In this his final blog in the series, John discusses the power that creating art with young people can have; art which can make us think and maybe even begin to generate some social change.
Art, Social Justice and Political Activism
In this blog I want to talk about the power of art as a means for addressing issues related to social justice. I strongly believe that if we can mix this power of art with the energy and enthusiasm of young people, we not only highlight an issue/ s but we also create a form of political activism that would ultimately provide a very loud voice to young people and other marginalised communities.
If social justice is a way of thinking about the world and discussing its many faults and problems, then art is a way of interpreting these thoughts and bringing them to the attention of the public. In this way art is clearly a powerful political tool.
There was no greater example of this than when UN officials in New York covered a copy of Picasso’s famous anti-war mural ‘Guernica’, during US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation of the American case for war against Iraq in February 2003. Even the most powerful nation on earth was made to think and eventually became intimidated by an artwork.
Many contemporary artists comment on the inequalities of our time through exhibitions, performance, websites, publications etc. and in doing so connect with a major pillar of social justice – equity. By presenting their work to the public in this way they work draws attention to issues of local, national or international importance.
Street artists on the other hand, want their work to be seen by the public in public spaces – be it in the form of a wall mural or performance. Stencil artists such as Banksy, use images with text to create a conversation between the artwork and the public. Other street artists such as those in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, risk their lives in order to challenge injustice and bring their message into the public space – this makes art a form of political activism.
Most artworks are made from materials that live long after the exhibition, performance or event. This ‘stuff’ – even a memory that is left behind, has its own way of keeping a message alive and in the minds of those who have seen or experienced it. This is extremely important when we use art to present issues of social justice. It seems to me that we must aim to keep such issue/s in the public mind. It’s a bit like the occupation movement which recently forced the change of government in the Ukraine. By simply being there, they forced those with power to take notice of their concerns. Art occupies public space and in this way it is a form of political activism.
I strongly believe that social justice is a human virtue and as such, lives within all human beings. The question is; how we as youth workers, artists and educators tap into this virtue, to build a culture of social justice through our work? Try to see art as a vehicle – a kind of Trojan horse that delivers so much more than what you see on the outside!
John is a native of Belfast. His work is deeply influenced by his experiences of growing up in an acutely divided community. Born in 1962, his first experience of that division was a pivotal moment in the development of his identity and commitment to social justice.
He recalls an incident when aged 8 he and his elder brother were confronted by a group of older boys who asked them to recite the alphabet. When they passed the letter ‘H’ both John and his brother were punched and kicked.
Returning home with bloody nose – John struggled to understand why he had been beaten. Years later while making an artwork in his local youth club entitled ‘H’ – he came to understand the power of language and the significance of the symbol as a means of defining difference. He also recognised the power of art as a means of learning that breaches the space between private and public, giving voice to those who would otherwise endure silence.
John is the head of art education and the co -director of the research centre for Arts and Learning at Goldsmiths University of London. He believes that ‘art can change the world, It certainly changed his….