Art and activism are, in a word, inseparable. That’s not to say that all artists are activists and vice versa, but there has been a long tradition of artists making political and humanitarian statements in their work, allowing the public to see different perspectives of a given issue that needs attention.
There’s a book by Nicolas Lampert entitled “A People’s Art History of the United States” that chronicles 250 years of activist art in the country. Other books, such as “Art, Artists and Activism – 1930s to Today” by Art Hazelwood, and collectives, such as the Center for Artist Activism and Guerrilla Girls, also speak to the importance of artists and activism. Even websites like The Huffington Post has spoken about artist activism.
“In order to change people, we have to reach them at a deeper, more emotional level”
For many of us in the West, we are finally beginning to understand that art and activism have long gone hand-in-hand. This is perhaps because a new generation of designers and artists are being influenced by contemporaries, some of which will be discussed in this article; it could also be because the world is changing at an accelerated rate and social justice and humanitarian issues are becoming more visible – through the use of technology, specifically social media platforms – to the international community.
Why is artist activism important?
Art is about emotion; it’s about how the artist views either themselves or a subject. It’s an individual perspective that is aimed at getting the viewer or reader to feel the same emotions and view something through the lens of an artist.
This is why artist activism is important. A brilliant article by the team at Alternet describes this succinctly, stating that: “In order to change people, we have to reach them at a deeper, more emotional level.”
To put it another way, one of the leading artist activism groups, the Center for Artistic Activism, states that creative resistance has been used time and again for change:
“Throughout history, the most effective political actors have married the arts with campaigns for social change. While Martin Luther King Jr is now largely remembered for his example of moral courage, social movement historian Doug McAdam’s estimation of King’s “genius for strategic dramaturgy,” likely better explains the success of his campaigns.”
Artist activism is important now because it has always been important: the history of artists calling for change and moving a population to do that cannot be understated. And now, from Brexit in the UK to the Women’s March in America, the European refugee crisis to the civil wars in the Middle East and Africa, it continues to be one of the most potent ways to get attention.
Current artist activists
It would take years to list all of the artist activists who do amazing work, so this will be a short list of four artist activists who are changing things, one piece at a time.
Molly Crabapple is an American illustrator, writer, and author whose work chronicling Occupy Wall Street, Guantanamo Bay, and other political and humanitarian issues has cemented her as a strong, rational, intense critic of the inaction or ineptitude of government leaders.
As an illustrator, her work often takes a satirical and ironic tone, showcasing political leaders as puppets on a string or even, as her recent work “Make America Squamous Again” shows, as a monster with its limbs connecting the most powerful leaders together.
She is also an activist, best known for her arrest at Occupy Wall Street, but also for her work in chronicling sex workers and the mistreatment they are subjected to, the European refugee crisis, the Syrian Civil war, and more.
Her body of work, which continues to grow, consists of illustration and long-form articles that discuss both foreign and domestic political policy and activism. She is best known for her work chronicling American politics and the Syrian refugee crisis, although she has also written extensively on Guantanamo Bay, ISIS, and Donald Trump.
Ai Weiwei is the most famous Chinese contemporary artist of his time; he is also a staunch humanitarian activist, which is clear from his noted history with the Chinese government, of which he criticizes for democracy and human rights violations; in 2011, he was held without charges for 81 days at the Beijing Capital International Airport, a move that caused public outcry.
Weiwei’s body of work is long and dates back to at least 2003, with most of his work focusing on politics and humanitarian rights. For the past few years, however, he has worked nearly exclusively on the European Refugee Crisis, a cause he still brings international attention to with public installations that will be showcased in New York City and at the 21st Biennale in Sydney.
Shepard Fairey is a name known in America; he is the founder and owner of OBEY Clothing and is also a contemporary graphic designer and activist. He has been a staunch activist for over a decade, but prior to his step into American politics, was best known for a sticker campaign known as “Andre the Giant Has a Posse.”
The now-famous Hope poster for Barack Obama’s successful 2008 bid for the presidency, it became a landmark piece of art in political activism.
In 2008, he became a household name when he illustrated then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s now-famous “Hope” poster. The move cemented him as a designer for the new political age, and he moved on to design the “Rock the Vote” campaign for the 2008 presidential election.
Fairey has always been open to activism and has worked with several NGOs and political groups, including Human Rights Action Center, ACLU and more. He continues to be active in American politics, including designing some of the artwork for the Women’s March, which took place one day after President Trump took office.
Shirin Neshat was born in Iran in 1957 and soon left to attend school in America; she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1983. In 1990, she returned to her homeland and was met with an Iran that she did not recognise.
Since then, Neshat has worked in the visual and film mediums, with her work focusing on the dichotomy that she sees present from both her time in America and Iran, with a focus on femininity and masculinity as well as the difference between Western and Iranian culture. Her photography series, entitled Women of Allah (1993-97), remains one of her most powerful works.
She is an activist and has often protested against Iranian politics, most notably when she went on a three-day hunger strike in front of the UN Headquarters to protest the 2009 Iranian presidential election. She continues to be active in art activism.
Why are artists great activists?
From a design perspective, artists are great communicators and advocates for a cause. Because many artists-activists that are famous already have a substantial following, like Ai Weiwei or Shepard Fairey, the work they produce gets more attention. It also leads to publications carrying not only their work, but interviews in which they discuss the meaning behind their pieces and why they feel it’s important.
For instance, when Shepard Fairey made the now-famous Hope poster for Barack Obama’s successful 2008 bid for the presidency, it became a landmark piece of art in political activism. Nearly everyone in America — and around the world — know that poster by sight alone. For Americans, it’s a symbol of hope, of change, and the difference that former President Barack Obama made for the country.
Conversely, some artists are activists precisely because their work focuses on a particular issue; Ai Weiwei is a formidable example. His newest project, which will headline the 21st Biennale of Sydney in March 2018, will focus on the European refugee crisis, a cause for which this humanitarian artist has been famous for since his introduction onto the art scene.
Is there a catalyst for change in direction as an artist?
Artists often work on personal projects, projects for commission or even for large companies, but this doesn’t mean that their personal causes have to take a backseat. In fact, many artists become financially independent once they choose to incorporate their activism or advocacy into their work, or use their financial success to bankroll activist projects that change their direction as artists.
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A great example of this is Molly Crabapple, an American illustrator and writer who has freelanced for The Guardian, The Daily Beast, VICE, and Vanity Fair. She is a well-known artist in America, but as she states in this interview from 99U, changes in American politics acted as the catalyst for her move into activism. She states:
“I hadn’t really felt right bringing politics into my work. It felt like a preachy lie if I was very explicit about politics. But then Occupy happened. It felt like a moment where it was incumbent upon people to publicly take sides. So I started doing work about Occupy.”
Other artists, such as Shirin Neshat, have always taken on aspects of activism as part of their body of work, even perhaps without realising it. Neshat’s works focuses on visual mediums such as film and photography to showcase the contrasts that exist between Muslim culture and the West, femininity and masculinity, and bridging the gaps in between.
If you’re not sure how to approach artist-activism, take a deeper look into what you care about. Think about why it matters to you, why it matters to other people, and how you can bring the cause into the public eye.
Neshat has spoken about being an artist in exile, most notably for TED, with inspiring words about her journey from being an artist to becoming an artist known for political and activist takes on subjects that matter in the world. In her TED talk where she discusses her film “Women Without Men,” she says that:
“I made this film because I felt it’s important for it to speak to the Westerners about our history as a country. That all of you seem to remember Iran after the Islamic Revolution. That Iran was once a secular society, and we had democracy, and this democracy was stolen from us by the American government, by the British government.”
How can you use your skills for a cause you care about?
As an artist — whether you’re a writer, singer, painter, sculptor, designer, or photographer — the unique skills you possess can lead you to be vocal about a cause that you care about. There’s no right or wrong way to use your skills for a cause; it’s really a matter of finding the best way for you to get your message across.
If you’re not sure how to approach artist-activism, take a deeper look into what you care about. Think about why it matters to you, why it matters to other people, and how you can bring the cause into the public eye. Think about who your audience would be for the piece: is it a culture? A government? A group of advocates who need a fresh perspective?
And make sure to ask yourself: why should I make this piece? You probably have a good idea of what it is you want to say with your piece as well as what the end result might be, whether that’s a solution, more awareness, or opening a dialogue on an issue.
When you have a clear idea of what the project is, make it. Make it and release it. Don’t worry so much if it’s right or wrong, because art is about expression, it’s not about being absolutely right 100 percent of the time. As Crabapple states in the 99U interview, “The best path is the one you build out of your dysfunction.”
Are there opportunities for artists in the activism space?
There always have been and always will be space for artists in activism. The question is, will an artist fill a void that is already visible in public, or bring a cause to light that hasn’t had much exposure?
Artists by and large make their own space in activism based on what they care about; from Molly Crabapple and her focus on first Occupy Wall Street and now in Syria and American politics to Ai Weiwei focusing on refugee and humanitarian crises, space shows up when an artist is ready to engage in a particular cause.
What does this mean for you? It means that whatever you care about, whatever cause you hold near and dear to your heart, it needs you. It needs your talents and your perspective. It needs a voice.
So if you’re an artist and you want to lend yourself to activism, jump in with both feet. You’ll make mistakes, and sometimes your message will get lost, but taking that leap will help you realise what is critically important to you. And in the end, that’s what being an artist and an activist is: finding what’s important to you and displaying that on a public stage.