Updated: Mar 12
At the heart of activism is emotion. Activism needs us to be passionate about the changes we want to make in the world. An activist’s work is to persuade and pull at the emotions of their audience and one of the most powerful tools to achieve this is art.
Art within the sphere of activism is often more diverse, approachable, and engaging than traditional forms. It is protest art that incites people to engage, share, repost, and critically discuss. So can activist art be defined? And what makes a piece of art activist?
We can begin by saying art has a variety of roles within activism: sometimes it is the protest, sometimes it informs the protest, and sometimes it is a tool used in protest as a supplement to the activist’s work.
Artists such as Joyce Wieland are a powerful Canadian example of protest art in the 20th century with her work condemning U.S involvement in the Vietnam war. More modern works like Kent Monkman’s The Scream and Christi Belcourt’s Walking with Our Sisters are a commentary on the realities of the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada. Both new and old works of art are indicative of citizens attempting to create dialogue on societal issues that need to be fixed.
One identifying piece of activist art is that it is accessible to those who do not traditionally have a place in governance, leadership positions, or educational opportunities. It also has the defining feature of pushing artistic boundaries. A powerful characteristic of art in activism is that it happens outside the gallery and fosters a very different relationship with its audience. This type of art has found a place in public spaces and grown to encroach on all facets of a community. It is displayed on buildings, sidewalks, homes and schools. It can occupy political spaces and it can take the shape of anything: billboards, posters, advertising, newspaper inserts and more.
Overall, art within the world of activism strives to make us feel like we have the capacity to inspire change. It creates a space for those who are oppressed, disenfranchised, or marginalized to object to their treatment and to begin long-awaited dialogues.
At the heart of activism is emotion. Activism needs us to eye about the changes we want to make in our world. An activist’s work is to persuade and pull at the emotions of their audience and one of the most powerful tools to achieve this is art.
By Mehera Salah