July Riseponds: Art As Activism

Riseponds is a monthly series where a group of Risen members are picked, not based on viewpoints, but solely through a "first come first serve" basis to speak on a topic that they're passionate or apathetic about. The randomness serves so readers can gain different viewpoints from different individuals with contrasting experiences. This month, we’ve been thinking about art as activism: do artists have an obligation to reflect the socio-political climate they live in?

Amelia: Art doesn’t necessarily have to be political - many artists aren’t emotionally invested in political activism, and I suppose that’s a personal thing. However, I have two opinions on this matter: one is that art, whether it be painting, music, photography or something else, is intrinsically tied to our socio-political climate. Who has their art showcased, who makes money from their art, what art is “palatable” and what art is not is all linked to our ever-evolving social standards, which falls hand-in-hand with our political climate. An artist, thus, who removes themselves from politics, I believe is an artist who has the privilege to do so - an artist who is “palatable”, who makes money, who gets their work showcased regardless. (Or, perhaps, they use art as a form of escapism - but even then, this is tied to politics.)
The second part is that art has been used by activists throughout history to celebrate their identity and bring light to their cause, as it is accessible and acts as an expressive outlet. Art is a powerful, powerful tool in activism, whether it’s a mural to Sandra Bland, a music video depicting strong black women, or a statement written on the back of a jacket reading: “If I die of AIDS - forget burial - just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.” Art makes you stop, makes you think, gets you angry. To not use your talent for good, for the betterment of society - especially if that talent has brought you a platform and a following - is, in my opinion, irresponsible.

Amy: As an artist, I am definitely inspired by the times and the socio-political climate that I live in. However, I feel as if the term “obligation” is too strong because art should not be an obligation, it should be a freedom. I am a strong believer of the proverb that a picture speaks a thousand words, and I know just how important art can be in furthering a political movement. If that’s the kind of art an artist wishes to create, I am in full support of that. But we must take into account that that may not be everyone’s style or passion, and it is also fine to create art that has no deep reflection of the times. I’ve been going back and forth on this question, but I think that I’ve decided that I believe that no, an artist does not have an obligation to reflect the times: they have the option to.

Cia: I’m a big fan of political art - I’ve always enjoyed finding the kernel of a piece of art, whether it be a painting, a sculpture, a song or a poem. Recently, I feel like there’s been a surge in artworks driven by what’s going on the world: personal favourites of mine include Grayson Perry’s Matching Pair (a pair of vases, themed Bremain and Brexit) and Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey (a 70-metre-long inflatable boat sculpture, along with 258 oversized figures to represent the thousands of refugees who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean). As much as I love this kind of art, I have mixed feelings about the view that it’s an artist’s duty to use their art as a mirror to reflect the times they live in. Surely, the beauty of art lies in the freedom that it provides to its creators. Then again, I suppose that I could argue that societal features are part of all art, regardless of the intent of the creator, especially when the artist tries to go beyond these boundaries.
Grayson Perry's Matching Pair / [image description: a pair of vases against a white background. Each vase depicts various people and things that are relevant to the 2016 EU referendum, with a blue-red colour scheme.]
Peyton: As an artist and writer, I think that drawing inspiration from your social/political surroundings can not only produce profound work, but also benefit those from which the inspiration is drawn. However, saying that artists have an obligation to produce certain themes is a slippery slope. Art is not something that can be forced, and we want artists to create pieces that are genuine and reflective of them as people. Art that is pushed in a specific direction often fails at conveying the intended point. Artists are essential in any socio-political battle, but art should be made for the right reasons.

Viyanca: I think many artists get confused by the question of whether or not to be political. There has always been pressure on artists to “make a statement” through their work because art is about expressing the truth and representing the reality in which you live. While there is no obligation to be political, I do think there is a moral imperative to be truthful in your work. I can only speak from an artist of color’s perspective, so my view may not seem applicable to all artists, but here it is: if our art isn’t in some way at least influenced by our socio-political environment, then we aren’t telling the truth. POC don’t have the option of being apolitical. The issues some people can choose to care about affect us too deeply to become trivial matters that we can ignore. Those who choose to avoid socio-political issues in their life and their art aren’t being completely honest with themselves or with the reality of their environment.