When we thinking of successful social change, we often think of things like policy changes through political activism, alleviating a problem through years of work, financial aid, or volunteering, or a large shift in values as a result of carefully planned and articulated advocacy… we tend to not really think of art. Art itself may not enforce practical social change, but it can be a valuable and often overlooked catalyst to generate change in our advocacy and activism.
I couldn’t even tell you when I was first introduced to the notion of employing the use of art and artistic elements in advocacy and activism. Art has always been an important part of my life, from as young as 5 I have vivid memories of my days at preschool being spent in the craft corner, as a kid I always had a sketch pad and some oil pastels or coloured pencils handy, and at the age of 12 I began fine art classes at a local gallery where I had the opportunity to exhibit and sell my pieces. So I guess by the time I was 16 and began my first advocacy/activism campaign for the United Nations and UNICEF, utilising art just naturally flowed from this.
How Does Art Generate Change?
There are countless ways in which art can be such a successful and powerful tool to generate social change. Here are some of the main reasons I believe art makes a wonderful tool to drive change:
- Art allows us to go beyond the boundaries of what we currently know or think. This means that art can be used as a way for us to challenge our current beliefs, spark new ideas, or generate critical thinking
- Art can inspire people, by creating alternative visions for the future which makes us elicit new action
- Art allows people to express themselves, by sharing their stories and experiences and allowing others to gain new insights
- Using an artistic method to portray something suspends judgement
- Participatory artistic methods allow others to get involved in a project and learn in a creative way
- Art allows us to gain a deeper understanding of something, by allowing us to engage not only intellectually, but emotionally with an issue
- Art is a universal language, you don’t need a degree or any kind of prior experience to create, participate in, or be moved by art.
Any type art can be utilised to help generate change, but certain types of art may in fact work better in certain situations than others, it all depends on the ultimate goal of the advocacy or activism.
Things like paintings, drawings, and street art are wonderful at provoking emotion. Including illustrations alongside written or spoken information can also help provide context, or allow people to develop a deeper understanding of something.
Drama, poetry, and dance provide a far more personal way to share stories. People will feel far more moved by these things than just being told or reading about a story. Performing arts may also help people to envisage alternative futures and alternative ways of perceiving something.
Music on its own has the ability to move people, provoke emotion, and think about any lyrics. Combining music when story telling, presenting information, or participating in another activity can also help to set a mood or convey a message.
Film (& other electronic media)
Utilising film and other types of electronic media (like animation) can help to share stories, information, and facts in an engaging format.
Art as activism
To get us thinking about the power of art as a tool for social change, check out these TedX Talks by professionals and people who have experienced first hand the power that art has to generate change:
“Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world. Art can create an analogy.”
“Art has the ability to change the world, because it has the ability to change people”
Art is a universal language…
Art gives people a voice…
If you are interested in more ted talks about the power of art in generating social change, check out this article: http://cloudhead.org/2013/09/03/the-power-of-art-to-affect-social-change-shown-in-5-ted-talks/
Adding Art to other types of Advocacy & Activism
On its own, art can be a wonderful way of driving social change. But it’s unreasonable to assume that in most circumstances art alone can actually generate change. However, art can be added to our already existing advocacy and activism efforts, to make them more successful. I have organised my ideas of how art can be used in advocacy and activism into three categories (thinking, educating, and doing), which I think encompass the major components of advocacy and activism.
- Raising awareness on any social issue is the first step to get the public or policy makers to think about an issue. Art itself is a great way to bring someones attention to an issue, or we can add art to a current way of raising the publics awareness on an issue and have a more emotional connection
- An important part of driving social change is getting people to think about their own ideals, emotions, or opinions towards a particular issue. Using art can help challenge the way people perceive something, or it can help people think about people who are affected by an issue
- Experiencing or participating in art is a very therapeutic, deeper way for people to express their thoughts or understand their emotions
In my own advocacy/activism efforts I have spent a lot of time working with children. I like to employ visual arts as a way for children (particularly those who aren’t literate) to process information, think about how it makes them feel, and express their thoughts and emotions in an engaging way. The girl in this photo is 6 years old, and had just learnt about child mortality and health in developing countries. I asked the girls I was working with to draw or paint a picture about how child mortality made them feel, and this is what she produced.
- Speaking out and actually educating society at large about the facts surrounding social issues is a very important component of advocacy and activism; instead of just presenting someone with information and facts, employing the arts allows people to be moved by what they are learning.
- We can learn through art about something on a deeper level than just hearing or reading about it.
- Art is a creative way for advocates and activists to teach, share information, and educate people in a way that won’t be as easily rejected as traditional methods.
As a way for some of the girls that I was working with to educate their family and friends about the things that they had learnt, they got to design their own t-shirt, and paint pictures and facts on them, about whichever Millennium Development Goal they felt most passionate about.
- Actually inspiring people to do things that will create change is perhaps the most important component of any advocacy or activism. Inspiring people to form alternative opinions and take action can be achieved more successfully when we use art
- Art, especially community based art projects, have the power to influence policy makers to actually make change
- Doing projects that affect the root causes of issues is the ultimate goal, and while art may not be able to directly affect the root causes of many social issues, using art to get people thinking, and educating people through art, may help to better spread your message and generate more successful outcomes
Art is definitely a powerful tool that individuals can utilise or experience to generate change, but when we combine art with community, it become an even more powerful tool. This phenomenon is known as cultural organizing. Find out more about cultural organizing her…