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Art and Activism

Many times, I’m truly amazed by how stuck people are within their own points of view. Almost no one seems interested in seeing things from another perspective. And with the world as stubborn as it is, how can we possibly build bridges and understanding? The answer has been right under our noses all along. We surround ourselves with it, and we experience constantly. It leaves an impression. I'm talking about art.

Art moves people. We revere artists of all kinds— musicians, painters, photographers, writers, orators, and many others— because art is the truest and rawest form of communication we have. It transcends race, gender, religion, sexuality, language, socio-economic class, and everything else that divides us. We pour our hearts and souls into art, it drives, us, pleases us, and moves us to do and feel things we wouldn't have even thought of before. So when people are faced with adversity, they turn to the thing that gives them comfort and outlet of expression, something that allows them as individuals to go beyond the confines of whatever stereotype they belong to.

Art has been a crucial part of every single revolution, movement, or uprising, from the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, the Apartheid, or the Singing Revolution in Estonia. Unlike violence and protests, art works from within. Because of the accessibility and emotional attachment to art we have, we tend to feel a much stronger urge to change and progress due to the themes within it. Visual art makes us reflect, music motivates us, speeches and poetry inspire us, and a united collective helps spur change in usually a much more non-violent way.

During the American Revolution, the famous John Trumbull painting called “Declaration of Independence”, depicted the founding fathers signing the famous document. This truly helped sway the public’s opinion from hating the idea of the revolution to loving their independence. Though most people view art from the American Revolution as simply a depiction of the battles and other important events during the time period, artists like John Trumbull and Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem, were instrumental in Americans beginning to fight for their independence, due to their newfound anthem and individual identity. During the French Revolution, Neoclassicism as an art form was extremely crucial in the pre-revolution uprisings due to the ideas of basic human rights, modern scientific investigation, rationalism, and moral rectitude shown within the paintings. It was art that depicted the lack of these basic ideas that forced the French to think about their situation and yearn for change in the first place.

During the Apartheid, singing and dancing was used much more than painting or writing— and these protests in South Africa became more of a visual art. More than anything else, these acts are what began to move people— a solid group on a united front, built to bring peace. The same concept goes for the Estonian Singing Revolution against the Soviet Union—in which every man, woman, and child who stood for Estonia’s independence gathered in one place and sang the unofficial national anthem. The act was so moving and a symbol of Estonia’s union that the tradition is carried on annually to this day.

So then, with the historical presence of art throughout almost every major revolution in history, the prevalence of spoken word, visual art, and music shouldn’t be a shock. We write slam poems, we speak, we write blogs like this, we sing our hearts out, and we invest time and energy into things that we have seen change other people. When we protest politics or empower ourselves, we make statements— we sing We Shall Overcome holding hands, we wear pins, march, or wear red for International Women’s Day.

Some of these expressions are so powerful and moving that they still affect us to this day. In the Chicago Children’s Choir, we learn many South African songs sung during the Apartheid movement. When the whole choir sings the songs, knowing their history and significance, we as a collective are moved. We can connect with both the songs and the people who sung them, because we in 2017 feel the same way black and colored people felt during the entirety of the Apartheid. Even though I sang in a language I didn’t know, calling upon history I wasn’t a part of, I was moved, and I was inspired. Something about a large united front singing passionately about issues that transcend just one time period is truly inspiring, and taught me the true impact of art. It may not have an immediate impact, it may not be a slap in the face, but it makes you think, reflect, feel, and judge.

And if we are using history as a guide for the future, our current social justice activists are paving the way for lasting positive change. Mary Engelbreit, a children’s book illustrator, uses her spare time to depict social issues and speak out about them, such as police brutality, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and feminism; Chance the Rapper uses his fame and platform in music to shed light on the injustice on the streets of Chicago, urging people to fund the Chicago Public Schools to help stop the violence that plagues urban cities like a disease; and Arturo Di Modica built the now-famous Fearless Girl statue to speak out about feminism, which has now become a national icon for justice. Americans have forged statements again and again, pleading for progress in every way. Advocacy is our greatest and most prevalent art form— our country was founded on it, every bill we have signed for good has been brought about by the people, we invest ourselves into feminist, interfaith, and other progressive groups— we even admire celebrities who promote causes they believe in.

By speaking up for whatever you believe in, whether it be through writing, composing, performing, painting, photographing, or anything else, you are making a difference. If one person sees your work and is moved, that’s enough to potentially start something. It may not be immediate, but if we want to see America continue to improve and progress, we should continue to speak out through art. If we can’t take advantage of the privileges we’re given to fight for our rights, can we call ourselves American at all?

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