Artist as Activist


We live in a time of profound uncertainty. Navigating the various social, political, and economic issues that influence our lives is a task that can leave one feeling paralyzed by anxiety. Add to that the plethora of issues that plague the lives of those less fortunate than us; the influence of people and corporations more powerful than us; and the mounting evidence that the choices we make today are changing our planet in irreversible ways. In the face of such monumental challenges, how can we chart a path towards a better future?

Artists as far back as the Renaissance have used their work to shed light on social issues, whether it be through covert means, such as symbols hidden within paintings, or through a more direct approach, such as the iconic Aids Quilt. In this way, artists play an important role in bringing awareness, empathy, and a space for sincere reflection into the conversation that surrounds issues of social and environmental justice. Artists become activists, asking the viewer to ponder the question: what is my role in shaping the world I live in?

For this project, 8th graders selected a social/environmental issue that was important to them and wrote a proposal for a piece of art they would create in response to that issue. Students researched their topics and then incorporated that research into their proposals. They connected the media (how and with what they created their project) to the artwork’s content or meaning.

Through this project students developed a deeper appreciation for the concept of “knowledge as power,” and for the various ways in which artists play an integral role in giving a voice to the voiceless.

Resources (Students read the following articles in preparation for making and writing about their projects):

Making Artistic Noise Part 1: Art and Social Activism with Incarcerated Youth

Artists as Activists: Pursuing Social Justice

In the artist’s words:

The definition for suicide is the act or instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally. One hundred and five people in the United States (male and female) commit suicide every day. I addressed the topic and this number by drawing one hundred and five simplified human bodies onto the sidewalk next to our school building. The bodies were drawn next to an arrow with white chalk, some of them were even cut off by the arrow.



In the artist’s words:

iCloud hacking is the breaching and utilization of another person’s Apple device or any other electronic. It is a real problem that can effect large amounts of people. When a person’s iCloud is hacked the hackers are stealing information about you that could be used to make fake profiles and bank accounts using your personal information and money. I decided to show this social issue with a cloud, wrapped in unlocked chains, rain ones and zeroes. The unlocked chains represent the breach of security. The rain is to show the leaking of information. Computer information is written in zeroes and ones, so it would be appropriate for the cloud to “rain” them.     



In the artist’s words:

Shark fining is a huge issue in today’s world, as the shark population is decreasing at an alarming rate. Over 73 (of 100 million) sharks finned annually are used for shark fin soup, and up to 98% of the animal is wasted in the process. At this rate, the 400 million year old creatures will go extinct within the next few decades to make soup. It is especially saddening because the soup contains 42 times the safe mercury level for human consumption. My piece shows a shark with its fins detached and colored red. It symbolizes the fins cut off in the fining process, and the grey body represents what is wasted. I chose string art because the materials are similar to those used in the fining and packaging process. Hopefully raising awareness can end shark fining forever.

In the artist’s words:

Steroid use is an appalling problem in the world of sports. According to the Health Research Funding Association, in 2003, 30 elite athletes were said to have used performance-enhancing steroids. Steroids are not just a professional problem either, as 44% of teens say that acquiring steroids would be fairly easy for them. To display the act of taking steroids in sports, I placed a syringe in a football where you would normally pump it up, signifying that steroids are filling up the world of sports. I used these items instead of another form of media because it would invoke the most emotion out of the observer, instead of, say, drawing the project. I hope this project helps spread the message of the horrendous act that is going on in sports today.


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