For generations, artists have used their craft to call attention to political causes. From AIDS activists in the 1980s, to refugee rights advocates in the present, political art has constituted a powerful social force. But how exactly do activism and art intertwine? How can public installations, from sculptures to guerilla advertising, truly incite change?
Simply put, public art claims and re-shapes the public space it inhabits. It challenges a viewer’s expectations and encourages civic engagement.
But in order to get to this answer, we must first trace the history of political activism. Where did it start? How have artists in the past used art to challenge audiences?
In America, the story begins with an epidemic.
Beginning as early as 1973, a new illness began to appear in the American population. People who had previously seemed young and healthy were contracting rare forms of cancer. The mystery disease acted fast and was almost always fatal.
At first, the cases seemed isolated and unusual. Most doctors and nurses dismissed them as tragic, yet unthreatening to the general population. Rare diseases were bound to strike sometime.
However, within the next decade, this illness– today known as HIV/AIDS–would feed off of ignorance and inaction to spread worldwide, claiming millions of lives.
In the late 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic continued to wrack urban centers, a distinctive pattern emerged. Affecting predominantly gay men (as well as sex workers, Haitian immigrants, and intravenous drug users) politicians and power brokers seemed determined to ignore the epidemic.
Victims were considered dirty or terrifying. Religious groups began to claim that AIDS was a moral illness, cleansing America of social evil. Existing medicine was toxic, funding was bone-dry, and patients faced massive discrimination in healthcare and insurance systems.
Piggybacking off of existing activist groups in New York City, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (more commonly known by its acronym, ACTUP), united to fight the epidemic. Staging massive public protests throughout New York, ACTUP mobilized to shock America into caring about people with AIDS. They lobbied politicians, protested negligent hospitals, and fought for LGBT+ rights in the face of the epidemic. They were active, angry, and loud.
More importantly, they understood PR. In almost all of ACTUP’s protests, image was crucial. Protests like “kiss-ins”, in which same-sex couple proudly displayed affection, openly defied homophobia. A more popular protest was known as the “die-in”, in which protesters laid still in streets, church pews, or city halls to symbolize the bodies of the dead. ACTUP enlisted artists to create flyers, installations, and billboards. Creating one of the most famous activist slogans of all time, SILENCE=DEATH, ACTUP earned a reputation as a deeply creative group.
In each of ACTUP’s protests, there was an effort to reclaim public space. Gay people, who suffered disproportionately from AIDS, had been shoved out of the public life by generations of homophobia. Instead, gay life–and death– was forced to exist in shameful secret.
ACTUP demanded that America see gay people as its citizens, that it care for their needs, and act urgently to save their lives. It knew that in order for this to happen, AIDS and LGBT+ rights had to take up physical space. This formed the foundation for their art projects, and thus the basis of public art activism in the United States. The public aspect was crucial.
This is how we arrive at the modern definition of activist art.
In the words of sociologist Eva Youkhana,
“Creative activism and urban art [are used] to collectively re‐appropriate the urban space and thus articulate urban belonging and citizenship from below.” She furthers that, in cities, “groups and individuals use public space as a laboratory for resistance, creative act, and as a medium for communication…[It is a strategy] for those who are widely excluded [from society]”.
ACTUP understood this, experimenting and demanding their way to social reform. ACTUP protests would accelerate testing for AIDS medicines, change FDA regulations, and provide direct care to patients. Each of these victories was carried by their effective use of slogan, image, and artwork.
Today, new, bold artists have adapted this technique for different social causes. From Chinese-born Ai Wei Wei, whose work has denounced corruption, treatment of refugees and more, to Manuel Oliver, a Parkland-based artist who paints to memorialize his son, killed in the devastating mass shooting, and advocate for gun control.
For all of these artists, some basic trends emerge.
For one, the most effective artworks either encourage interaction or create a new reality.
To explain, a story:
French artist JR quickly went viral after his mural of a young Mexican boy peering over the US-Mexico border wall was posted. Prompting thousands of reactions, this mural acted in direct protest of U.S. President Trump’s proposed “border wall,” and his termination of DACA, an Obama-era program that allowed immigrants, brought to the US as small children, to remain in the country.
It is an excellent example of activist art. Not only is it imposing and visually striking, but the mural transforms an ordinary, desolate border fence–reminiscent of stoic border patrol and a harsh journey for refugees–and infuses it with the life, wonder, and humanity of a child. Simply put, it paints over inhumanity with humanity. This literal alteration of the landscape is what makes JR’s work so innovative. It’s also what makes its message so impactful.
For the viewer, not only does the young boy remind them of the human costs of immigration policy, but the potential to replace desolation with life, cruelty with compassion. It reframes the immigration debate on immigrant’s terms, inviting renewed dedication and a rejection of what is broken. For nearly any viewer, it would inspire one to act.
Even Keith Haring, a famous post-modernist known for his colorful characters and seamless lines, cut his teeth in similar kind of transgression. Using only chalk and a careful lookout, Haring covered New York City subway stations with original graffiti. His drawings championed gay sexuality, bashed Apartheid, and expressed anti-war themes, among others.
Not only was Haring’s style zany, unique, and entirely new to the art scene, but he broke the law while creating it. He took public space back from the MTA and City of New York, bending it to his own political beliefs. This appropriation of public space was what made his work a sensation.
Later, Haring would invest heavily in sculpture, building playgrounds, muraled installations, and other physical pieces. All of them were designed for interaction.
Thus, public art gives marginalized groups a canvas on which to declare their humanity. It challenges power dynamics by occupying public space–a physical expression of society’s conventions–and distorting them. It can expose ugliness or highlight beauty. It is a thoroughly radical way of approaching both art and public life.
But Why is it Effective?
The human body reacts in unique ways to art. Though you can feel the joyful awe of a painting blooming in your chest, or an aching sadness wrap around your heart, we really feel art in our brain. That’s where our mind processes new images, and comes to understand any visual art.
When we see faces, our brains are even more affected than usual. Austrian-American neuroscientist and professor at Columbia University, Eric R. Kander explains:
“Our brain calls on several interacting systems to analyze contours, form a representation of the face and of the body, analyze the body’s motion, experience emotion, and perhaps, empathy. Along with these instantaneous responses, we form a theory of the subject’s state of mind.”
This searching invites empathy, as the viewer studies an artwork in search of human emotion. It also ensures that a viewer is truly impacted by an artwork, as Kander continues.
“The brain’s representation of faces is especially important to the beholder’s response to portraiture. Our brain devotes more space to reading the details of faces than to any other object…Signaling by these cells in the motor areas of the brain can make us perceive the actions of others as if they were our own.”
Thus, murals are a particularly apt way of inviting social change. However, any piece of art invites personal analysis and participation. It’s in our DNA. But must this work always be physical? In today’s digital world, are there other ways to shock viewers, challenging their perceptions and expectations? Of course.
Consider this photo essay, which I made on the editing tool Canva and presented in Google Slides:
In my essay, the fact that the faces (altered and unaltered) are digital makes no difference to the brain. Rather, the photos still bear the same impact on the viewer a mural might have. The art remains public, though it is not physical.
Activist art has a long and storied history. Pioneered by AIDS activists in the 1980s, public, interactive works are especially effective at impacting viewers. They can be used to incite change, re-frame narratives, or simply invite empathy. By triggering a search for self-reflection in the brain, portraiture is even more powerful at driving a social or political message home. In short, radical, public design is an important tool for activists everywhere. It’s a new way of approaching urban space, community, and the purposes of art. It makes the radical beautiful.
Find an Installation Near You
Ready to check out some activist art on your own? First, keep your eyes peeled to the local paper, as well as social media. Some new graffiti, posters, or exhibitions could pop up any day. Artists will often publicize their work online, or send press releases for larger works.
Make Your Own
Want to create your own activist artwork? Use this checklist to get started:
- Figure out your message. (What issue do you care about? How can that issue be represented in an unexpected way? What outcome or change in perspective do you what to achieve? How can you break boundaries?)
- Select a location. (City hall? A local business? A sidewalk? Public park? It’s all up to you. Think about how many people you will reach, and how the piece will be perceived by passerby and news media.)
- Prepare for Consequences. (Try to get permission for your display. Most city ordinances are available online. Check out the rules for public displays or blocking of sidewalks. If you decide to violate any rules, make sure you have a friend or close family member to rely on, and some bail money. )
- Gather materials. (Whether found items, paint, sculpture, or something else, buy, borrow, or collect everything you need.)
- Assemble! (Put your piece together, and place it in the correct location.)
- Display. (See how the public reacts to your piece, and encourage action responses. Talk to local media about your piece and promote it online. Talk about your desired outcome, and see that it gets done.)