Social Activism and Art


Today, it’s impossible to miss how the earlier boundary between activism and art has blurred. Previously, artists had invested their skills and energies in, say, political activism or direct social action, or protested against the privileged and exclusive nature of the gallery and museum. And now these differences – between the aesthetic and political worlds – have become permeable.

Activist art or Protest art takes many forms of expression such as performance, painting, graffiti, or installations. The goals of activist artworks can also vary widely. Works can challenge racism, sexism, authoritarian regimes, or fight for LGBTQ+ Rights.

Activist art might seem like a contemporary concept. But examples of political art can also be found as early as the 18th century. Jacques-Louis David was an active member of the French Revolution, and his works often depicted his political affiliations. David’s painting The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons portrays the scene of Brutus, an important figure of the Roman Republic, reacting to the death of his sons. Since they wanted to overthrow the government and restore the monarchy, Brutus ordered their death.

Study for The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons by Jacques-Louis David, 1787, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This painting by Jacques-Louis David is a representation of civic virtue and Brutus’ immense sacrifices for the Republic. The government prohibited the exhibition of the artwork at the Salon because it could be interpreted as propaganda supporting the French Revolution.

Gustave Courbet’s Realist works are also examples of political art. The artist depicted the life and harsh working conditions of the lower classes. His work mirrored his political beliefs. His involvement with the Paris Commune of 1871 resulted in Courbet’s imprisonment and his subsequent death in exile.

First International Dada Fair in Berlin, 1920

The Dadaist movement emerged during the First World War in Zurich. Dada artists rejected traditional representations and tried to discover an unreasoned order. Their art can be defined as Political art and described as satirical, spontaneous, and absurd.

One of the most important goals of activist art is to encourage social and political change. Another important goal of activist art is to create awareness of existing political and social issues. When the public is looking away from suffering that could be prevented or does not want to be confronted with it, activist art or Political art often creates a dialogue and forces people to think about these problems.

Cleaning the Drapes by Martha Rosler, 1967-72, via MoMA, New York

The interests, hardships, and experiences of marginalized groups, or LGBTQ+ Rights are often underrepresented or not discussed at all. Activist art can make these specific experiences visible and include them in historical, social, and political discourse.


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