The Art of Activism

All across New York City, on the walls of buildings and the sides of subway trains, there is graffiti — garish, sometimes illegible block letters, spray-painted art and hurriedly stenciled figures. The “art” has long been controversial among city officials because marking property without the owner’s consent is a punishable crime. But graffiti artists say that’s the point — form and function are deliberately connected. Activist artist and Center for Artistic Activism co-founder Steve Lambert said graffiti can be a useful tool for personal expression and the promulgation of stimulation of anticonsumerism, which opposes mass consumption and materialism.
“Just having advertising all over public space shows that if you want to put things out in the world, you need to be a wealthy company,” Lambert said. “Graffiti is really amazing [since] it goes against that, but if you do [it] you’re seen as a criminal.”
Examples of graffiti date back to Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. It was evident again at the beginning of the 20th century in the U.S. and on New York subway trains in the 1960s and ‘70s. In 1977, the pithy sayings and short, poetic phrases of the elusive SAMO© — which stands for “Same Old S—” — sprouted up all over Manhattan, instantly sparking interest in his identity and message.
By creating public art that fueled discussion, SAMO© enabled artists to make social commentary. In early 1980, the identity of SAMO© was revealed as the team of young black artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz. Basquiat’s later works were some of the clearest forms of protest against racism during the 1980s. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Associate Curator Jill Dawsey said activist art like this “inserts itself into public discourse, beyond the official conduits and institutions of the art world.”
“The most successful artists are the ones who pose questions and stir up debate,” Dawsey said. “Then we can arrive at our own conclusions.”
In response to the subsequent death of black graffiti artist Michael Stewart after a brutal police arrest in 1983, Basquiat painted “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” which shows two white police officers beating down on a black mass that resembles Stewart. Another work, titled “Hollywood Africans,” uses words and images to refer to the limited roles available to African-American actors in the 1940s, such as those of gangsters or laborers.
Basquiat’s art, in a crude, visceral sort of way, managed to exacerbate society’s already divided feelings regarding police brutality and racism, and sparked questions over what was considered morally correct.
While Basquiat was fortunate enough to paint and display his works freely, modern-day Chinese conceptual artist and social criticist Ai Weiwei cannot, having been beaten by police in 2009 for trying to testify about shoddy construction in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, Ai was arrested without any official charges and detained, his whereabouts unknown, for 81 days.
According to The Economist, Ai regularly creates works that expose the Chinese government’s corruption, oppression and desire for economic expansion. Ai paints, drops, grinds or slaps logos onto authentic Neolithic or Tang Dynasty urns; his use of vases is a commentary on the destruction of cultural values under Chairman Mao from 1966-1976, and the erosion and eradication of Chinese culture that continues today under the cover of economic progress.
Although Basquiat worked primarily in paint, and Ai uses ready-made and other eccentric materials, Dawsey said “the best artists are the ones that find the medium that best speaks to them and best expresses their ideas.”
“Some artists have chosen not to use paintings, for example, but instead to work with prints or video so their work can be endlessly reproduced,” Dawsey said. “[Art then becomes] more democratic. It’s not so precious, and it’s not a singular object anymore, but rather, an idea that can be spread.”
Dawsey cites feminist artist Barbara Kruger’s photographic silkscreen “Untitled (your body is a battleground)” as an example of this idea. The piece was specifically used for the progression of women’s reproductive rights in the 1989 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C.
“Kruger used an image of a woman that looked like it might have come from a fashion magazine, and turned it against itself,” Dawsey said. “Kruger split the image so that half of it appears as a photographic negative and inserted ‘your body is a battleground’ [across the image], suggesting the body is a site of conflict.”
Performance art came about for precisely the opposite reason. In the 1970s, artists began to produce art in the form of original, not reproducible performance to make a statement about the democracy of art. Rather than their art being available only to the wealthy elite who could afford to buy it and keep it, as Basquiat’s art was after he became famous, performance art could not be bought or owned. Performance artists aimed to make art in a public forum, eliminating the need for galleries, brokers and agents — all the trappings of capitalism.
After they both studied efficacy at the intersection of art and activism, Lambert and New York University Associate Professor of Media and Politics Stephen Duncombe founded the Center for Artistic Activism in 2007. Duncombe believes art is “uniquely situated to change people’s perspective of the world.”
“We don’t usually change our minds because we’ve read a policy paper or signed a petition; we change our minds because we have had some sort of emotional experience, something that triggers us to look at the world and see what needs to be changed,” Duncombe said. “[When you read a sign at a protest], you either agree or disagree with it, but you don’t change your mind. Art is an image about perception and it allows the viewer to answer for himself, which is always more powerful than telling him what to do.”
Defying the definitions of what activist “art” has to be, author, performer and founding Director of CAA West Coast L.M. Bogad writes plays that remind society of controversial events that have been “buried by history.” In one work, “Santiago 9/11,” Bogad uses dark humor to comment on the United States’ involvement in the September 11, 1973 Chilean coup d’état, which took the lives of many Chilean citizens.
“Plays can be very powerful as a form of activism,” Bogad said. “You’re looking at people perform in the moment, you’re sharing the same air and same space. The immediacy of plays makes people … confront the issue and open their minds.”
Having worked with activist groups and artists such as the Yes Men and La Pocha Nostra, Bogad said “being right is not good enough.”
“Showing the same image over and over again of someone being crushed or oppressed will not cause change,” Bogad said. “I try to make the familiar strange, I try to hit people with a fresh and surprising approach [to a particular social problem in my plays] so people see it from a new perspective and realize it is intolerable.”
Activism in art, however, does not always resonate with political corruption or controversy. Local contemporary abstract artist Walter Redondo views his work as a form of activism because it speaks to one’s personal choices.
“I think of allowing the paint to be what it is, whether I am moving it around with a palette knife or letting the colors mesh together freely and sometimes drip,” Redondo said. “Just as I let the paint act naturally, I think we should accept what our lives are and simply allow life to be, not actively manipulate or try to control it for what we want [it to be]. In the end, my paintings turn out fine, which is a reminder that our lives will too.”
Both Dawsey and Lambert do not believe activism is strictly limited to adults or “professionals” by any means. For the past three years, Megan Lenehan (12) has produced art to accompany the school newspaper’s opinion pieces and likens her work to satirical political cartoons. Lenehan works in all mediums, but uses pen and ink to create drawings with exaggerated, irregular proportions.
“I never went into [drawing for the school newspaper] thinking, ‘I’m going to flip this school on its head,’” Lenehan said. “I just thought it was a cool idea that I could draw and have it be published. I really like the social issue stories; I instantly have an idea of what I want to do.”
On the other hand, Emma Hager (12) proves through her blog, Madame Couture, that canvases and paint are not always necessary to create “art with a purpose.” Hager occasionally discusses social issues on her blog, sometimes melding social opinion into her posts about fashion. In a post from June 2013, Hager wrote about Brown University student Clara Beyer’s “FeministTaylorSwift” Twitter account, which parodies the needy lyrics of Swift’s songs and the way men and women are portrayed in pop culture. Hager also views fashion as an art form that instigates discussion about whether the standards of beauty are really founded. Hager made a point about unconventional and thought-provoking fashion by writing about the release of Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garcons’ “Body Meet Dress, Dress Meet Body” collection in 1997.
“The collection was later nicknamed ‘Lumps and Bumps’ because Kawakubo had made dresses with fabric that stuck out like tumors,” Hager said. “She proved that standards of beauty are ridiculous and should not be set in stone; she really promoted the breakage of societal norms.”
Art, Hager believes, is a more efficient and successful platform for social expression, as opposed to conventional modes of protest.
“If we feel a cause for something we can always join a protest, but when we create something artistic that delves much deeper into one’s personal psyche, it becomes more taxing and introspective, for both the creator and the viewer,” Hager said.
Art hanging in museums may seem ineffective in instigating any change, but a piece’s underlying tones and ideas can connect viewers on a deeper, more personal level. The news reports the incident, but art asks us what we think about the issue, and whether or not we should let it continue.