Art and Social Change

Art and Social Change

Mara Tractenberg

Art can be a tool to challenge dominant ideas about social and political issues. Art that addresses social justice issues has changed the thoughts, ideas, preconceptions, and beliefs of the people who are viewing it, which in turn can cause pollical and social change.

Photographer Lewis Hine’s photographs of children (1908-1917) working in factories caused public outrage and were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in the US.

The Feminist Art Movement began during the second wave of feminism. It has influenced many artists to create art addressing feminist issues that raise awareness, shift cultural attitudes, transform stereotypes, and challenge societal norms.

 Many early feminist artists used women’s bodies as subjects to reclaim the representation of women’s bodies in art. Judy Chicago’s vaginal imagery and Faith Wilding’s, “Womb Room” a crocheted installation-womb like structure, showed parts of women's bodies that were not seen in art at that time.  Hannah Wilke’s photographs of her own body challenged the objectification of women. In the reclamation of women's bodies as subject matter, these artists challenged dominant cultural ideas about women's bodies being used for the pleasure of the male gaze. Artists at this time reclaimed traditional women’s crafting materials and processes, elevating them from craft to art. Faith Ringgold made quilts telling stories about African-Americans’ experiences. These artists normalized the experiences of women in the art world for viewers of the work and future artists.

In the 1980s, the anonymous feminist art protest group, The Guerilla Girls, was formed to challenge the lack of women in the male-dominated gallery and museum systems. The Guerilla Girls make posters, billboards, and protest art institutions wearing guerilla masks. The group is still active today.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was started in 1985 to celebrate the lives of people who died from AIDS. It is the most significant community folk art piece in the world and helped raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic and the need for the government to act.

In the 1990’s Suzanne Lacy a visual artist, installed “Auto on the Edge of Time in multiple US cities. A collection of wrecked cars turned into sculptural testimonials addressing the lived experiences of victims of domestic violence, raising awareness, and creating empathy around the issue.

Can art make a difference? It may not be linear, direct, nor fast, but it can. Political and social change starts with changing hearts, minds, and ideas. Art touches people and can be a catalyst for social justice change.

If you are interested in how some artists are doing this now, check out, “RADICAL WOMEN: Politically Engaged Art” exhibit.

March 2-26, with a gallery night reception on March 19 from 5-9:00 pm at the URI Feinstein Providence Campus, 80 Washington Street, Providence, RI.

WFRI's popular Cocktails and Conversations panel will occur on March 26 from 6:00-9:00 pm in the URI Providence campus auditorium. Get your FREE tickets here.