In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Activist and Socially Engaged Art

  • Introduction

Art History Activist and Socially Engaged Art
Grant Kester
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0160


The terms “activist” or “socially engaged” art (used interchangeably throughout this article) refer to artistic practices that are integrated with, or responsive to, forms of political protest and resistance. This typically entails some connection to a social or political movement, community, or group that is seeking to challenge an authoritarian regime or contest hegemonic forms of domination, often associated with differences of class, race, ethnicity, or sexuality. The form taken by activist art can range from relatively abbreviated performative gestures to extended engagements with institutional power structures, to modes of symbolic or discursive production circulating in the public sphere (murals, graphic art, etc.). In each case, however, we can observe a reciprocal relationship between artistic production and mechanisms of social and political transformation oriented toward human emancipation. Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries there were significant interconnections between the concept of an activist art practice and the modern avant-garde. I’ll provide a brief outline of some of these navigational points in the section Historical Studies. It’s not possible, however, to provide a comprehensive account of sources across this broader historical range. For the purposes of this article, I will focus primarily on work since the 1960s, when we can observe the initial expression of a recognizably contemporary set of referents for activist or engaged art practice. Even within this limited time frame, the range of possible material far exceeds the space necessary to acknowledge relevant sources. Activist art practices, by their very nature, tend to overlap with, and ramify into, a range of adjacent forms of cultural production. We can find meaningful connections to activist theater (Augusto Boal), radical pedagogy (Paolo Freire), the Art and Labor movement, the traditions of community and street art, digital activism, tactical media, activist filmmaking, and urban murals, among many other relevant sources. Moreover, there are distinctive manifestations of activist or engaged art in every region of the globe. Argentine activist practice has its own unique traditions and concerns, as does art produced in Eastern Europe, South Africa, India, Japan, and Mexico. Rather than attempting to fully address each of these areas, I will offer a series of chronological divisions that chart some of the shifts that have occurred in the production of activist art since the mid-20th century.

Historical Studies

The emancipatory orientation of modern art was evident in its earliest stages, when Friedrich Schiller first identified art’s unique power to overcome the “economic self-interest” that was already apparent in European society in the late 18th century. However, conventional modernist art has typically secured its emancipatory potential by claiming to provide a prefigurative experience of utopic social harmony that must remain autonomous from the actual political processes necessary to bring this utopic society into practical existence. In this view art must restrict its engagement with the world to the incremental transformation of individual viewers or audience members, consuming artistic works in conventional institutional spaces such as galleries, museums, and concert halls. This principle of autonomy, however, has fluctuated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. During periods of political and social upheaval, the boundaries of artistic production become more permeable, and we find individual artists, and art movements, identifying openly with contemporary political struggles, often associated with the vanguard traditions of communism. This is evident across a broad range of artistic production during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as described in Boime 1995 and Clark 1973 (both cited under Revolutionary Europe in the 19th Century), Caplow 2007 (cited under Mexican Revolution), and Parker and Pollock 2020 (also cited under Revolutionary Europe in the 19th Century), among others. At the same time, we can observe innovative forms of cultural production associated with resistance to colonialist violence and domination throughout Africa (see, for example, Botwe-Asamoah 2005 and Hess and Quarcoopomem 2006, both cited under Anti-colonial Struggles), South Asia (as discussed in Bala 2007 and Gonsalves 2012, both cited under Gandhi and Self-Determination in India), North America (in Jemison 2020 and Poole 2018, both cited under American South and Resistance to Slavery and Jim Crow), and beyond. In many of these traditions artistic production, rather than being segregated from the surrounding social world through a principle of aesthetic autonomy, was integrated with the routines and practices of daily life. We encounter, as well, a continuum of affiliated and interconnected forms of cultural production, from literature, film, and visual art, to theater, music and performance (as described in Willett 1979, cited under Russian Revolution and Its Aftermath, and King 2002, cited under Anti-colonial Struggles). The citations in this section are by no means comprehensive, and are intended simply to suggest the thematic scope of activist or engaged art during the modern period.

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