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Activism through Art


Sometimes, it doesn’t take more than believing in a cause or wanting to incite change to be an activist. In fact, an activist is defined as “a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change,” which is pretty broad. Anyone who wants to change the world for the better, and shares these hopes with others, is an activist. Historically, colleges have been hotbeds of activist activity, and protests have occurred on college campuses throughout time, from the era of Vietnam to the Iraq War in the early 2000s and even today. In the last few years, numerous marches on Washington and more local demonstrations have protested the actions of the current U.S. President, gun rights, and police brutality.

What do artist and art have to do with activism? Many artists consider themselves activists or see their profession as a way to raise awareness of important issues. Some do this through shocking their audiences, others by connecting with them, and others by adopting humor. Some artist may not consider themselves activists personally, but their art might still be embraced as a symbol of a movement or might incite a platform. Art is a device that can bring people together or stimulate conversation and discussion.

One doesn’t need to hold a master’s degree in fine arts to make activist art: Just look at all the DIY posters, fliers, and banners that have marked the Women’s March in Washington DC or other historic protests. Sometimes ironic or pun-filled, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes straightforward, these signs are constructed as visual symbols to raise attention and awareness. In this way, artmaking as a form of activism is very accessible.

Questions for Discussion

1. What does the word “activism” mean to you? When you hear the word “activist”, what do you see? What types of images do you associate with these words?

2. Who or what determines the need for activism? How does that play a role in predicting the success of activism?

3. How does activism relate to building communities?

4. Have you done anything considered “activist” in your life? What did you do and what obstacles or challenges did you face during the process?

5. Can artwork (or music, or a film, or a piece of writing) be considered activist if the artist doesn’t consider themselves an activist?

Additional Resources

Artnet News, “How Have Artists Shaped Previous Protest Movements? 7 Historians on How the Past Can Help Us Understand the Present”, June 16, 2020, (Note: Faculty can access a pdf on the Chazen’s Canvas website.)

Barbara Beyerbach and Tania Ramalho, “Activist Art in Social Justice Pedagogy,Counterpoints vol. 403 (2011). (Note: Faculty can access a pdf on the Chazen’s Canvas website.)

Nadine Bloch, “How technology is shaping creative activism in the 21st century,” Waging Nonviolence (March 20, 2019). (Note: Faculty can access a pdf on the Chazen’s Canvas website.)

Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert, “Why Artistic Activism,” The Center for Artistic Activism (April 2018). (Note: Faculty can access a pdf on the Chazen’s Canvas website.)

Thelma Golden, “How Art Gives Shape to Cultural Change,” TED2009, (2009) 12 minutes

Tyler Kennedy and David Null, “Protests & Social Action at UW—Madison during the 20th Century,” UW Archives and Records Management

Carly Mallenbaum, “Art activism: Stories behind murals, street paintings and portraits created in protest,” USA Today (July 6, 2020)

University of Wisconsin–Madison, Public History Project

Deborah Wye, “Introduction,” Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988) (Note: Faculty can access a pdf on the Chazen’s Canvas website.)