[ mediums for activism ]

Visual arts


"Activist artists have created a cultural form that adapts and activates elements of each of these critical aesthetic practices, uniting them organically with elements of activism and community organising"
(Felshin, 1995: 26)

So when does art become activist? Is it the intention or the effect? Is it the theme, topic, ideas it promotes?

Visual arts have many roles and impacts. Some artists possess an intention and/or vision to transform the world through their art. Art is a medium that can educate, raise awareness, connect people-places, shock, transform, inspire and empower people to act upon issues of personal, local and/or global concern. This can be achieved in myriad ways ranging from aesthetic, cultural, emotional, explorative, moral, political, sensual, spiritual, therapeutic artistic means and many more that fall outside words.

Indeed activism is a broad area and think that what I want to focus on here is the intention behind the action and personal visions. Whether or not this intention-vision-product spurs others (the audience) to be active I will address later. The role I wish to focus on here is visual art that is created for the purpose of raising awareness on a particular issue, challenging people to consider problems and solutions, challenges conventional thought and practice, seeks to transform minds and/or hopes to motivate people to change their perspective/practice.

There are many artists who use visual art as a medium for being an activist in the world. Their art can be seen as their performance in the social arena, an expression, an affirmation, a commitment, a seed that may grow.

The Impact of Art

Art can be a powerful medium for making visual statements that can have more of an impact than words can. Despite the artist's intention, how their message/perspective is received can be phenomenally varied. David Best (1996) explores this notion of the 'artistic experience' (interaction/interplay between art and observer) and how it can be incredibly varied in character (Best, 1996: 42). Best (1996: 42) argues that many art works contain intellectual, educational, metaphysical, emotive layers despite critiques that art works are devoid of this. In conducting a small research project, he revealed different responses that people had with art throughout their lives. His results revealed aspects about art that allow it to be so enticing to observers - in that it can have so many layers and flavours, thus, creating great opportunities to have an impact on those engaged.

Think about art works you have seen. What impact did they have on you? What do you think that their (artist/art) intentions were? Did the piece fulfil its intention?

"Until the artists look at the audience they want to address, how are they ever going to address it? Until you spend time getting to know the audience and figuring out what are the concerns on the audience's mind, you are creating something that is solipsistic and useless"
(Townsend, 1991: online)

Indeed, impacts are difficult to measure. Should effectiveness be measured in terms of whether they stimulate dialogue, raise awareness, inspire, and/or prompt action? Are these things that can be quantified/qualified? If these results are tentatively the stepping stones to 'success' in the process of change, or change within themselves, then the artists and product have yielded the desired results. An interesting point raised by Felshin (1999) is the necessity in entwining the relevance of the work with the local community. In her own words "it is critical for activist artists to to establish relationships and mechanisms within the community of their projects to help ensure the long-term impact of their work" (Felshin, 1999: 26). Felshin (1999) raises a crucial point here that is applicable to improving the success of most mediums of social performance; what sparks engagement? I feel, for example, that this linking process (such as relationship building with the local community) can be diverse in approach/action and can add incredible potency to the deliverance of the message. Thus, the more personally deeply engaged a person is with the art, the higher chance it can have an impact.

"The artist's job is not to reject the society, but to engage it."
(Townsend, 1991: online)

There are a huge variety of visual art mediums that can be used for activist intentions, visions, purposes. I would like to explore many of these here. Click any of the following mediums to explore how these visual arts are used as mediums for activism/performance.