Make a list on the board.

• Which issues, situations, or laws do you think are unfair? Why?
• Which seem most important or applicable to you specifically? Why?

The class should vote to pick one important issue. Divide the class into smaller groups. Each group will assigned either to (1) define the reason and need to protest (2) the method(s) of protest like letter writing campaigns, boycott, rally, petition, or acts of civil disobedience and (3) define the audience you want to target. Come together and discuss each group’s proposal. Finalize each component together. Ask students to complete the following:

• A written statement explaining how they would get people to attend AND
• What form of protest would they use?
• Where would you hold the protest? What signs or props would you create?
• An example of your protest material (a letter, a sign or symbol, a petition)


We have utilized the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Visual Arts to assure that we meet the benchmarks and the strands of learning, we incorporate all five strands into the lesson plans: art making, literacy in the visual arts, making connections, community and cultural resources, and careers and lifelong learning in the visual arts.

Blueprint for Teaching and Learning About Art
1. Art Making
2. Looking at and Discussing Art
3. Developing Visual Art Vocabulary
4. Reading and Writing About Art
5. Problem Solving: Interpreting and Analyzing Art
6. Recognizing the Societal, Cultural, and Historical Significance of Art, Connecting Art to Other Disciplines
7. Observing and Interpreting the World
8. Awareness of Careers in Visual Arts
9. Arts for Enjoyment and Lifelong Learning

National Standards (mcrel.org)

Art Connections
Standard 1. Understands connections among the various artforms and other disciplines

Visual Arts
Standard 2. Knows how to use structures (e.g., sensory qualities, organizational principles, expressive features) and functions of art
Standard 3. Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts

Literary Arts
Standard 8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media
Standard 10. Understands the characteristics and components of the media

Additional Resources

Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni, Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. New York: Phaidon Press, 2007