The recent political climate has spurred a proliferation of artist involvement in expressions of protest and resistance, from banners and signs used at the Women’s March on Washington to works shared on social media or displayed in more conventional museum and gallery settings. Joyce Polistena, adjunct professor of art history in the History of Art and Design Department in Pratt Institute’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shares insights and historical perspective on the role, tools, and impact of activist artists and radical art.

What role does art have in serving as a tool for protest?

Artists have always been agents of cultural change; they can sway opinions, direct resistance, or reform. The aesthetic culture has a notorious ability to illustrate political truth about complicated structures of a social culture. As a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast wielded more influence than any other artist in the 19th-century; civil rights artist Emory Douglas designed the iconic symbol of defiance with his image of the raised fist; feminists initiated the art of resistance performances. Students are nearly always surprised to learn this history and come away inspired by it; activist and rebellious artists stand as models for their own ideas.

How has social media impacted protest related art?

We live in a world of cross-mediation of multiple forms of visual content. Social media is a dynamic apparatus, one that is especially welcoming to artists’ participation because visualizations motivate people to act. Think of the image of the drowned three-year-old Syrian boy, which went viral and swiftly brought new scrutiny and action to the refugee crisis. Art is not only something included within the political culture, it is a means to embrace and to shape the prevailing political ideas in different areas. Artists can take a rebellious approach to political structures, to governments, to the cultural avant-garde, and even the monetary behemoth that has become “Art.” 

How does the curriculum at Pratt Institute foster activism and critical thinking?

Because it is linked to issues, one of the criticisms hurled at activist or radical art is that “it is not art, it’s sociology.” Pratt’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences has a comprehensive curriculum in Social Science and Cultural Studies that fosters critical thinking, but I can also address the question from the perspective of an art historian. In the History of Art and Design department, courses such as “Activist Artists and Radical Art” and “Art of the USA: Race, Religion, and Class” require critical analysis of the content, impact, and heroes of activism, distinguishing among popular art, political art, and activist art that dates from our colonial past to the present moment. Close study of this art history reveals that activist art and American public life coalesce, all the while engaging in the most innovative media appropriate to its era.