“L’art pour l’art” or “art for art’s sake” is an understanding of the purpose of art that, today, is not as widely accepted as it was in the past. While many artists and connoisseurs still strongly promote the idea that whatever an artist produces is in fact art and does not have to be explained or questioned to find a deeper meaning, young artists and their admirers share the feeling that art for art’s sake is not enough. Art, they argue, should stand for something: to give life a meaning; to express their opinion; to use their creativity and talent to change public opinion. Or even to start a revolution, as exampled by the French Commune that took down the Vendomme Column in Paris in 1871 as a first act of neo-luddite street art activism (artivism), and thereby playing a significant role in starting the impressionist movement.
The impressionists’ reaction revolutionized the art world. Rebelling against the academies as well as classical painting methods, the impressionists helped form the image of the artist as a disengaged, neutral aesthetic. While Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, Abstractionists, and Futurists all rebelled against art itself, their activism was more an attempt to provoke other artists and critics, rather than an actual act to draw public attention to social, political, or environmental affairs.
Political activism through art was, for the first time, established during the Great Depression in the United States when artists organized shows, congresses, and demonstrations to make their voices heard against war, injustice, and irresponsible political actions. The 1930s, with its focus on political art, saw artivism really take off, “blossoming yet again in recent years under the twin hammers of endless war and economic injustice,” as noted by American artist Art Hazelwood.
In recent years we have seen and heard much about artivism. Street art is one of its more prominent and widely spread forms of expression. Mostly we associate street art with graffiti, but it can also include video projections, chalk paintings, sculptures, performances, and unconventional forms of decoration, such as yarn bombing. With so many options open to them, street artists are thriving in public spaces, especially where anonymity allows for more nuanced and provocative expressions. While artivism is not limited to street art, both artists and the public are greatly benefiting from access that is not constrained by hierarchies of taste determined by elitists in galleries and museums. The street is an equalizing space for artists and art lovers.
I have seen brilliant performances, such as one in which a group of naked student activists wrapped themselves in clear plastic bags, apparently bloody and ready for sale with a price tag. As an activity against mass production, the display was unique, unforgettable, and definitely provocative. A current example of performance art that has fired up imaginations and political conversations is that of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who is carrying the mattress on which she was raped around campus until her school’s administration expels her rapist. The performance has elicited demonstrations against complicity with sexual abuse on college campuses and has captured media attention worldwide.
Artivism and Environmentalism
In recent years, more and more artists are using the power of visual arts to raise awareness ofenvironmental issues. One prominent example is the Greenpeace Swan Lake ballet performance against fracking, where the ballerina performs her very own version of the “Dying Swan,” by the end covered in oil sludge. The message “presented by Gazprom” at the end clearly states the objective of the piece. Dance performances like this are powerful tools to spread a political message and to involve those who wouldn’t normally act on their own accord.
An installation on environmental artivism that remains vivid in my mind is a Christmas forest, with trees built completely out of recycled cans and plastic bottles and shooting stars and mistletoe cut out of old cans. The installation raised awareness of the issue of recycling in a way that was not confrontational. Another attempt to bring nature back into cities is the “Travelling Plants” project by Juliane Springsguth and Florian Weil, where flowerpots with plants are set up inside the Berlin subway system.
Another example of environmental activism through visual arts is the “Crossroads Project,” which aims to change the audience’s immediate view on how nature and the planet are affected by our behavior, and take them from an intellectual understanding to personal resolve by combining information and imagery with powerful music.
And it’s not only artists who use those powerful visual tools to change public opinion and raise awareness about societal concerns. On a mission to change people’s behavior and understanding of environmental issues is the Mexican nonprofit organization Solución Ambiental, which promotes environmental awareness through installations and sculptures made out of litter. The idea behind Solución’s work is to show that—ultimately—recycling is a good thing. In Mexico, where litter is still burned in backyards and thrown out onto the streets without even the slightest feeling of remorse or guilt, organizations like Solución Ambiental help to show children and adults how to recycle, how to act respectfully and responsibly in how they get rid of their waste. In workshops and competitions for schools and youth organizations, they help the students to use their artistic impulse and creativity to build sculptures and structures out of all kinds of litter, like cans, bottles, and even cigarette butts. Although this mission can be a very tiring and frustrating experience, as it only changes one person at a time, the social value of organizations like Solución Ambiental is not to be ignored.
The effect artivism has on our society is very strong, although we may not recognize it right away. But showing the world in a public space what is wrong with society is a necessary shove in the right direction. Even in countries where artists might be imprisoned for their public expression, we can count on some of them risking everything so that maybe just one more person joins their fight against injustice and for a better future.
People are taking notice. One prominent example, exhibited in the photography show “Revolution Paintings: Graffiti and Arab Public Places” in the “Casa Árabe” in Madrid, is a classical street art element: a large black and white mural depicting the horrors that followed the revolution in Egypt. “Tank vs. Bike” was placed under the 6th October Bridge in Cairo by the artist Ganzeer in response to the post-revolution events of the Arab Spring. Interestingly enough, this very wall has become a battlefield for graffiti artists in Cairo, anti-regime activists on one side, adding onto the mural, calling for another 25th of January and denouncing military rule, and pro-army military loyalists, erasing the anti-military additions and leaving pro-regime comments. So even though the mural was destroyed by the various attacks and counter attacks of self-announced artists, it still shows us that artivism is a force to be reckoned with. As John Jordan said in his “Notes on the work of art (and activism) in the age of the Antropocene,” “we need to give up representation and put art back in the service of life and rebellion.”
Activism, Performance, Street Art, Urbanism