The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines art as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings,” and activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” Yet, the conception of art activism, art in action, or art as a mechanism for social change is much more fluid.
What is art activism? And what does this term mean to a diverse group of individuals creating activist art? The eight students working with Ross Knight to produce a series of photographs for the community refugee farming initiative, Global Growers, had many different perspectives on art, activism, and the mobilization of social action through art.
Rebecca Upton said “Art is made to make a statement. Whether that be a statement on social justice or just a statement on what is beautiful is up to both the viewer and the creator. It is fluid.” This understanding of art was shared by most members of the Global Growers Project. They argued that art is a flexible expression of emotion that encourages people to view the world in a new light. After speaking to Knight and the Emory Global Gowers team, I concluded that to them, in many ways, all art is activist art. Art gives people an alternative picture of reality and of the truth; thereby, making people question the world around them.
But, if art is inherently a medium for change, what makes art activism or protest art unique? Knight argued that “Art activism is a means of getting a community engaged and involved through dynamic imagery.” Does that mean that communal action transforms advocacy art into activist art, or is all art activist art?
The answer to this question was contended among various Emory students. While some, like Sarah Loftus argued that “Art activism is art that incites and inspires people to support progression. It doesn’t even have to incite direct action, even a change in the viewers’ mindset is a good step forward in any activism.” Others argued that art activism implies action and the use of art as an instrument to evoke active change.
Regardless of the art activism definition individual students assumed, there was a collective agreement that art is an aspect of human existence that is inseparable from our religious, political, and social lives. It is expressed in a multitude of ways and influences how we see ourselves, our communities, and those different from us. Art actively influences our worldview and exposure to new art can transform our perceptions of the world. In this way, art acts as a mechanism for change by conveying new and alternative understandings of humanity.
Author: Aspen Ono