Art as Activism: Radical Beauty

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.

Enter ACTUP. 

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:

JR’s untitled mural, under construction as two border patrol officers look on.

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Second, check out Creative Resistance’s list of art sites, or search for a nearby museum with Great Museum’s searchable database.

Make Your Own

Want to create your own activist artwork? Use this checklist to get started:

  1. 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?)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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. )
  4. Gather materials. (Whether found items, paint, sculpture, or something else, buy, borrow, or collect everything you need.)
  5. Assemble! (Put your piece together, and place it in the correct location.)
  6. 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.)
Share this project
  1. April 26, 2018 by Grace.Arribas

    Hannah, Hey!! This project is absolutely brilliant. I am obsessed with this idea and I learned so much about how art can be a form of activism. I was unaware of the effect that art has on the receptors in our brain and your project just exhumed that ideal for me. I am very interested in art and I believe that it can truly change the world through dedication and perseverance. You did a wonderful job invoking emotion, raising awareness, creating a sense of empathy and many other core values of GOA. Much love, Grace Arribas

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Hi Grace! Thank you so so much for your great feedback!! I’m so happy that the project resonated with you. I totally agree that art can have an impact on our world, and I’m happy to hear that my project conveyed that. Thanks once again!

  2. April 26, 2018 by Eric Hudson

    I really appreciate the passion you bring to this topic: your voice comes through loud and clear in a way that has motivated me to learn more about public art.

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Thank you very much!

  3. April 27, 2018 by lkruse18

    WOOOW! This is a very cool project! As an artist myself, I especially understand the gut, emotional feeling that somewhat washes over you when a piece of art really speaks to you, similar to a meditation. I really enjoyed how the activism was brought to life through art, it makes the movement or pressing issue all the more engaging. My question for you is what made you alter your images in your photo essay? Thanks! – Lizzie

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Hi Lizzie! Thank you so much!! I’m glad that the project rang true for someone who creates art themselves.

      The idea to alter the images in my photo essay came to me somewhat spontaneously. I was looking through the pictures I had taken from the March for Our Lives, and was reminded of both how vulnerable and inspired I had felt while attending. Most of those emotions came from being a young person, organizing and marching with other young people. I had talked other attendees and knew it was a common theme. knew I wanted to do something to make that fear visible, in a way that was disturbing. Thus, I chose to block out people’s eyes with red lines.

  4. April 27, 2018 by Jo Ann Chai

    This project is so interesting! It really drew me in from the start. Would you plan on doing one in the future?

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Hi Jo Ann! I’m so glad you enjoyed the project. I would absolutely plan on making a public art installation in the future. The prospect is a little intimidating, and I would want to really workshop my message beforehand. But I have no doubt that it’s a project I would find meaningful. One idea I did have, as I’ve become more involved in the anti-gun violence movement, was actually used in front of the White House this year. (I was not at all involved though!) . You can see a picture of it here:

      Thanks once again!

  5. April 27, 2018 by Sydney.Medford

    I really enjoyed learning more about the intersectionality between the art world and activism. Great project!

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Thanks Sydney!

  6. April 28, 2018 by Isabella.Flerlage

    This is such an amazing project! I really like how you took two very different movements from years ago, to the art expressed today. Your presentation was super factual, and also really great to look at because it raises awareness of what is going on in 2018. You brought up some great points that I was not aware of before, and I didn’t realize that art and activism tied this closely. My question for you is how do you think art is going to change in the future with advances in technology and with the ways we go about speaking out in 2018?

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Hi Isabella! Thank you so much for your feedback. I love art history, and so I wanted to include some historical examples in my project.

      Personally, I feel like advertising and artistic presence on social media is going to become more and more important to advocates. I think we’ll see non-profits and movements, like #TimesUp or even NGOs, sponsoring ads on Instagram and Facebook. Graphic design will be crucial to drawing attention to groups’ activities and keeping them in the public eye.

      In terms of public, radical art (like the exhibits in my project) I think that physical installations will always have more impact. But I do think that the importance of those exhibits will accelerate as society and conversations continue to live online. It will shock us more.

  7. April 29, 2018 by Ali M

    This page is amazing! I’ve always been interested in public displays of art, from murals to physical installations. You did a great job creating a linear flow throughout your page. As I was reading, I kept thinking of Manuel Oliver. I’m really glad you mentioned him at the end of your project. Great work!

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Thanks so much!

  8. April 29, 2018 by Rio.Townsend

    This is such an amazing project, Hannah! The pictures and examples you chose really fit in well and escalated the impact your project had on your audience! I really liked how you added the instructions on how to “make your own” installation. Nice touch!

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Thanks so much Rio!

  9. April 29, 2018 by Ian Covel

    This project is really well thought out and even more expertly executed. Your additional media, like the slides and images, are an integral part of the page, and really help create a dialogue and draw the reader into the topic. Excellent job!

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Thank you very much Ian! I’m glad you enjoyed the media.

  10. May 01, 2018 by Hyunsuh.Kim

    This project and intriguing and important. I also liked the ample examples that you provided. I’ll share this with my art teacher!

    • May 01, 2018 by Hannah Siegel

      Thanks so much Hyunsuh! I’m so flattered that you’re showing it to your teacher. I hope they enjoy!

  11. May 05, 2018 by Kelsey.Watkins

    amazing presentation!! I am seriously inspired by the effort and thoughtfulness you put into this project. Art is a great medium to use when trying to educate people and raise awareness and I definitely think you were able to capture the power!

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