THE ART OF CHANGE
By Michael Nelsen
Artistic expression has been vitally important in times of cultural change throughout history. From political revolutions and AIDS awareness to the current Black Lives Matter protests, art provides communication tools through understanding of commonality by becoming a symbol for a cause itself – sometimes by merely providing recognition.
“Art is changing minds and minds can change society.”
Shamsia Hassani, Afghan street artist
Whether it is visual art, music, poetry, comedy, spoken word, sculpture, or graffiti, art is more than mere aesthetics. It is driven by the symbology of message and intent, implanted by the artist. Art can give voice to those that cannot speak, or whose voice is not heard; to those that have died, those that are weak and need protecting; and to those that are undercut, marginalized, or ignored.
To look at why art is important to social and political movements we have to look at why art is important to humanity in general. Art is communication – the codification of ideas in symbolic forms through an expressive medium.
One of the most important developments in human history is the written word. It is a vehicle to deliver information across great distances of space and time and to carry knowledge across generations. But art precedes the written word and serves a similar if not greater purpose: the delivery of ideas throughout a society, a representation of thoughts for both internal and external communication.
Therefore, art is an expression that transcends language, class, religion, gender, and other factors that may seem to divide the World’s population. Art helps us realize the undeniable commonality we all share – the desire for love, friendship, freedom, and safety, for example. Through their work, artists express ideas that are universally human to elicit responses of empathy and understanding. Regardless of a person’s ability to read or understand language, the instrument of art allows a spread of ideas. It can evoke shock, decode complex issues into palatable portions, or be a beacon – a symbol for a movement to rally around inward, and to express outward to the world a plea for change.
Every artist plays a different and necessary part in contributing to the overall health, development, and well-being of our society. Creative thinkers and makers provide their communities with joy, interaction, and inspiration, but they also give thoughtful critique to our political, economic and social systems — pushing communities to engage thoughtfully and make steps toward social progress.
The ultimate goal of art in activist movements is to provoke thought. It engenders awareness in the viewer, challenges notions of the status quo, invites a viewer or listener towards understanding and expanding knowledge and self-awareness. Art is a catalyst, a touchpoint that creates a reaction in individuals and precipitates change. Art is where we switch the story by altering the narrative. Art can change what people are capable of imagining, allowing them to see what change could look like.
Artists, therefore, are central to social change. They are essential for understanding, progress, and visionary leaps in the socio-political landscape. Art is both personal and universal at the same time, allowing our commonality to bring us closer together in the face of divisive politics and out-dated tribalism.
We can’t necessarily claim that reading a novel or watching a sci-fi movie will move people to action, but the experience expands our imaginations and creates a climate where we can be visionary.
In the wake of most recent events, George Floyd’s face has been reproduced in countless works of art. Memorials and murals across the world have centered on the face of this man. He has become a symbol of our own humanity and frailty, yet our strength and determination. This symbol of a man, who just like all of us, had needs and desires, had a family and a mother. George Floyd has become a symbol of a cultural group that is disproportionately targeted and subjected to pain and suffering for hundreds of years. A face that we all must look at and see not the differences in skin tone, but the commonalities that make us human. Breath and life, hope and pain, and death.
Art promotes systemic change by communicating emotional and empathetic responses in individuals regardless of cultural or societal barriers. Art is there to remind us how we can improve, how we can lift others up, and how we can be the change we want to see. Art awakens us to new ideas, enables us to learn and to teach others. It helps us to be better. Art reminds us that the impetus for social change may not be our personal experience, or our personal struggle, but it is our fight. All of us.