Art as activism

Hello, Internet, today is Wednesday, July 23rd, and my parents have recently been to visit.

I mention this because a) I like my parents and it is always nice to have them in Newfoundland; and b) because my father and I had a pretty animated conversation about the connection between art and politics while he was here.

FTR, we were here during this conversation. Not bad, eh?

By the by, this is where we were during this conversation. Not bad, eh?

It all started because I mentioned this artist in Japan who turned her vagina into a kayak with a 3D printer and has been arrested for obscenity. I think this woman is kind of a genius, and I think that arresting her was possibly the least effective way to silence her work about gender-equality… because now, she’s internationally known, and internationally supported. If her goal was to get people thinking differently about female genitalia and the taboo that her society places on it, then she has succeeded tenfold.

Anyway, during this conversation, my father said something like “art has only taken on a political bent in the past century or so” and my brain exploded.

I pointed to Dickens’ take on the industrial revolution’s effect on the poorest classes in the 19th century. I referred to Aristophanes’ commentary on gender relations in Lysistrata (411 BC). There are hundreds of examples of political activism and satire in literature, theatre, and storytelling. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest ProposalOne Thousand and One Nights. Gilbert & Sullivan.

Dad clarified that he’d been thinking mostly about visual art, and I admit that my art history is a bit rusty, so I couldn’t think of many specific examples at the time. But now, with the benefit of the internet, I give you:

Activism in Artwork before 1914 (3 examples)

There is evidence of satirical art as early as Ancient Egypt; The Satire of the Trades was written sometime between 2025 and 1700 BCE. It’s a satirical text, heavily illustrated, about why being a scribe is the best job going… mostly because every other job is freaking awful.

The metal workers, who smell worse than fish eggs

The metal workers, who smell worse than fish eggs

Graffiti – always a subversive art form – has been around since at least Ancient Greece, and they’ve found pre-common-era examples of it in Ephesus, Egypt, and throughout the Roman Empire. The eruption of Vesuvius coated Pompeii in ash, preserving the kind of street art that would often be lost. Here’s a caricature of a “non-citizen” from the walls there, circa 79 CE:

Check out that nose!

Check out that nose!

And, of course, for as long as there have been pamphlets and journals, there have been editorial cartoons. Here is one from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754:

Well, that's pretty clear, innit?

Well, that’s pretty clear, innit?

To tip my hat to my father, it’s certainly true that visual art has taken a noticeable bent towards activism in the last century.

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"

Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”

Dadaism was a pretty clear movement in that direction. The Young British Artists popped up in the 1980s. Artists like Banksy have elevated graffiti to an acknowledged art form, and the East Side Gallery in Berlin contains some of the most touching representations of our changing world that I’ve ever seen in person.

But I firmly believe that as long as any art form has existed, there have been artists who use it to shine a light on the problems in their society. Because the point of art is to reach out across those invisible barriers to touch other people’s thoughts and feelings.

Art, in all its forms, strives to effect a reaction in its audience, even if that reaction is something as simple as “oh, that’s pretty.” Artists seek to communicate something to someone else, to elicit an intellectual or emotional response to whatever is happening in the piece. Good art can make people feel things they wouldn’t otherwise feel, or think about something in a way they wouldn’t otherwise think.

Artists are, therefore, in a position to work towards political and societal goals alongside activist movements.

When, last week, Dad asked me what the connection was between art and activism, I told him that he had just asked me what the connection was between a hammer and a wooden bench. You don’t need a hammer to make a bench – you could put it together with bolts instead – and a hammer can do all kinds of things that don’t involve bench-building. But a hammer is a tool that can be used to build a bench.

And art is a tool that can be used to change the world.