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Mounting a protest can be a tricky business. I remember reporting, in the 1980s, on a campaign by university lecturers to improve their conditions of work. Their very erudition may have hampered their cause: the stirring slogan they chose to win round the masses was “Rectify the Anomaly!”

I can still picture the none-too-prepossessing young man holding his placard by the side of the A4, pulling the deadened gazes of weary commuters driving out of London towards his convoluted message. Marxist revolution was surely around the corner.

But it didn’t turn out that way. The political establishment managed to survive that devastating threat to its authority. The anomaly, whatever it was, lived on. It would be nice to think that there is a stash of “Rectify” T-shirts to be found in the basement of a former polytechnic somewhere, a legacy to that bone-rattling call to arms.

It would have made a fine addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition Disobedient Objects, which opens today. The show illustrates how the battle for hearts and minds has evolved over the past quarter of a century, and how the once-simplistic art of social protest has acquired its own refinements and sophistication as it has moved with the times.

It begins in the late 1970s, a time that many would consider to be well past the golden age of protest. The handsome Che Guevara posters, the students placing flowers inside the guns of soldiers, the pregnant lyrics of chart-topping pop songs (“Call out the instigators, because there’s something in the air”) – all these pivotal cultural moments belonged to the previous decade. The 1970s, widely regarded as a hangover decade, was when protest discovered its limits, rather than celebrating its potential.

And yet whatever it lost in directness and militancy, it was beginning to gain in practical wisdom. The artists and designers of the post-1960s sensibility employed a richer palette of tone than their predecessors. They used drama: the striking life-sized puppets of the US’s Bread and Puppet Theatre, promoting democratic culture and bread-baking as antidotes to high capitalism.

They appropriated high art: China’s “Goddess of Democracy”, a torch-bearing statuette, was based not – as commonly thought – on the Statue of Liberty but on the Soviet sculpture “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman”. The original “Goddess” was constructed, and then destroyed by a tank, in Tiananmen Square; the cheap copy is to be found in the home of many a dissident of the regime. Samizdat kitsch or revolutionary totem?

Protests against baton-wielding police forces gained poignancy when students began to use shields that were painted as book covers, a tactic first seen in Italy in the last decade. It seemed, as police moved against them, that the forces of law and order were clubbing the life out of Boccaccio and Dante. This was protest designed to be observed through technology’s rapid dissemination of images. Social media created instant icons, and here were political malcontents moving as sure-footedly as any high-flying brand consultant.

In Berlin and Barcelona, demonstrators used giant cube-shaped “cobblestone” inflatables, which they would float towards the police lines. The authorities were faced with a conundrum of absurdity: did they pretend to ignore them, as they landed haplessly among their ranks? Or did they bounce them back to the demonstrators, farcically turning a serious engagement into a game of beach volleyball?

Humour has become a powerful weapon: dissident acts are designed to raise a wry smile rather than a howl of outrage. In the US, a graffiti-writing robot took the pain (and perhaps the fun?) out of spraying slogans on walls. Here, surely, was alternative culture’s counterpart to drone missiles, the double-edged critique deftly made.

Recent demonstrations in Britain, never a country to stray far from a joke, have seen withering epigrams on placards denouncing government spending cuts: “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies”, read one. In Russia, a rainbow-coloured placard reading, “We won’t give it [the Russian presidency] to Putin a third time” is replete with sexual innuendo.

These absurdist and ironic twists were all very well, I said to the V&A exhibition’s co-curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, but were they effective? Grindon believes that they symbolise a new realism about the limits of social protest.

“In the 1960s, there was a higher expectation of immediate change,” he said. “Now there is no less utopianism around, but there is a much stronger sense of having to be strategic.”

Protesters, in other words, are in it for the long haul. The explosive shows of dissent that shook the 1960s forced governments to turn their attention to issues such as race and gender. But it was the consolidation of those protests in the following decades that won the battles. Today, going viral is more important than going to the barricades. And the instigators need to be more artful than ever.

‘Disobedient Objects’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, July 26-February 1 2015, vam.ac.uk

peter.aspden@ft.com @peteraspden

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