By combining raw emotion with a collective response, artistic activism becomes a well-rounded force toward social change, igniting the drive to elevate a message in the soul and in the material world. Art and activism have their strengths and weaknesses that complement each other. Art provides creative balance to activism, while activism implements a structured approach to art, getting the best out of a clear target and a dynamic vision for a better world. Artistic activism is a blend of social action that utilizes the emotionally moving power of arts with the strategy of activism to propel movements toward social change.
“People don’t share policy papers, they share things that move them.” - The Center for Artistic Activism
The world around us is constructed by symbols and representation as much as by textbooks and amendments. Artistic activism utilizes both to connect with the People. Art activists acknowledge that the political topographies and cultural landscapes are intertwined and that public demonstrations can reflect the consequences of historical errors as much as museum and gallery installations. These demonstrations impact communities at the micro-level more than extensive expositions due to accessibility. You’re more likely to see a street demonstration in your area than a museum installation if you do not have immediate access or inclination to museums and galleries. Since these demonstrations are more accessible for people to engage with, they will likely be filmed, gain social media traction, and connect with individuals worldwide.
Public demonstrations in artistic activism can take place in an exposition, studio, and public. An example of this could be the viral video in August 2016 of The Liberators’ cofounder Jae West allowing strangers to shave her head on the streets in Times Square to raise awareness of unrealistic body standards for women. While the demonstration did not take place on a canvas, its symbolism inspired the hearts of millions and took to social media by storm, surpassing 3 million views. “Being a catalyst for change was a risk I was willing to take to start the conversation about our societal definition of beauty and address the shame that is often attached to the perfectionism we try to uphold,” West wrote in her post about the demonstration. This demonstration can be interpreted both as a breaking of body standards in women and as a response to the freedom of choice since more states were restricting abortion access at that time.
Gender hierarchies are nothing new to our society, especially in this time of Roe v. Wade being questioned and overturned in certain states. The implications of the social constructs that exist are like anything else in the scope of art history. Art history is an implicit timeline of reactions to the previous movements, thus giving forth to the succeeding movements. The concepts of body autonomy and gender expression are also no stranger to the art history purview through powerful and under-rated chosen artistic expression by female artists. This expression is a direct reflection of current events, which this article will explore. A large theme throughout artistic activism is the power of chosen freedom. Whether it be through a street demonstration, portraiture, or photography, artists use their platforms to inform their audience about the impact of chosen expression.
“Shame isolates us, whereas vulnerability reminds us of our shared humanity.” - Jae West
Georgia O’Keeffe is an early example of chosen freedom through artistic expression. She is one of the most well-known and artistically identifiable painters of the 20th century. She is best known for her paintings that depict close-up shots of plants and flowers native to New Mexico. Her stylistic perspective is widely representative of eroticism and up-close depictions of male and female reproductive organs. While we will examine O’Keeffe’s famous artwork, we must do so through a lens predicated on her body autonomy and sexuality. Thus, we must look at how she was depicted and by who better than her famous photographer husband of the time, Alfred Stieglitz.
Stieglitz began a twenty-year-long symphonic portraiture series on his wife, beginning in 1917 and ending in 1937. Over two hundred of the five hundred prints made were from the couple’s first two years spent together. His series made O’Keeffe one of the most photographed women of the twentieth century, capturing intensely passionate and intimate moments between a man and a woman and between a woman and her own body. Benita Eisler states in her 1992 book O’Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance that the portraiture “embraces the most public and private extremes of O’Keeffe’s being: icons of a remote, enigmatic woman that merged with her paintings to create her identity as an artist together with sexual explorations of her body so intimate that they have yet to be published or exhibited.”
Throughout the series, O’Keeffe is pictured standing in front of her large-scale paintings, which she did not like to show others. She recalled years later that she took the prints to school to show her classmates, in a sense of immediately excited self-discovery. In the accompanying series of images taken between 1918-1921, her entire body is examined. Stieglitz wrote to Anne Brigam in 1919, “I’m photographing—I wish you could see….clean cut sharp heartfelt mentally digested bits of universality in the shape of Woman—head—torso—feet—hands.” Between the sharp lines indented into the palms of her hands, protruding jawline, and neck musculature, to the more intimate parts of her breasts and reproductive parts, one can immediately correlate O’Keeffe’s body to her mind, and then externally through the expression of such in her paintings.
Yes, while O’Keeffe’s paintings are, and have been, interpreted largely as erotic portrayals of the intimate human body, she actually denied that direct correlation. Instead, she noted the intimacy as a portrayal of nature through her own eyes. She is praised as a feminist icon, and while she is, her courage was internalized in her own self-discovery catalyzed by the portraiture captured by her husband. The beauty of her art is that it nods to her chosen version of self-expression. That being said, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s incredible series can be viewed as a study on the development of censorship upon the female body in media. Thus, O’Keeffe is more than an empowering female figure of her own artistry—she represents how censorship and choice are drastically different, yet can exist together progressively.
While O’Keeffe is a symbol for self-discovery through a sexualized lens during the early twentieth century, artists have continued to explore and analyze body autonomy as a basic human right while continuing to leave room for interpretation and productive discussion. Through portraiture, photography, and mixed media, these artists have kept this momentum alive as the supreme court heard Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Artist Laurie Simmons’ tool for body autonomy is her camera and props, which aim to navigate societal norms surrounding gender roles.. She set her scenes deliberately and illuminated her message to remain open to both her interpretation and to allow for conversations and criticism about the social construction of these roles. Her 1976 piece Mother/Nursery depicts a doll kneeling and gazing upward towards the camera as cartoon animals and letter blocks swirl around her. Her inspiration for pieces like this stem from her early fascination with the portrayal of gender roles in the media during the 1950s when growing up. The piece serves as a historical marker for anatomical turbulence, its creation occurring only three years after Roe v. Wade’s initial verdict in 1973. The year 1976 was also the start of the push toward restricting abortions, resulting in the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the federal government from using funds to provide access to them.
While Simmons uses monochromatic photography to depict the consequences of early portrayals of gender norms, artists have taken images such as these and added modern twists to them to capture the shift in social views on chosen freedoms from generation to generation. This bridge between generations tells the tale of shifting tactics in symbolizing autonomy and the freeing nature that comes with the ability to choose.
Conceptual artist Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) is known for her contrasting black and white photographs with bold red text to juxtapose the retro-style photographs with text overlays. Her untitled 2011 piece reads “Who will write the history of tears?” in front of a hypnotic spiral. The work deviates from her more common usage of direct pronouns like “you” and “I” to push her audience towards discussions on the consequences of proselytization, consumerism, and censorship. From 2011 to 2013, a record number of abortion restrictions were enacted by states, leading to the rise of “heartbeat bills” to increase in more states. This creation serves as a reminder of the uncertainty women faced at the start of the decade on medical rights at the state level, her use of accusatory ambiguity challenging readers to question social constructions of identity and power, and their place along with their impacts on political structure and policy. Furthermore, Kruger’s artistic influence on greater socio-political structures demonstrates the capacity of art and an impactful message as the subject. Her influence upon all generations is unmistakable in the conceptual collagist field, widely associated with the Pictures Generation.
Artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Laurie Simmons, and Barbara Kreuger continue to pave the way for generations of artists with their masterpieces while helping others by sharing their personal experiences with censorship. Their craft not only helps other artists find their voice but also inspires the People to fight for change. While these artists helped build and add on to conversations since the early 20th century, their messages continue to echo in the present time.
After the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade draft verdict was unpredictably leaked in May, Laurie Simmons expressed exhaustion and disappointment as the United States was thrown back in time in the blink of an eye. “We’ve been fighting the fight for so long. We remember the previous times which weren’t pretty. The pushback is going to be fierce,” said Simmons to ArtNews. “It’s extra painful and shocking for my generation.” Her comments highlight how progress is never linear, an important facet of social change to keep in mind during these uncertain times for body autonomy.
Kreuger’s comments on May’s draft verdict echo that of her works as well. “The striking down of Roe should come as a surprise to no one. And if it does, they haven’t been paying attention,” said Barbara Kreuger to ArtNews. Kreuger also believes that no one is blameless on the topic, calling out moderate and leftwing politicians as they “seldom address the issues of reproductive freedom with candor and power.”
Since the overturning, Kruger’s sales have exploded. Her prices have continued to rise after a steady stream of exhibitions. Dealer Mary Boone, a long-time representative for Kruger and her work, told Bloomberg “Next to Warhol, there’s not another artist, aside from perhaps Cindy Sherman, who’s been as influential for what things look like and how people see the world as Barbara” [Bloomberg]. Her work’s sales continue to climb after being displayed in three of David Zwiner’s galleries in New York City this summer, her distinctively direct visual language continuing to inspire generations and open discussions about social constructs and managerial hierarchies.
Resistance and reaction are two imperative factors of art history advancements between movements. Art is based heavily on socio-political, economic, religious, and cultural factors, in which the people within the society are responsible for developing the future. As we experience this volatile time of division within the debate of choice, we are reckoned with the responsibility of upholding our morals. This has permeated every aspect of our lives, and we can see this in social media culture with influencers and their elevated platforms. Fashion and media go hand in hand in self-expression, and this has fueled the conversation regarding body positivity and how women have been exploited because of their chosen fashion statements.
Fashion is one of the most popularized art forms, and British actress Florence Pugh recently came under fire for her sheer, see-through Valentino gown worn at the Valentino Fall/Winter 2022 Haute Couture show in Rome on July 8. The Academy Award nominee received an influx of vulgar comments that targeted and shamed her body, specifically, the sheer top that revealed her nipples underneath. The negative comments were largely made by men who attacked her for the size of her breasts. Florence took to Instagram to acknowledge the strong female household she grew up in, which furthers her mission to spread body positivity. She remarked how “interesting” it is to see how easy it is for men to publicly and proudly destroy a woman’s body with confidence, and for all to read and watch. Florence responded to the disrespectful comments in an Instagram post to her 7.7 million followers saying, “Grow up. Respect people. Respect Bodies. Respect all women. Respect humans.”
Artistic activism not only elevates the freedom of creative expression but proves that pinpoints in history are a vessel for inspiration and creativity and proves that the power of art and chosen freedom is so strong that it has continued to impact the social attitudes of people for generations. Laurie Simmons explores the dynamic nature of motherhood in mind-20th century social norms, Georgia O’Keeffe’s projects serve as both a reflection of how audiences shape interpretations and as an example of the social construction of censorship, and Barbara Kreuger bridges the social attitudes of generations by overlaying monochromatic images with bold, colorful text. From photography to fashion design, the art community will continue to watch as these influential platforms convey messages that transform collective action. As their works continue to circulate, their statements within their masterworks will impact social movements for generations to come.
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This is the first piece of our series titled Art and Activism. As the Center for Artistic Activism puts it, “Social change doesn’t just happen, it happens because people decide to make change.” As the two facets of social action become more intertwined, this series aims to analyze current events, investigate art crafted related to current events, and highlight artists who use collective action as inspiration for their masterpieces. You can look forward to seeing more from this column in the future.
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