Through their creations, artists may express their ideas and rally public opinion to their cause. Art is often what unites people, with artists giving momentum to a cause they believe in. How can art provoke social change?
I) Revealing social inequalities
1) Representing the upper class
Satire is a genre used to mock and debunk people or ideas. Examples include Grayson Perry’s tapestry The Upper Class at Bay (2012). Perry depicts an upper-class couple walking through their estate and dealing with protesters, and being submerged by taxes represented by stones. By using upper-class codes (the mansion, the deer hunt, etc.) Perry mocks the upper class’s complaints that the government imposes too many taxes on them.
In a contrary fashion, Evelyn Waugh mourns the decline of the English aristocracy in Brideshead Revisited (1945), a novel set in the prestigious University of Oxford. As opposed to Perry’s work, this novel is an example of reactionary art: Waugh wishes things would go back to the way they were.
2) Exposing poverty and social issues
In contemporary art, artists such as Ken Loach, Mierle Laderman Ukeles or Ron English are highly interested in the discrepancy between social classes. Ken Loach is known for his socially engaged movies which deal with low-paid jobs, unemployment, homelessness, and access to welfare.
By focusing on the daily lives of normal people, Loach denounces the failure of the state to provide help. For instance, I, Daniel Blake (2016) follows a sick unemployed man as he fights to get an employment allowance from the state after his doctor tells him he can no longer work because of a heart condition.
II) Fighting against discrimination
1) Condemning racism
One of the leading authors in the fight against racism was Toni Morrison. Her 1987 novel Beloved throws light on the lives of former slaves after the American Civil War. Through her characters, she explores the issues of identity, or more precisely, the loss of identity of slaves.
The American Civil War opposed Northern states to Southern states on the question of slavery. The North eventually won and slavery was abolished in 1865.
Artists can call on people to react, just as Keith Haring with his lithograph Free South Africa (1985), attacking the racial segregation regime of apartheid. The comic-like image depicts a chained but tall South African rising against a small white oppressor and resembles an instruction guide for liberation.
2) Denouncing sexism
Feminist figures include Angela Davis, an American civil rights activist. She was also a radical feminist during the counterculture movement and she later contributed to the development of feminist studies in several universities. She was more recently involved in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington which protested against the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
Another feminist activist is Maya Angelou. She wrote several feminist poems such as “Still I Rise”, “Caged Bird” and “Phenomenal Woman”. In “Phenomenal Woman” (1978), she portrays a strong female figure who describes her body parts and the reaction of men to it. By doing so, she shows she is proud of her own body and claims it as her own. She demonstrates that the female body is not an object to be gazed at by male viewers.