Ah, the age-old debate: can art change the world? Some argue that art can’t save us, but take that as a challenge, artists, especially at a time like now, when the stakes are high and the raw material for subject matters is endless. Writer Joyce Carol Oates even went so far as to suggest on Twitter that the silver lining of the Trump election is the inspiration the political disaster would give artists (she was promptly slaughtered by furious replies, but the point remains).
While everyone and their gallery assistant’s dog has an opinion about art’s relationship to politics, instead philosophizing about the issue any further, let’s take a quick tour through the world of activist art and let the evidence speak for itself.
The holy grail of feminist artist/activists, Pussy Riot is the Russian punk group who made themselves heard around the world in 2011 when they performed a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to protest Putin’s policies. Call it performance art or call it hooliganism, Pussy Riot succeeded in calling attention to the Orthodox Church’s collusion with the Russian authoritarian regime. Two members, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, even went to jail for the stunt—and as Tolokonnikova told VICE, Russian prisons notoriously “really suck.”
Temporary inconveniences like incarceration aside, while Putin still sits in the Kremlin, Pussy Riot rocks on. If you, like nearly half of the world, tuned into the World Cup finale this Sunday, you might have seen four people in police uniforms invade the field around minute 52. That was Pussy Riot. Read more about their performance art antics; listen to Tolokonnikova explain how Pussy Riot was born and what they’re fighting for; find their songs and videos wherever you get your internet. And if you need any further convincing as to their street cred, the Police State music video features none other than Chloë Sevigny as a baton-wielding police chief.
A voice for the voiceless
If Joyce Carol Oates is to be believed and grotesque politics send down flurries of creative inspiration from the heavens, it’s no wonder Russia is a fertile breeding ground. Russian graphic journalist Victoria Lomasko has traveled through the distant Russian heartland—a rare feat, since most people that make it to Moscow and St. Petersberg prefer to stay put—sketching the lives and personalities that lie beyond the glitzy capital. From prostitutes’ apartments to towns with populations in the dozens, Lomasko captures forgotten enclaves of humanity rife with the typical small-town ennui and working-class cynicism about power, but occasionally brushes up against forces far more sinister, the tangled web of corrupt oligarchy that all Russians are caught in, one way or another.
Her drawings are gestural, clearly done on the fly in between genuine conversations, and intimate—you can clearly tell that each of Lomasko’s sketches contains something of a self-portrait. You can buy Other Russias, the final product of her work, for only $20 (the price of approximately six strawberries from the Whole Foods salad bar, last time I checked).
For LaToya Ruby Frazier, photography is a medium that makes injustice obvious and impossible to ignore. By making pictures about American industrial decay, healthcare and environmental justice, she takes these abstract issues and brings them into painfully concrete focus for her audience. Her art is not just about grandiose notions of justice; Frazier grew up in the prototypical rust belt town of Braddock, Pennsylvania and spent her early life witnessing many of the same systemic injustices inflicted on her community that she later began documenting with her camera. Many of her photos bear touching, domestic titles like “In Gramps’ Pajamas” and “Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby,” bridging the gap between the personal and the political.
But Frazier doesn’t stop at raising awareness about contemporary forces of evil—she fights them, too. By purchasing one of her special-edition collectible prints for $600, you can contribute to The Sister Tour, a travelling collective born from the Flint, Michigan water crisis whose goal is to bring creative women together and support their work. Check out Frazier’s Ted Talk here.
Art with a message
If being a female artist doesn’t already feel like fighting a losing battle half the time, try being one in a country where women need a male guardian’s approval to do just about anything. But Ms Saffaa, the pseudonym of Saudi feminist artist and activist who doesn’t use her real name for fear of prosecution, has succeeded with all the odds stacked against her and is empowering others to follow in her footsteps.
“My whole life has been a political statement,” she told HuffPost in 2016—how’s that for performance art? Ever since she won a scholarship to study art in Sydney (an uphill battle that brought her face-to-face with draconian Saudi authorities, constantly forced to prove that she was still under male guardianship abroad) Ms Saffaa has been using her art as a platform to overturn male guardianship laws by creating provocative street murals. Since so much of international human rights hinges on public pressure, using a widely accessible medium like street art to raise awareness isn’t just an aesthetic choice—it’s a brilliant political one. Often, in the spirit of sisterhood, her work is collaborative, a platform for other female Saudi artists’ voices. She is also active in the #iammyownguardian movement, running the Instagram page, and art she made for the campaign made its way onto ASOS t-shirts, hoodies and stickers.
A performance to remember
Anyone who still doubts the political potential of art should take a quick gander through Helène Aylon’s work. The 87-year-old Orthodox Jewish, avant-garde eco-feminist (yes, you read that right) spent her long career as a painter and performance artist engaging with issues from the nuclear threat to women’s place in society and religion. In the 1980s, Aylon quite literally showed what art can do to save the world: she gathered pillowcases of earth from military sites and drove the whole collection straight to the United Nations in what she called “The Earth Ambulance” to call for nuclear disarmament and the end of the Cold War.
In the interest of leaving something to the imagination (a writing tip, not a thinly veiled morality plug), I’ll let you delve deeper into her work yourself and leave off with a little teaser, the title of a piece Aylon made late in her life: “The Liberation of G-d.” For more, check out Aylon’s memoir, which you can read for free (!!) online.
Though Aylon is hardly a new artist coming up over the horizon of success, looking back at artists from the heyday of performance and protest art (who can forget Yoko’s “Cut Piece”?) can be a valuable lesson for the current moment. Young artists should be inspired by their dedication to the transgressive gesture—posting witty hashtags and painting slogans on sidewalks is great, but have you tried driving a truck of dirt to the UN?—while young cynics (I see you, sad-aesthetic Twitter people) can hopefully take these stories as a much-needed jolt out of their self-inflicted apathy.
It’s almost as if Aylon was speaking straight to 2018 when she said, “Aesthetics can penetrate the numbness that besets the psyche when issues are too horrendous to scrutinize.” This, and nothing else, is art’s role in political change: its ability to speak to people on a level that no speech, debate, reportage or exposé can. Here’s hoping the art world can keep finding fresh ways to shock—and to push for progress.
Photos via Wikipedia, n+1, Whitney Museum of American Art, instagram, The Guardian, WEAD