As Pablo Picasso said, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only his eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician or a lyre at every level of his heart if he‘s a poet….? On the contrary, he‘s at the same time a political being, constantly alive to heart rendering fiery or happy events, to which he responds in every way.” The most notable example of Picasso’s political activism can be seen in Guernica, painted in response to the destruction of a village in northern Spain by the same name that was bombed by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War. The chaos and anguish depicted in the painting calls attention to the horrific event, and in doing so seeks to highlight the injustice and devastation rampant during the Spanish Civil War. However, Picasso is by no means the only visual artist, or artist in general, to utilize his skill and acclaim to affect change.
The same strains of political activism are seen in music as well. From Beethoven’s decisive renaming of his third symphony “Bonaparte” to “Heroic Symphony Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man”, to the lyrics of modern pop or rap songs advocating acceptance and tolerance, like Macklemore’s “Same Love”, musicians and singers have used their art to promote the change they hope to see in society.
In dance, a famous example is the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. At its start, during the height of the civil rights movement, Alvin Ailey was a dance company that provided African-Americans the opportunity to express themselves and their culture through some of the most influential dances in the world. As was written in the Alvin Ailey Dance Company Program, “The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America’s richest treasures. From his roots as a slave, American Negro—sometimes sorrowing, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful—has created a legacy of music and dance which have touched, illuminated and influenced the most remote preserves of world civilization. I and my dance theater celebrate, in our programme, this trembling beauty. We bring to you the exuberance of his jazz, the ecstasy of his spirituals, and the dark rapture of his blues.”
The most publicized example of artists’ activism is within the television and film community. The movies themselves are works of social change, like The Imitation Game and Selma, which call attention to past discrimination to highlight its presence in our modern society, or The Theory of Everything and Still Alice, which depict the hardship of debilitating physical and mental diseases, breaking down the stigmas surrounding these conditions and hopefully spurring our community to more actively search for a cure. While the actors utilize their fame to champion various charities and movements, from Patricia Arquette’s urging for equal rights for men and women (and Meryl Streep’s fantastic reaction) to Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield using the ever present paparazzi to promote various environmental organizations.
You watch a dance for an hour, hear a song for a minute, see a painting for a second. You may think that art is fleeting, just an ephe-meral stimulation of the senses, a momentary activation of the mind and soul. You would be mistaken: art lives on; as you walk away, it lingers, hanging on the wall, wrapped up in film, imprinted in some primal recess of your mind. And with it, the artist is immortalized. Artists’ work leaves an impact on our society, the extent of which is imperceptible, and part of which is seen in their activism and altruism, bringing salvation and hope to our world.go.”