Attempting to inform people about a cause unknown to them can often turn the fighting activist into a pessimist, and constantly brainstorming new and unique ways to reach the public can easily burn a person out. Yet there are those who continue to fight. They work hard to prove that if people know what is happening in the world, they might do something about it.
But is this really true? If the homeless man sitting outside Urban Outfitters asks pedestrians for spare change, a passerby might reach into his pocket. But if a protest were held to fight the poverty putting that same man in his situation, would that same passerby contribute his efforts? Probably not. This dilemma leads activists to the task of discovering a medium that creates mass movement and action.
Author Claire Peeps defines the work of an activist as “the building of social capital — the grassroots networks that enable people to move information and ideas to a broader audience, and ultimately to make change happen.” One medium powerfully conveying ideas to the masses is art, in all forms.
Public displays of art speak to individuals because they evoke people’s empathy. Everyone has at least one significant song, book, movie or painting that holds significance in his or her life. The arts have the power to ignite emotions that often remain untapped. This is exactly why the merging of art and activism lends itself to sparking interest in those who were previously uninvolved.
Activist art requires a different mindset than that of a typical artist. Normally, a work of art is praised for its originality, but when working to create a movement, the art needs to be repeatable. Replication allows numerous activists to bring effective artistic demonstrations to all those fighting for the same cause. Activist art also requires the artist to create with a context in mind, considering not only the content but also the audience, time and location. While all art aims to provoke thought, activists need to take it one step further. The art needs to provoke action.
By its nature, art permits the audience a certain amount of subjectivity. Therefore, activist art defines a space for critical thinking without making the public feel like ideas are being forced upon it. Art is a personal experience, and when linked to activism, it subconsciously connects the addressed issues to the public on an intimate level.
Numerous student and public organizations incorporate activist art into their stands against injustice. Walking through the Diag often brings these issues and movements upon Michigan students. Whether it is a cry for environmental equality, a fight against domestic violence or the recent anti-war demonstrations by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, this university is a hot spring for change.
Bearing endless methods with which to fight, art may not always be in the forefront. But one person in particular has taken on the role of furthering art as a means of activism on this campus. Carol Jacobsen, a professor in the School of Art and Design and the women’s studies program and an award-winning social documentarian, teaches a class encouraging students to use their artistic passions in connection with the Michigan Battered Women’s Clemency Project to battle the injustices faced by women in the Michigan prison system. Students from the class will plan and execute multiple installations, posters and performance pieces for an upcoming rally for their cause on Oct. 3 in Lansing.
Art is so often overlooked, yet its powerful effects as a means of expression and communication speak for themselves. But who speaks for those who can’t be heard? French novelist and activist, Emile Zola, said, “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” Activist art brings artists and those who are invisible together; it keeps alive the hope that if you knew, you would do something about it.