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Activism through Art

Module Overview

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 artists 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 artists 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, art making 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?

Learning Activities


To build student’s observation skills, challenge each student to look at an artwork for thirty seconds and write a list of ten words, phrases, or thoughts associated with the work. After thirty seconds, repeat, adding another ten words or phrases to the list. See  Learning Activities pdf for more details.


To build upon observations and link ideas, assign students a viewpoint—or perspective—from which to read the artwork, such as one of the individuals or objects depicted in the image. Then ask them to write a letter to you from this person or thing’s perspective. The letter should address items that individual or object might care about, believe in, or wonder about. See Learning Activities pdf for more details.

To encourage students to think like an artist, ask students to create an artwork depicting something of importance that people often avoid talking about.

To build observational skills and develop visual literacy, blindly distribute printed copies of an artwork and do not provide any contextual information in advance. Next, ask students to draw, write, and mark up the image, recording observations along the way. Challenge students to write an interpretative response to the work of art using visual evidence to support their understanding of the meaning of the work. See Learning Activities pdf for additional details.

To improve research skills and contextual development, assign students to compile a dossier on an artwork. Choose from works listed in the Collection Connections section of a dossier on the checklist above, right.

To help students connect ideas and consider context, assign a work of art and ask students to consider the following questions: 1) what do you see, 2) what do you think about what you see, 3) how do you relate to this artwork or what personal connections do you have, and 4) how is this work related to the world, our place in it, or the larger themes of this class? See Learning Activities pdf for more details.

To encourage students to think like an artist, ask students to choose a contemporary or historical event and design a memorial to commemorate it.

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

Barbara Beyerbach and Tania Ramalho, “Activist Art in Social Justice Pedagogy,Counterpoints vol. 403 (2011).

Nadine Bloch, “How technology is shaping creative activism in the 21st century,” Waging Nonviolence (March 20, 2019).

Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert, “Why Artistic Activism,” The Center for Artistic Activism (April 2018).

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)

For more information and additional resources, teachers may contact Chief Curator Katherine Alcauskas or Curator of Education Candie Waterloo. UW–Madison faculty and teaching staff may access these materials on Canvas.