Artistic Activism: Art in Politics


Nehisi Coates is among many artists using his voice for political activism.

By Kwamesha Joseph

Ta-Nehisi Coates is among many artists using his voice for political activism. (Courtesy of Flickr)

At the 89th annual Oscar lunch, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences president said, “Art has no borders. Art has no language and doesn’t belong to a single faith. No, the power of art is that it transcends all of these things, and strong societies don’t censor art — they celebrate it.”

For many Americans, the United States’ current political climate has become a source of heartache and frequent face-palms, as it has veered over the past year to one that primarily exudes anger, fear and uncertainty. This shift has often been attributed to the results of the November election, the marginalization of women’s issues, the immigration crisis, police brutality and much more recently, the ongoing social media dialogue about women of color in Washington D.C. who have gone missing without media coverage.

These events and more have caused a surge of distress in civilians, both domestic and abroad, and have highlighted that the nation has an incalculable amount of work to do before it can ever be considered “great.”

According to a January study called Stress in America™: Coping with Change conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 66 percent of Americans (Democrat and Republican) say that they are stressed about the future of the nation. As stated by the APA’s poll results, “More than half of Americans (57 percent) say the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, and nearly half (49 percent) say the same about the outcome of the election.”

Such sentiments have gone so far as to reach a number of popular authors and artists who have made decisions about the form and content of their works based on the country’s current socio-political landscape. While the nation has seen this more plainly during some of its favorite awards shows, where celebrities like Jesse Williams have vocalized their discontent in front of millions of viewers, some artists have chosen to alter the status quo by empowering marginalized groups in their works.

When asked about the political climate’s influence on his new Black Panther series, Ta-Nehisi Coates told The New York Times, “It has to influence [the series] . . . it was not an apolitical decision to have this black character in Africa, in this advanced nation, and have him be highly intelligent.”
Coates is one of many artists using their pens, papers and brushes alike to bring awareness to social and political issues.

However, while shifting the narrative and bringing awareness to certain issues are favorable to some, others have approached such actions with discontent. There are people who do not believe that popular sources of entertainment should be imbued with any kind political discourse. A Rose Hill sophomore who would prefer to remain anonymous believes, “The purpose of art is to provide an escape from the issues of the world, not to reinforce them. Some people look to art for relief, and expressing political opinions in art takes away from that experience.”

Many artists, on the other hand, do not believe that there can be art without shedding light on the issues that this nation and others face. Author Toni Morrison in an article called, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear” said, when referencing a friend to whom she was voicing her grievances, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

Art, in its various forms, facilitates an understanding of a time period in a way that no paragraph in a history book can. During times of political and social unrest, artists become special kinds of activists: their words and artwork act as a kind of archive of social and political epochs that necessarily connects the past with the present. Artists have the dexterity to awaken masses from a complacent slumber, and encourage them to work towards social change.

The popular hope within the realm of artists is that society is able to appreciate their political aesthetic before it is too late, and that the generations that follow will learn from the achievements and mistakes of the current one.