Envisioning a Better Tomorrow: The History of Art Activism

Explore the history of art activism and why it’s important that brands consider their approach to activism through art.

Art has power. Impactful art has the power to do more than just grab the audience’s attention. It can send global messages of statement and solidarity, resonating with people around the world. The intersection of art and activism has always existed, through protest art to shared messages of hope through graffiti and street art.

In today’s article, we’re taking a look at what art activism is and why using art for activism is so important in today’s swiftly changing and challenging world.

Motivational Illustrations and Typography
Motivational illustrations and typography is one type of art activism. Image by julymilks.

What Is Art Activism?

Activism is the challenge of changing power relations. There are countless ways of engaging in activism and being an activist, but the goal of activism is action in order to create an effect.

Art, on the other hand, is quite broad. It’s hard to describe art as it can take on so many physical and emotional forms. But, the goal of art has always been to evoke a certain meaning or feeling by the viewer or participant. Therefore, art activism combines the creative skills of the arts to emotionally connect us to a form of activism where the goal is some sort of social change. 

Black Lives Matter Symbol
The symbolic power of unity is a message often seen through art activism. Image by Jacob Lund.

A Brief History of Art Activism 

Campaigns around the world, such as the #ClimateStrike movement by Greta Thunberg and the #BlackLivesMatter movement following the death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, sparked international cries via social media and web platforms. There, people around the world shared messages of support and solidarity for these global movements and world events. However, art activism has existed for generations. The following are a few examples of past art activism events and artists in history. 

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica: 1937

Guernica is considered to be one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history. The painting is monochrome in gray, black, and white, portraying the suffering of people and animals in the face of the violent Nazi bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in Northern Spain. It’s a powerful political statement, painted as an immediate reaction to the devastating bombing. 

Picasso's Anti-War Painting Guernica
A tiled wall in Guernica reminds visitors of the bombing during the Spanish Civil War. Editorial image by tichr.

Bernie Boston’s Flower Power: 1967

Taken on October 21, 1967, the photo shows a Vietnam War protestor, George Harris, placing a carnation into the barrel of an M14 rifle held by a soldier. The image was nominated for a 1967 Pulitzer Prize. The Flower Power movement began in Berkeley, California, promoting the use of flowers and other nonviolent objects—such as toys, flags, candy, and music—to show that the movement was not associated with anger or violence. Banksy’s Love Is In The Air (2003) is said to have been considered a contemporary update on this classic photo. 

Guerilla Girls: 1985

Throughout history, the most effective social movements have combined the arts with campaigns for social change and justice. Protest art is one of the more popular forms of art activism. In 1985, Guerilla Girls was formed, which is an anonymous group of feminists and artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world. Their mission? To bring a focus on gender and racial inequality. 

Keith Haring’s Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death: 1989

Reputable street artist Keith Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, spurring his support for the global health crisis. He created the poster with the goal to give voice to those who felt silenced during the AIDS crisis. He took back the use of the pink triangle that had been reappropriated by the LGBTQ+ community, after its prior use in the Holocaust as a way to identify homosexual people. 

Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds: 2010

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and curator, whose art is influenced by the desire to provoke through activism. He’s extremely critical of human rights violations, addressing issues including China’s corruption and the refugee crisis. His installation Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern features 100 million porcelain sculptures of sunflower seeds, portraying the subjugation of Chinese workers to extreme consumerism. 

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds Installation
Ai Weiwei’s seminal artwork Sunflower Seeds at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. Editorial image by Lerner Wadim.

Why Contemporary Art Activism Is Important 

The political world is a cultural world. And, there’s plenty of space for artists to make their mark. Art is no longer limited to museums and galleries. It’s all around us. Activism is no longer simply outside parliament. It’s online, it’s shared on our phones. The ability to share art and activism digitally means that it’s safer and more familiar for brands, audiences, and artists to have a public voice and opinion in this space.

Black Lives Matter Memorial in Hollywood
Black Lives Matter is painted on Hollywood Boulevard near the Walk of Fame in honor of black LGBTQ+ people that have been killed by the police. Editorial image by Footage Force.

Today’s art activism is approachable and shareable. Artistic activism, whether it be a typography slogan, illustration, or powerful photograph, can be shared around the world. People can connect to art and a movement easier than ever before. You don’t need to be on the ground to be active participants in the world activism stage. You can simply share (or create) an image. 

Last year was arguably the year for global activism, and for people and brands to make a stand. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a global movement of solidarity for #BlackLivesMatter, and Greta Thunberg’s call for climate action—there was a lot to keep brands busy. 

Consider Policies
Brands need to consider their policies before jumping on the bandwagon, such as the connection between climate activism and sustainable fashion. Illustrations by venimo.

According to the organization Activist Brands, brand activism is when a business makes an effort to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental reform with the desire to promote or prevent improvements in society.

There’s an incredible power to having a voice and sharing it with your audience. It builds connection and honest relationships with the people interested in your brand. However, it’s key to avoid performance activism, which can be difficult for brands.

What Is Performance Activism?

Performance activism is done to increase one’s social capital, rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause. This is not a positive way for a brand to engage in art activism—posting a photograph of support simply because it’s trending. Instead, brands need to consider how committed they are to being active allies for the causes and movements they pledge to support. 

Performance Activism
Before you show your support, make sure you aren’t being a performance activist. Illustration by Mikhail Gnatuyk.

Here are a few quick tips to consider before you decide what causes you want your brand or business to support.

Evaluate Internal Policies 

Before you can preach to your followers, you need to back up what you say. Look at your policies and ensure your values align with what you’re supporting on the public stage. Evaluate what you’ve done in the past that could come to light if you pledge public support. Are you prepared to own the past publicly? 

Define Set Goals

What’s the purpose of your support? What do you want to achieve? How do you want your audience and your employees to feel? Pick a few defined goals to get started and build credibility through activism and your brand. 

Research the Movements You Want to Support

Next, bring the right people to the table. Want to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement? Make sure you have Black voices and Black-led education to support your brand goals. This goes beyond a simple Google search. It’s about learning the history, reasoning, and goals of the movement you align with so that you can support the movement as authentically as possible. 

Track (and Share) Your Progress

As you continue to develop your brand to be better activists, and sharing art activism pieces through your brand, show your results. Your audience will want to see how you’re being active participants in activism, and that you’re practicing what you preach. Being vulnerable means you’re doing the work. 

Discover the Protest Art Curated Collection

Voices around the world are calling for equality. How are you answering the call? We’ve put together a collection of our favorite visuals for protest art. Shop the full collection here

Protest Art Curated Collection

Top editorial image by Jacquie Klose.

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