'Save The Bees,' watercolor, 15 x 22, ©2010 Helen R Klebesadel

Activist art is, by definition, historically specific.  It aims to address particular cultural, political and social concerns with a view to producing concrete social change.  It is interesting to me as an artist and an educator how seldom we find an analysis of what makes effective activist art a part of what we teach and learn, especially since we need it now more than ever.

This would seem to be a good time to share some of the features of effective activist art and think about how visual thinkers might better use our training in the current cultural and political dialogs. Given the tenor of our times we all need to bring our best thinking to bear on making visible to the whole voting public the potential consequences of the broad social change proposed by some of our leaders.

Over the years I have looked for the shared qualities of effective activist art.  (I was first inspired to this when I took a course with Estella Lauter, who articulated how influential feminist art practice has been on contemporary art in general and activist art in particular in her 1990 article “Re-enfranchising Art: Feminist Interventions in the Theory of Art.”  I’d like to thank her for her work.)

Defining activist art as art created using processes developed with the specific purpose of influencing political, social, or cultural change, I’ve spelling out the key features below and embedded examples of activist art projects.  At the end of the essay I offer a further list from the many, many examples that exist.

Effective activist art:

•     Is “real world oriented” and is likely to contain a critique of the larger world or the art world and its conventions, criteria or values, rather than private, aesthetic and aimed at transcending the real world.  This extends to the use of materials and subject matter that have historically been excluded by the dominant conventions of the art world.

Subject matter will address the concerns of real women and men’s lives and the materials used will refer to the same.  There are many environmental artists working in this way.  A few can be found in WEED, the Women Environmental Artist Directory.

•     It is process oriented rather than product or object oriented, and aimed at effecting the lives of the people that participate in the project, not just effecting a separate audience through aesthetics.

To be valued for more than how much it is worth.  It cannot be bought or sold.

Lilly Yeh’s Barefoot Artists brings the transformative power of art to the most impoverished communities in the world through participatory and multifaceted projects that foster community empowerment, improve the physical environment, promote economic development, and preserve and promote indigenous art and culture. Barefoot Artists develops projects in collaboration with individuals and/or agencies on the ground in identified communities

•     The artworks usually take place in public sites rather than within the context of art-world ven­ues.   The creative work is found in a real world context rather than in a gallery or museum.

CODEPINK Women for Peace vigil performances are an example of this kind of work. CODEPINK is a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end U.S. funded wars and occupations, to challenge militarism globally, and to redirect our resources into health care, education, green jobs and other life-affirming activities.

CODEPINK website: http://www.codepink4peace.org/

•     It is collaborative in its methods of execution, vs. made by one introspective genius.  The art can be made by anyone with or without training.  There are no artistic credentials or pedigrees required to participate in the piece.

The group L A Poverty Department is a theater-without-walls for people living in Los Angeles’ inner city.  Founded in 1985 was the first performance group in the nation made up principally of homeless people. LAPD is dedicated to building community on Skid Row, Los Angeles. Partnering with numerous social service and advocacy groups, the company has offered performance workshops that are free and open to the Skid Row community.

•     Methods frequently draw on expertise from outside the art world as a means of engaging the participation of the audience or community and dis­tributing a message to the public.   Traditional arts, non-art world audiences that include men and women from all walks of live, not just a few educated connoisseurs.  The art values the lives and practices of all people, including all women, children, and men, respecting differences in race, class, sexuality, nationality, and gender.

The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, is an enormous quilt made as a memorial to and celebration of the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. It is the largest piece of community folk art ever made, and is longer be displayed in its entirety.  The choice to use the quilt form offered a metaphor for the bits and pieces of everyday life that make up a whole, and became a statement in itself.  Each 12×12 foot section is made up of 16 3×6 foot panels created by friends and family of those lost to AIDS.  At last count there were 46,000 individual memorial panels (representing the loss of over 91,000 people)

•     As a practice, it often takes the form of temporal interventions, such as performance or performance-based activities, media events, exhibitions, and installations.

Projects like the Clothesline Project display the work anywhere it will get the most attention.  This project creates a vehicle for women affected by violence to express their emotions by decorating a shirt. They then hang the shirt on a clotheslines strung where the shirts can be viewed as testimony to the problem of violence against women.

Clothesline Project website: http://www.clotheslineproject.org

•     Making various uses of public media, a key strategy of much activist art.  Much of it employs such mainstream media techniques as the use of zines, billboards, wheat-pasted posters, sub­way and bus advertising, and newspaper inserts to deliver messages that subvert the usual intentions of these commercial forms. 

Examples of groups that use these tactics are the wonderful protest signs that have been a part of the Capitol protests in Wisconsin.  Other examples include the Guerrilla Girls,  the Critical Art Ensemble, and the Grand Fury.

All work of the above within some aspect of public space, and many ascribe their approach as an activist deployment of new media technology. They focus on the public sphere and address issues of sexism in the art world; fair housing; the treatment of unemployed people, guest laborers and prisoners as well as global politics; biotechnology and even access to public space itself. Some groups design participatory projects in which objects and services are made to be given away, or used up in public settings or street actions.

What next?

We are again arguing about the importance of the arts locally and nationally. Here in Wisconsin the Arts Board is still on the chopping block as a stand-alone agency despite efforts by arts organizations and artists all over Wisconsin working hard to make visible to our leaders the important work the agency does to further economic and cultural development.  The state arts advocacy organization Arts Wisconsin offers a toolkit for action.

On the national level government arts funding is already so stingy that completely eliminating all arts agencies wouldn’t really help much in the budget cutting frenzy, non-the-less we have had to work hard to protect the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the NEA and NEH.  Check out the Americans for the Arts Toolkit to see what you can do.

There are several ways to look at the attitudes behind the national and local attacks on the arts and culture.

  • The arts and culture matters are luxuries and should be cut for the larger good because we jut cannot afford them in this time of crisis,
  • The arts and culture are just vehicles for left leaning political messages of the educated elites so remove all public support.
  • Attacks on the arts are a red herring, a strategy to focus attention on threats to the arts that soak up a lot of the conversation and distract us from other items on the chopping block (Medicaid, collective bargaining, the environment).

Of course it shouldn’t be an either/or argument. We should be able to demand essential services and healthy funding for arts too, while balancing our budget.

It may help to remember that the NEA, founded as a symbol of Kennedy-Johnson liberal idealism, and though under-funded, its mere existence of government arts funding is symbolically important.  It’s also important to remember that attacks on the arts are not just about the arts; they’re part of a bigger political picture of what we believe the priorities off the United States should be.

Other ways to look at the arts are:

  • Recognize that the arts are vital social and economic drivers to our communities, and critical to educating our children with the skills they need to deal with a new globally engaged world.
  • The arts are vital to our quality of life.  Cutting the arts will make it harder for our communities to create the vitality that will draw the businesses that have workers who care about the quality of life and good educations for their children.
  • Consider how the arts and culture can teach our citizens to be critical thinkers that can analyze social messages and decide for them selves what they believe.
  • The arts are a place where we share our differing belief systems in ways that allow us to learn to understand each other, and they help us to define our values as communities, and as a larger society.
  • The arts can be a place of original discovery and deep social criticism.

As a practicing visual artist I am trained in visual language, visual culture, and to teach people how to find the artist in themselves and bring it to the surface.  Like many artists I’ve been thinking about how to better engage my creative thinking abilities in the cultural struggles that seems to define our world just now.  I propose those of us who define ourselves as cultural and art workers engage our creativity and critical thinking in any part of the cause that calls to us.  I further propose that those of us not brave or experienced enough to call ourselves ’artists’ but who know they are creative thinkers and good facilitators of people consider collaboration on efforts that use some of these tactics and tools at our disposal.

A few more examples of Activist Art Projects:

Art Action Union:  Their aim is to provide creative and concerned people a platform and audience, archive of thoughts and celebration of actions for change through the arts. It is a collective dedicated to providing, exposing and creating opportunities for independent and non-represented artists who exploit their talents for raising community interest and awareness for difficult topics.

Art4Shelter: An exhibit and sale of original artworks on paper by emerging and established artists with all funds going to support a homeless shelter.  Each piece will sell for $30.  A list of participating artists are updated on the website and posted the night of the event.  The works themselves are signed only on the back.  Donnors may end up with a work by a famous artist, or be the first to discover an unknown talent!  All will be Simpson Housing Services.

Barbara Mandingo Kelly Peace Poetry Awards of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation;  The Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Awards are an annual series of awards to encourage poets to explore and illuminate positive visions of peace and the human spirit. The Poetry Awards include three age categories: Adult, Youth 13-18, and Youth 12 & Under. (Estella Lauter’s poem ‘Gaza’ which shared the 2009 award).

Barefoot Artists:  Artist Lilly Yeh brings the transformative power of art to the most impoverished communities in the world through participatory and multifaceted projects that foster community empowerment, improve the physical environment, promote economic development, and preserve and promote indigenous art and culture. Barefoot Artists develops projects in collaboration with individuals and/or agencies on the ground in identified communities.  (There is a link to a Lilly Yeh presentation on this site).

The Clothesline Project:  The Clothesline Project (CLP) is a program started on Cape Cod, MA, in 1990 to address the issue of violence against women. It is a vehicle for women affected by violence to express their emotions by decorating a shirt. They then hang the shirt on a clothesline to be viewed by others as testimony to the problem of violence against women. With the support of many, it has since spread world-wide.

Code Pink :  A women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end U.S. funded wars and occupations, to challenge militarism globally, and to redirect our resources into health care, education, green jobs and other life-affirming activities.

Creative Visions Foundation:  The Creative Visions Foundation is inspired by the life of Dan Eldon, an artist, adventurer and activist killed in Somalia in 1993 while covering the conflict as a photojournalist for Reuters News Agency. He was 22.

Creative Visions Foundation: http://www.creativevisions.org

Critical Art Ensemble:  (CAE) is a collective of five tactical media practitioners of various specializations including computer graphics and web design, film/video, photography, text art, book art, and performance.  Formed in 1987, CAE’s focus has been on the exploration of the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism. The group has exhibited and performed at diverse venues internationally, ranging from the street, to the museum, to the internet.

Daughters of Vietnam Veterans:  Website, blog and visual art dealing with the legacy of Vietnam.

Ella’s Daughters:  Ella’s Daughters is a multi-racial, multi-national, intergenerational network of women activists, scholars, artists and workers advancing justice in Ella Baker’s democratic tradition and facilitating connections between different social justice movements. We embrace Ella Baker’s Humanistic practice that affirms the dignity and worth of all people and also embrace the creative spirit of our collective imagination as a powerful force to help not only oppose the politics of domination but also to envision and realize something better.

Evolvegan:  To use art, performance, and media to educate and increase public awareness about the connections between dietary choice, personal health, cultural ethics, and globally sustainable ecology.

Green Deen:  Green Deen is a proactive effort of young Muslim activists from Southern California who have come together for the sake of Allah (swt) to raise awareness and change the current environmental conditions by promoting a healthier, greener and more environmentally conscious lifestyle.

Green Arts Web: Artists & Projects

Green Museum:  This online museum emerged from the organizers’ experiences making environmental art and from seeing firsthand some of the challenges facing artists, community groups, nonprofit organizations and arts institutions when it came to presenting and discussing environmental art.  Useful community art toolboxes are a part of this site which they consider a giant collaborative art-making tool.

The Green Museum website: http://greenmuseum.org/

Grand Fury:  AIDS activist graphics as educational and organizing tools and propaganda which emerged from a movement spearheaded by ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, “a diverse, nonpartisan group united to anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” ACT UP New York was founded in March of 1987 and within less than five years had broadened to include dozens more ACT UP and activist organizations around the globe.

DesignAThon:  Freewheel Design, Woody Holliman’s design firm sponsors  “DesignAThon”DesignAThon is a 24-hour creative marathon during which created logotype and identity designs as well as posters, brochures, T-shirts, newsletters and Web sites.  Twenty  chosen nonprofits are culled from a list of 50 +applicants.

 Guerrilla Girls:  Anonymous females artists who take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and appear in public wearing gorilla masks. They have produced posters, stickers, books, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and the culture at large. They use humor to convey information, provoke discussion, and show that feminists can be funny. They wear gorilla masks to focus on the issues rather than their personalities. Dubbed the conscience of culture their work has been passed around the world by kindred spirits. The mystery surrounding their identities has attracted attention. They could be anyone; they are everywhere.

Judy Baca and the LA Murals:  In 1974 Bacca helped organize and became director of the Citywide Mural Project. Two years later Baca, Christina Schlesinger, and Donna Deitch co-founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center, where she continues as the organization’s creative director. In an effort to spread her concept of peace and understanding between cultures, in 1990 she began the World Wall, a series of portable murals which so far has traveled to the former Soviet Union, Finland, Washington, D.C., and Santa Barbara. In each country the exhibit visits, a local artist is selected to add a panel with his or her Vision of a Future Without Fear

Keepers of the Waters:  Founded by artist Betsy Damon, Keepers of the Waters works to inspire and promote projects that combine art, science and community involvement to restore, preserve and restore water sources.  Keepers is at the vanguard of integrated approaches to a vast complexity of water issues through collaborative innovative design, community organizing, mentoring, educating, providing workshops, and functioning as a cross cultural resource.

Keepers Of The Waters website: http://www.keepersofthewaters.org/

Knitting for Knockers:  Knitting for Knockers, established in 2006, is a collaborative of artisans and craftspersons working to promote their creations to benefit breast cancer research and education. We are an effort which strives to bring together the timeless art of knitting with modern-day activism ideals, thus shedding light on the concept of craftspeople as activist artists.

LA Poverty Department:  Highways Performance Space Presents the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s Examination of the Personal and Social Costs of Incarceration in the U.S.

NAMES, AIDS Memorial Quilt:  In June of 1987, a small group of strangers gathered in a San Franciso storefront to document the lives they feared history would neglect. Their goal was to create a memorial for those who had died of AIDS, and to thereby help people understand the devastating impact of the disease. This meeting of devoted friends and lovers served as the foundation of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Today the Quilt is a powerful visual reminder of the AIDS pandemic, with more than 44,000 individual 3-by-6-foot memorial panels.

Ruckus Roots:  They travel to festivals, concerts and campuses, with interactive installations encourage young adults to find their creative voice within the eco-activism community. They’re creating positive pandemonium and infectious enthusiasm for art and advocacy wherever they go.

The Surveillance Camera Players:  The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) is a small, informal group of people who are unconditionally opposed to the installation and use of video surveillance cameras in public places. The SCP was formed in New York City in November 1996 by two groups of friends/activists.

Temporary Services:  Temporary Services is based in Chicago and Copenhagen and has existed, with several changes in membership and structure, since 1998.  They produce exhibitions, events, projects, and publications. The distinction between art practice and other creative human endeavors is irrelevant to them.  They move in and out of officially sanctioned spaces for art, keeping one foot in the underground the other in the institution.

Ultra Red:  In the worlds of sound art and modern electronic music, Ultra-red pursue a fragile but dynamic exchange between art and political organizing. Founded in 1994 by two AIDS activists, Ultra-red have over the years expanded to include artists, researchers and organizers from different social movements including the struggles of migration, anti-racism, participatory community development, and the politics of HIV/AIDS.

WEED, Women Environmental Artist Directory:  Focusing on women’s unique perspectives they collaborate internationally to further the field and understanding of ecological and social justice art.

Women’s Circus:  The Women’s Circus is a community arts organization that presents innovative high quality circus performances and workshops to a diverse audience and participant base. Create and deliver a high standard of innovative and socially challenging circus programs and performances.  Maintain and develop a vibrant and sustainable ongoing Women’s Circus community.  Provide an opportunity for women to build self-esteem and reaffirm control over their bodies in a safe and non-competitive environment.  (Madison’s aerial dance group Cycropia functions from a similar philosophy in working with men and women).

Women in Black Art Project:  A world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence. Arguing women experiencing these things in different ways in different regions of the world, they support each other’s movements. An important focus is challenging the militarist policies of our own governments. They do not consider themselves an organization, but a means of communicating and a formula for action.

Women In Black website: http://www.womeninblack.org

Yarn Bombing:  An international movement improving the urban landscape one stitch at a time with knitted graffiti.  For a recent example of yarn bombing here in Madison go here.

Here’s to Art that works!

Please feel free to share examples of other art activist projects you would like to highlight in the comments.