Activism x Art: the role of art in social change

By Olivia Nevill

The famous phrase ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ is becoming ever more pertinent in our society. Because of our current state of social and political upheaval, art, in the form of pictures and symbols, is increasingly being used as the primary medium to convey the message of social and political movements in an attempt to raise awareness and promote change.

Looking back in history, it is clear that art has played a prevalent role in spreading messages and raising awareness. Take the Vietnam War, for example, whereby art from the anti-war movement came in the form of appropriating popular images with a distinct political message. The famous image of Uncle Sam imploring young American men to join the army was subverted to show the reality of fighting in the Vietnam war, provoking sympathy for the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Conveying a message through popular forms of art is a simple yet effective way to engage emotion, encouraging people to take part and make a change.

Moving forward to the present day, art is still playing a central role in social and political change. In fact, it can be argued that the importance of effective graphic design is increasing, as social media has made it even easier for images and art to be spread. The environmental pressure group, Extinction Rebellion, currently protesting in London, uses both symbolism and imagery to spread particular messages.

Fred Moon on Unsplash

It is impossible to think of the Extinction Rebellion movement without picturing their logo: the renowned hourglass symbol inside a circle. When we see this symbol, we think of the environment, we think of climate change, we think of the desperate state of our planet. The minimalist image is symbolic of the pressing nature of climate change, evoking emotion and drawing people into the movement.

However, the use of activist art in such movements can invite a passive engagement from the wider public. Although the aim of the movement seeks to engage with as many people as possible in order to spread the message, the necessary simplification inherent to the use of art in activism necessitates a lot of nuance and loss of detail which only the written word can convey.

On the whole, activist art has been fundamental in playing a large role in promoting social and political change, both historically and through to the present day. Although it may result in nuance, it undeniably engages people to a certain extent which can often result in further research and involvement. Therefore, the use of visual images and symbols engages and unites people, raising awareness in such a way where the written word is inaccessible.


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