Art and Activism: Why it Matters

Author: Ashley Benedict

Didn’t anyone ever tell you that art is a form of protest? As a Writing major, I’ve heard this countless times from professors. As writers, artists, musicians, etc., everything we do and everything we make can be considered a form of protesting. I’ve written stories about LGBT rights, sea levels rising, women’s issues, and more. I’ve heard songs that exist as Calls to Action, read poems that leave us thinking about social issues, and seen pieces of art that display the ugly truths about our society.

Art, in its barest form, is an expression of how the author perceives the world. In a strange way, art is paradoxical, because it’s so personal and individual yet so universal at the same time. Art and artistic expression serve many functions in protest, some of them aimed at producing knowledge and solidarity within the group of protesters and others as a means of communicating to those outside what the protest is all about. As activists and feminists, we bear the weight of more in-depth perceptions on our shoulders, and often times, it can be a difficult journey in trying to figure out how to use our knowledge to bring awareness to the issues we are most passionate about. One way is through protest and organizing; another way is through social media and sharing news stories; and yet another way is through our art. Be it video, photography, music, painting, writing, dance, etc., we have the ability to use these mediums to our advantage. There are a million different ways we can impact the world around us through the things we create.

Here are just a few examples of art that have helped make social change in some way:

From Picasso’s Guernica depicting the horrors of war to Marlon Brando’s rejection of his Oscar award for “The Godfather” to the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (and the book itself), artists have been incorporating activism into their work and using their platforms to take a stand for ages (since the 18th century, at least). It may seem intimidating, looking at the works of renown and revered artists, and it may discourage us from trying to follow in their footsteps. But I think it’s important that we look to these individuals and learn from them. As modern activists, it is up to us to take every opportunity we can to expose the truths of our society, whether it be in the stroke of a brush or pen, or through powerful photography, or by striking a particularly sensitive topic in a music video.

Here are some additional examples of how art has been used to protest in the past, and here is a list of the top 10 artist protests of the past. This Facebook page includes a lot of great examples of combining the arts with activism.

Artists tend to find inspiration in times of civil unrest, and ironically, society becomes inspired to create social change when faced with politically charged art. History proves that protest art has played a crucial role in social movements, and in contemporary times, it continues to hold the ability to shape our society.  Art and politics: each seeks to change the world, but in different ways. Their approaches are not incompatible, however, they are not identical either. When creating activist art, it does not need to be political; art, in general, does not require political or activist intent. However, in contemporary times, art remains a flexible medium through which activists are able to spread messages in creative ways and invite their audience to think critically. Artistic expression has an undisputed place in contemporary social activism, which grants us all the freedom to use it to our advantage.

If you have made or want to make an art piece that incorporates activism, or if you know someone who engages in a lot of activist art, consider contacting us here at the Women’s Center and submit your work to be displayed next year! Pieces are due the Friday before finals week, and participants must complete an Art Prospectus and Entry Form and drop it off at the center along with their work.

“The Center believes that the function of art is to challenge our perceptions and to help us create new meaning and understanding.”

What do you think of activist art? Is art a strong form of protest? Why or why not? How can we incorporate activism in our every day lives? Are there certain types of art that work better with activist messages? Let us know what you think by sending in your own work, comments, or questions to


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