Illustration by Ben Beechener
The heavy-handed police response to an XR sculpture, captured on camera in June, graphically demonstrated art has become a potent force in the arsenal of contemporary activists. Art and activism are tethered together. ‘Activist art’ is a term used to describe art that is grounded in the act of ‘doing’ and addresses political or social issues. Activist artists aim to create art that is a form of political or social currency, actively addressing cultural power structures rather than representing or simply describing them. In describing the art she makes, the activist artist Tania Bruguera said, ‘I don’t want art that points to a thing. I want art that is the thing’.
Activist art is about empowering individuals and communities and is generally situated in the public arena, with artists working closely with a community to generate the art. Some artists concerned with activist art are also involved in direct action, like the Women On Waves Foundation. This feminist art collective runs a floating abortion clinic, carrying out abortions in places where they are not legal. XR, too, has taken activist art in its stride, using social relevance and effectiveness as a means of activism, with the group focusing on visual arts. Art has a long history within activist movements of every kind, and, in many cases, the art created to spread information and awareness is what lingers when the day is done and protesters head home. Keenly, these pieces evoke emotion and the anger many in XR feel against the lack of climate action. The ability of artistic activism to surprise us – to show up in unlikely places or take on unfamiliar forms – provides an opportunity to disrupt people’s preconceived notions of art and protest, and their predetermined ideas about the messages one is trying to communicate. Artistic activism creates a chance to bypass seemingly fixed political ideas and moral ideals in order to remap cognitive patterns.
Museums and galleries have highlighted the posters, photographs, poems, and novels resulting from unrest. In 2019, the Victoria and Albert Museum began collecting artworks and items used by climate change activists to document living history. Earlier this year, protesters at the British Museum made a wooden Trojan Horse used during their demonstration against the museum’s ongoing relationship with BP. Their symbolism and words become a touchstone for those searching for inspiration, resolve, and comfort during uprisings. Like Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem I Want a President, old works are revived when society needs a reminder of the steps we’ve made and how much further we have to go. Themes of unity, despair, anguish, love, frustration, and exhaustion become prevalent in works from almost any movement and are still very much present in today’s protests.
There is an art to every practice, activism included. It’s what distinguishes the innovative from the routine, the elegant from the mundane. Creativity is essential to good organising; it enables activists to imagine new tactics, strategies and goals to keep campaigns fresh and make them more effective. At one time, protest marches and mass rallies were powerful innovations; today, they are routine. Artistic activism, as an art form, is in constant productive movement and creating unintended reactions — what we might call an “abundance of æffect.” Rather than seeing these unintended consequences as a detriment to be ignored or controlled, the creative process of artistic activism encourages us to notice, reflect, and be open to new creative and political possibilities.
Artwork has also enabled the inclusion of new audiences and individuals in protest movements. Community involvement is the common theme throughout many forms of activist art. This means projects that seek to extend the empowerment experienced through self-expression beyond just one artist to an entire group of participants. Self-expression should be a right, but in effect, it is often experienced as a privilege because not everyone can access the resources needed to use their voice in their chosen way. Artists can work as community organisers in providing access to visual creation as a vehicle of expression and self-representation for the oppressed and under-represented. When this takes the form of a group project, it can also help transform a community by bringing people into dialogue and assisting them to develop the skills that are needed to work together.
Art is about being both receptive and responsive, working intuitively and ritualistically, being creative and disciplined. It is about becoming more and more conscious. In art, there is no right or wrong, there is only what works – and what works is what is real, what is done out of a place of honesty. In order to have a just society in which people feel some responsibility about not exploiting each other, it is necessary for people to be imbued with a sense of compassion, which is based largely on empathy. Within human nature is an essential capacity for empathy, which can be nurtured or suppressed depending on the cultural environment someone grows up in. Among the ways of helping to cultivate empathy, art is a powerful instrument.