Art in a World of Social Change

Updated: Jan 15

The term “social movement” can be defined as a group of organized people or organizations working toward a common goal relating to social change in human society. In history class, we’ve all learned about various social movements that changed our world. Many universities even offer courses dedicated to learning about one singular movement. But social movements are not simply a historical concept. Few Americans are unaware of the Black Lives Matter movement that is growing rapidly in our country today. Most people today know what you mean if you reference the #MeToo movement. So what does this have to do with art?

Art has often been used to make statements and speak out about injustice without using actual words. It is not to say that all art is used for this purpose; a picture of a flower may be just a picture of a flower. However, some art openly makes political statements, while other artists rely on hidden meanings. Regardless of the boldness of the artwork, there is no doubt that art has played a crucial role in all major movements of history.

The Civil Rights movement was an effort by African Americans in the mid 1900s to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the law. This remains one of the most inspiring movements in American history due to its nonviolent approach and its many legal and social successes. An art medium that was instrumental throughout the Civil Rights movement was photography. It is often said that a picture says a thousand words and this can certainly be applied to this movement. Photos were able to capture the blatant injustices in the American system and the brutality with which police repeatedly attacked peaceful protestors. The publication of these photographs aided the movement and encouraged many northern whites to join. One especially famous photograph is Will Count’s “Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine”. This photo represents the tremendous battle that African Americans faced when trying to integrate schools and public places. There is a lot that this photograph cannot say, but it can show the rage, fear, hate and, most importantly, inspiring bravery of this time period. Today, 60 years later, works of art are still being created to remember this era of social change. One recent work that details the Civil Rights movement is Joe Minter’s “Children in Jail” (2013).

The Women’s Suffrage movement in the early 1900s was organized by women who wanted the right to vote and be equal to men in society. Art was instrumental in shaping this movement in the form of political cartoons, banners and posters that aimed to recruit others to the cause. Furthermore, these images depicted how unbalanced power was between men and women and that the idea of American democracy only applied to men. Women’s Suffrage posters attempted to change suffragette stereotypes and depict women as strong and capable. One famous image from this movement is a poster by Duncan Grant in 1909. This poster was created in an effort to align women with the working class to engage more people in the cause. Over time, posters depicted suffragettes as younger and more active, representing a new generation of women and a new generation of change. One artist, Nina Allender, was particularly instrumental in creating this new image of a suffragette.

More recently, the Gay Rights movement has also resulted in significant and necessary social change. This movement originated in the 1920s but stagnated until the 1960s when it was reinvigorated. Although same-sex marriage has been legalized in the United States, this movement is far from over. We have come a long way but there is still a ways to go, especially in the sector of transgender rights. This movement has always been closely linked to the art world as many artists have come out to be gay or bisexual and have created queer art. One amazing artist that has painted gentle images of gay love since the mid 1900s is David Hockney. This is demonstrated in his famous painting “We Two Boys Together Clinging”. Transgender artists are also changing the landscape of contemporary art. Cassils’ bold works highlight the body as “a form of social sculpture”. These artists have been integral in pushing the movement forward and attracting attention through statement art.

Modern social movements continue to be heavily influenced by art, especially due to the digitization of art and the widespread use of social media. Two recent movements that have paved the way for political art are the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements.

The #MeToo movement originated as a grassroots effort to encourage survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment to speak out and tell their stories. The phrase “MeToo” was coined in 2008, allowing for the silence surrounding sexual assault and harassment to finally be broken. The movement is still thriving and has brought about concrete legal and social rights for sexual assault survivors, as well as having exposed many powerful people in our largest industries as sexual predators. #BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 to combat white supremacy and acts of violence toward black communities. This movement aims to create an equal society in which black lives are valued, black communities are no longer systematically targeted and issues such as criminal justice reform, police brutality, and racial injustice are addressed by the U.S. government. Today, it is speculated that the Black Lives Matter movement is becoming the largest social movement in history.

Social media sites, most dominantly Instagram, are being flooded with political messages and statement art. This platform allows for easier unification of art and social activism. An example of art from the #MeToo movement is a watercolor piece by a young artist that portrays women removing tape from their mouths which represents their silence. Two artworks that represent the Black Lives Matter movement include a piece pertaining to the murder of George Floyd while accenting the police brutality that plagues black communities and a piece that aims to unite supporters of BLM in this fight against racial oppression.

Art doesn’t need to have political affiliations or social statements to be meaningful. The art world is an outlet for various types of expression and feelings that may go beyond words. Regardless, art has made an impact on history. Social change does not come without the influence of the art world. just like written works and media outlets have the ability to mobilize mass social change. Art often allows the voices of marginalized groups to be heard. Sadly, art does not always receive enough credit for all the good that it does. It is our job to bring attention to the power of the art world and to honor the amazing artists who use their talent to fight for what is right.

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