What is Social Art Activism?

“Art cannot change the world but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world” (Marcuse, p 32-33)

Social art activism is not a new concept nor is it revolutionary.  But, in recent years, social art activism has taken a new step in the direction of becoming more common in the mass media and action.  As Herbert Marcuse stated in the above quote, no matter how much art is created, art cannot change the world.  But that is why the term is called art activism rather than simply art or social art.  It is the activism that is created through the art that is the driving force to change the consciousness as Marcuse states.  That consciousness is the driving force for men and women to change the world but without that consciousness change, the possibility for men and women to change is that much harder.

There are many different possibilities into why social art activism has become a driving force in the past few years.  One of the main reasons may be the renewal of popularity of art as both a commodity and a life-style.  As artists are moving away from the styles of the old masters, there is now a need for a new muses.  For some artists, their inspiration has become the awareness of human right violations that otherwise may have gone unnoticed in the back-page of the newspaper.  Marina Grzinic proposes to think about the “possibility of an alternative space for art, culture, activism, and politics that can be termed as radical art and political space with practices, interventional logics, and subjects that bear the same name of alternative and radical art once” (Playing by the Rules)

Art can be used for activist purposes in multiple ways.  Three of these purposes include: awareness, understanding, and prevention.  Artists who use their work for awareness are very similar to some of the projects and organizations that I have mentioned within this blog.  These artists are trying to teach the viewer by using the specific tragedies that the artist feels strong about as topics and themes within their art.  If the artist wishes to become even more active, possibly even starting a movement, then they are more likely to associate with other organizations that deal more with the political, legal or economic side while the artist is able to make the art.

Artists or artist groups that use their art in the hopes of helping the visitor understand the tragedy that has occurred are usually those of more exhibition designers and other curator-like figures.  These individuals are no more or less significant than the first group but instead of creating the art, these people choose to take the art already created (possibly by someone in the first group), put it on the wall, and explain to the overall reason for the theme.  Explaining a tragedy through art can be both difficult and overwhelming but as museums continue to struggle with the balancing act today, more professionals are starting to bend the line between what is considered the “proper” way of exhibition tragedy within a public space.  These bends are different for every individual but as more violations are coming to the surface and being talked about, instead of being shunned away in the back of textbooks, the exhibition designers are able to make the

Finally, there is prevention.  Organizations and artists choose this purpose go beyond the educational aspect.  Stacy Mann stated that “instead of asking visitors to understand victim’s experiences, we should help visitors consider what leads individuals to participate in genocide” (Mann, p. 26). By thinking about the cause rather than the result, individuals are able to start pinpointing attributes that may tie with other past events.  With this in mind, there is the hope that by finding reasons for the cause, future violations may be prevented due to noticing trends.  While this can not be said for every future violation, by learning about the violators, there is the chance for individuals to step up before something horrific happens, preventing the violation, and causing a more secure peace.

To return to the original quote, it is important to understand that despite the fact that art can help change the conscience and drive of men and women, art cannot start this transformation.  Instead, it is important to acknowledge that in order for art to help men and women, the person still needs to be taught the proper steps before being able to understand how art can assist in their thoughts and plans.

Shortly after the end of World War II, in the Northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia, a group of parents led by an educator named Loris Malaguzzi started a school for early childhood education that incorporated what would later be described by Malaguzzi as “the hundred languages of children”.  As stated through the Reggio’s school website, the hundred languages of Children are “symbolic languages, including drawing, sculpting, dramatic play, writing, painting are used to represent children’s thinking processes and theories.  As children work through problems and ideas they are encouraged to depict their understanding using many different representations.  As their thinking evolves they are encouraged to revisit their representation to determine if they are representative of their intent or if they require modification” (http://www.reggiokids.com/about/hundred_languages.php).

While the goals of the hundred languages of children continue on farther than that of social art activism, there still remains the idea that “the goal was to re-envision the child not as an empty container to be filled with facts but as an individual with rights, great potential, and diversity” (Helguera, p.4).  Pablo Helguera states that “socially engaged art can’t be produced inside a knowledge vacuum (p.7).  Instead, in order to create art that brings awareness and engages with the people around it, the artist must also understand and engage with the community, organization or situation at hand.  The object of creating socially engaged activist art is not to become an expert in sociology, education, medical, etc, but instead, understand the complexities of the fields and learn some of their tools in order to employ them within the art.  Social interaction is itself an art, with engagement necessary for anything to happen.  It is through that social interaction that ideas that may turn into movements and thus activist art projects.  Art is both at the beginning and the end of most social engagements and as stated earlier, with the teaching, children and young adults can be filled with passion, understanding and a will to create a better tomorrow through art, rather than facts.

A Chinese proverb states: “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand”.  In order to bring awareness, action and prevention to the lives of everyone around us, it starts with involvement.  History has shown that involvement can come in multiple different forms, one being social art activism.  Seeing the art and social aspect creates the memory but by becoming a part of the art, either through creation, demonstration or any other aspect, each individual is able to not only become a part of a larger force but understand.  Understanding, both facts and ideas, allows individuals to start to see what they are fighting for and why it is important to continue to educate others.


Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art. New York. 2011 in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Marcuse, Herbert.  The Aesthetic Dimension.  Boston: Beacon Press.  1978.

Mann, Stacey and Danny M. Cohen. “When a Boxcar Isn’t a Boxcar: Designing for Human Rights”. Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience.  Exhibitionist. 2011.

1 thought on “What is Social Art Activism?

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