The Emotional Power of Artistic Activism

A colorful mural across the street from the Howard Theater in D.C. Photos by Luke Cohen.

Washington, D.C., is a hub for people seeking political and societal change, where many people come to voice their opinions. Many residents of D.C, Maryland and Virginia have seen or participated in protests such as climate strike rallies on Capitol Hill or Black Lives Matter marches. Because D.C.-area residents live so close to the center of political power, rallies and street marches probably come to mind first when we think about activism. However, artistic activism is another powerful way to advance societal change. 

Artistic activism is the practice of using the power of the arts—including painting, drawing, photography, dance or even music—to express ideas and evoke emotions. One form of activism isn’t better than the other, but it is helpful to be aware of the different ways we can motivate people to push for social change. To create social change, people can attend rallies, start fundraisers, meet with legislators and even establish groups to garner support for their cause. But in order to galvanize support, people must understand and empathize with the cause.

A wall mural in an alley off 14th Street.

For example, if the cause is racial equality, art can show the hate or violence certain marginalized groups experience. That creates a strong emotional reaction in people and motivates them to address such racial bigotry in their own lives and communities and beyond.

Washington, D.C., is filled with murals that advocate for many causes and social issues. U Street, once called Black Broadway, has many murals representing D.C.’s Black history. One significant mural there is on the side of the restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl, which is owned by a GDS family. The establishment was the only restaurant open during the 1968 riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The mural on the side of the restaurant features the faces of prominent African-American figures such as Barack and Michelle Obama, Prince and Harriet Tubman. By celebrating them and creating an emotional resonance in its viewers, this mural is a form of artistic activism. 

Artistic activism is also prevalent in our own school community. This year, the GDS art department hosted its annual Identity and Social Justice Art Show virtually, using an online gallery displaying images of students’ work. The art show was created as a platform for students to express their identities and beliefs. 

GDS Studio Art Department Chair Michelle Cobb said in an interview, “Artistic activism is something that we as a department were very intentionally aware of this year more than any other year because of the pandemic, a hostile political climate, systemic racism and social justice.” The art department also sought for students to harness their creative power to show, in ways they couldn’t with words, how they were dealing with the pandemic and the uprising of racial discrimination. “Students were involved with the ideas of challenging and changing power, but also about work that became very symbolic,” Cobb said. 

Art posted near the Howard Theater.

Sophomore Maya Ryu, whose art was displayed in the Identity Show, said her multimedia piece  “was about the anti-Asian racism that has been occurring since the beginning of the pandemic.” Ryu, who has Korean heritage, said, “I wanted to represent how people from all different parts of Asia and all different cultures are being sort of put into this stereotype that they all carry the coronavirus and that they are all diseased and foreign.” Ryu said she wanted more people to be aware of the uptick in violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic. 

As students, artists and activists, our generation should continue to use artistic activism to voice our opinions. We can use different creative forms to express ideas—and convey emotions—we can’t with words, allowing us to advocate for social change through universally accessible media.