In my eighth grade history class, my teacher had us read the news every day before class and write brief summaries of what we had learned. I was in eighth grade during the 2016-17 school year, also one of the bloodiest points of the Syrian Civil War. As a result of my teacher’s assignments, I learned a lot about the war and was strongly impacted by the effect the open conflict had had on the lives of Syrian civilians. A large part of the reporting on the Syrian war at this point was focused on personal stories of affected citizens and while the stories always caught my attention, what captivated me the most was a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos focused on the civil war taken by members of the Associated Press in 2013. The terrible reality of the war that these pictures captured was emotionally impactful in a way that written accounts of the war couldn’t portray to me, and showed me for the first time the power of art in activism.
Art has held an important place in activism since the beginning of American history and has helped propel some of its most influential cultural movements. During the Civil War, Northern abolitionist artists produced hundreds of paintings and prints depicting the brutality of slavery through scenes of slaves being punished by their masters and toiling under exhausting conditions. According to the Foundation for American Art, these images helped “change hearts and minds” in the North and make the end of slavery a main goal of the Union Army. In the early 1900s, many women leading the American suffrage movement used training they had received in art school to create posters supporting the movement and countering anti-suffragist propaganda. The official Artists’ Suffrage League was founded in 1907 and circulated pro-feminist prints until 1918, just two years before Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. In more modern history, the international COP21 climate conference in 2015 featured a collection of musical, visual, and written art entitled ArtCOP21 designed to bring global awareness to climate change and its worsening effects.
As shown by its seminal presence in the history of American activism, art is a powerful tool for capturing public attention and shaping cultural opinions. Making your voice heard is an essential part of broad societal change, and artistic expression is a simple yet powerful way to express your message.
By Julianna Baldo