As we have seen in our previous article Arts, Politics and Civil Society, available right here in our Medium page, art has historically been used for political propaganda. In contrast, engaged art can be used to challenge the dominant political system of its time, denounce an ideology or promote a minority political movement. So, what of art as a social change tool? Often coming close to political engagement, socially engaged art tends to highlight and sometimes denounce facts, or a social order, considered as violent and oppressive towards part of a population. 

Socially engaged art

Throughout history, our civilisations have been touched by different social movements, responding to all sorts of oppression and status quo. These conflicts have always been present in art. In the 17th century, for example, during the Protestant Reformation, artists like Lucas Cranach the Younger, used their works to contest catholic hegemony. In the 18th century, an abolitionist movement emerged to promote freedom for all human beings, driven largely in France by the ideas of the Enlightenment. In this context, artists denounced the working conditions of slaves in the colonies, as did Jean-Michel Moreau in his gravure entitled Ce qui sert à vos plaisirs est mouillé de nos larmes (That which serves your pleasures is wet with our tears). Artistic contestation or opposition kept on following social movements through the 19th century industrial revolution, denouncing the living conditions of factory workers, as did Jules Adler, all the way to the 20th century, where artists like Andy Warhol or Duane Hanson created art that caricatured capitalism. 

Jean-Michel Moreau, “Ce qui sert à vos plaisirs est mouillé de nos larmes”, 1773. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, “Voyage a l’Isle de France”, 1773.


Socially engaged or obliged?

Nowadays, art is still used as a social change tool. Global movements like Black Lives Matter or MeToo have been the inspiration for thousands of artists to speak up about society and, also, about themselves and their experiences. Nonetheless, we see that some movements are more keen to be supported by artistic creators. As both of the contemporary causes mentioned before were vibrantly depicted by artistic creation, other movements don’t seem to find as much endorsement. For example, going back to France, the Yellow Jackets social protests, which were groundbreaking in the country because they involved citizens from both urban and rural backgrounds, were mostly ignored by artists. Facing this, we could wonder why some movements are backed by artistic creation, while others aren’t. Art is in fact a powerful tool for social change, but must artists be engaged and intervene in the public debate, in order to have an impact in society? Who is to decide what is, or not, engaged enough? Couldn’t a work of introspection be as engaged as a work of social depiction? Representing a natural setting in our bricked, tarred and cemented environment, isn’t it engaging?  

In art2act, we believe that being an artist and living off one’s artistic creations, is already a personal commitment. A very powerful engagement in a society where economic growth and productivism reign. That is why we are engaged in supporting artists to become independent, to concentrate exclusively in their artistic work and to obtain the tools they need to keep creating, keep contesting and keep depicting the world through their perspectives.