Art: An Incredibly Powerful Tool to Reach People

What is the relationship between art and social change? (How) can environmentalism be communicated through art?

This blog is my space to explore, over the next several weeks, how to bring my artist self, my activist self, and my environmentalist self together. They are all woefully under-cultivated aspects of me, and I want to nurture them by learning about art’s role in social change in general and art’s potential to communicate an environmental message in the future. But I have an admission to make: I am starting this blog completely torn.  The more I have thought about the topic, the more conflicted I have become: what does it mean to create art to address social ills? As an artist, how can you possibly do that—art is not and should not be propaganda. Right?

The dilemma is not mine alone. As a writer trying to spark a revolution through art in the way African Americans were perceived in popular culture, W. E. B. DuBois addressed this question:

“Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists… I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”

In a world where we are constantly attacked by advertisements repeating that we are not enough because we do not have enough, maybe environmentalist art is a necessary tool to remind ourselves of where the world is headed, given all of our excess. But, still, wouldn’t it hurt the art? Does art that deliberately addresses social ills still have integrity as art apart from the societal context; doesn’t it risk becoming heavy-handed, preachy, and obsolete?

Cave Art from the Lascaux Caves photo courtesy of Peter80, wikimedia commons

Meyer Tanenbaum’s one-bedroom apartment in a prewar building a little more than a block west of central park, is full of paintings—thousands of them. They lay stacked in floor to ceiling shelving units, and lean against the shelving units and patches of free wall; there are canvases collectors are considering buying in his bedroom, and unfinished paintings next to open jars of cadmium red and burnt sienna against the wall right where you walk in. They date back to the 1960’s (check that!!!!) but not before then—when he started painting abstract art, he burnt all his old, realist paintings. I called him to ask his opinions about the integrity of art that has a message. He surprised me by saying that while the bulk of art is separate from social change, some artists can use their art to address social ills and do it well—the message of the art does not affect its merit as art. He had another point, too. “There are paintings on caves,” he said, “and no one is quite sure why they are there, but one of the theories is that painting hunting scenes gave the people courage. That is a social function. Art is universal. Even kindergarteners can paint.” Art, as he was saying, is an incredibly powerful tool to reach people.

I turned this around in my head for a while and began to search for artist activists who make their message work. Mallika Sarabhai, a pioneer of using arts, especially dance, for social change, makes a similar point in her TED talk “Dance to change the world.” Watch the whole lecture—it is excellent—but she makes a point starting at 4:20 saying, “Art can go through where other things can’t. You can’t have barriers, because it breaks through your prejudices, breaks through everything that you have as your mask…And it reaches somewhere where other things don’t. And in a world where attitudes are so difficult to change, we need a language that reaches though.”

So there we have it: Here is my blog to document my journey in creating environmentalist art that reaches through.

One thought on “Art: An Incredibly Powerful Tool to Reach People

  1. marta braiterman tanenbaum

    Meyer Tanenbaum is a great model. HIs comments are always original and fresh. He stays timeless by always talking to people of every age. That, to me, is his hallmark as a human being.

    Like cave paintings, art continues to document the human experience, so it can’t help but be political. I think even the abstract expressionists of the l950’s and l960’s were recording a social revolution without any name-able subject matter on their canvases. If Jackson Pollock could paint from every side of the canvas; if Rothko could resonate emotions like a pulsing human heart using only throbbing colors in multiple shades of orange or black in a square; if Barnett Newmann could create time and rhythmic momentum with just a well-chosen, well-placed line moving like a blip across a huge canvas, I think it’s political. It all speaks to decentralization of authority, relativism, and equal respect for multiple points of view.

    Wow, I can’t believe I spouted all that out. Ima gonna go now to eat some ice cream.

    Did you ever read some of the historic essays in art history, such as “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” or “A Room of One’s Own”? The mere fact of declaring oneself an artist (for a living) is a political statement that flies against all the pressure to be or do other things with one’s life.

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