Art as a Tool for Social Justice

[By Elizabeth Conall]

As presented to the Unitarian Universalists of Central Delaware on Oct 20 2013

Hiram Powers's The Greek Slave

This is a statue by American sculptor Hiram Powers, entitled “The Greek Slave”. He made it in 1844 in Florence, Italy, inspired by the Venus de Medici. Abolitionists and early women’s rights advocates saw in Powers’s statue a call to action, seeing her chains as representative of the literal chains worn by black slaves and the metaphorical chains worn by women. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, at some point between 1844 and her death in 1861, wrote a sonnet inspired by this statue:

They say Ideal beauty cannot enter

The house of anguish. On the threshold stands

An alien Image with enshackled hands,

Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her

(That passionless perfection which he lent her,

Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)

To so confront man’s crimes in different lands

With man’s ideal sense. Pierce to the centre,

Art’s fiery finger! and break up ere long

The serfdom of this world. Appeal, fair stone,

From God’s pure heights of beauty against man’s wrong!

Catch up in thy divine face, not alone

East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,

By thunders of white silence, overthrown.

Art has always been both inspired by and impetus to social justice. Barrett Browning’s poem on the Greek Slave is an explicit example. Famous examples include Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said to have started the Civil War, and George Orwell’s novel 1984, a powerful warning against fascism. This tradition goes back at least as far as the writing of the Bible: for example, Psalm 15 is a song describing someone who behaves justly.

The first of the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles is that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We have to say that we do because so many people do not. We have to say that we do because our culture and our media do not. Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic at age six, has written a lot about immigration and how it feels to be different. Here are his words:

You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.

Consider this: According to GLAAD—formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—of the hundred and one films released by major motion picture studios in 2012, only fourteen contained characters identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Only six of those films contained characters so identified who were not predominantly defined by their sexual orientation and who were important to the plot. Not one film contained an identified transgender character. We can do better.

We’re doing somewhat better at representing people of color in media, but we’ve been doing that for forty years longer. When Star Trek first premiered, a nine-year-old Whoopi Goldberg took one look at Lieutenant Uhura and yelled for everyone to “come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” Goldberg says she knew right then she could be anything she wanted to be. Also inspired by Lieutenant Uhura was Mae Jemison, who became the first African-American woman in space. I am certain there are many less-famous examples. I think one of the greatest things Dr. Martin Luther King did in his lifetime was convince Nichelle Nichols to stay on Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura instead of quitting after the first season, so she could keep inspiring young black women.

Speaking of inspiring young black women, Janelle Monáe, an R&B artist with a science fiction bent to her music. In the music video for the first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.”, from her third album, The Electric Lady, she sets the scene in a time-travel museum, where the museum’s narrator describes Monáe and her compatriots as “legendary rebels” who “launched […] a musical weapons program” and “various freedom movements that [Monáe] disguised as songs, motion pictures, and works of art.” This is Janelle Monáe’s “Q.U.E.E.N.

Art isn’t the only way to do social justice work, or even the first to mind. In 1961 a bus left Washington, DC heading for New Orleans with a multiracial collection of passengers pointedly ignoring the custom of segregating buses in order to test the enforcement of the Supreme Court cases that ruled against segregating buses. That was the first of many Freedom Rides. In 1962, Harry Belafonte, who is famous for his calypso music and who financed the Freedom Rides, released a version of a particular African-American spiritual—of course, spirituals have always, from “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, been about freedom. This is Harry Belafonte’s “Michael Row the Boat Ashore“.

Sometimes, art is simply a way for a marginalized person to say, “I am here, I exist,” or for a person who is not marginalized in a particular way to look at someone who is and say, “I see you. I acknowledge your existence.” Sometimes art is a way for a marginalized person to say, “This is what I experience.” Other people marginalized in the same way can consume that art—read the story, look at the painting, listen to the song—and say “Yes, I’ve been there”, and people who are not marginalized in that way can consume that art and say “I didn’t know it was like that. Now I know.” No two people have the same experience, of course, but often when both are female or both are East Asian or both are genderqueer, there are many points in common. You may recognize a great deal in this next poem, from someone whose username on ccMixter is ‘snowflake’. It’s entitled “Eve (Say Yes)“. (I can’t figure out how to embed it for the life of me, but lyrics and audio are embedded at the link.)

Making art is always a frightening prospect. What if it’s no good? What if people don’t like it? What if people say nasty things about it, about you? Deciding that yes, this piece of art is good enough to be seen, that’s always a courageous act. Even more so when the art has a social justice theme. Social justice, almost by definition, involves pushing society in ways society doesn’t want to be pushed. Of course there’s going to be pushback. Of course people aren’t going to like art that’s meant as social justice. Of course they’re going to say nasty things about the art and its creator. But like Janelle Monáe said, gotta keep singing, gotta keep writing songs. Nothing’s going to change if we don’t find some way to say that something needs changing. This is Sara Bareilles, “Brave“.

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.

—Edward Everett Hale

3 thoughts on “Art as a Tool for Social Justice

  1. froborr November 5, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Excellent article!

    That bit you quoted about reflections and mirrors is really good as an argument for why it’s so important to push for more diversity in mass media. I’m going to have to remember that.

  2. lonespark42 November 6, 2013 at 9:35 am

    This a very good post, and the themes in it can hopefully be expanded on in other posts, maybe with more detailed looks at examples?

    And yes yes yes on the mirrors. The thing that always stops me is… if you didn’t have an agenda about who is Normal, and who is a Real, True Person… how could you not produce art with all kinds of mirrors? How could you not observe and reflect the world and its awesome (and awful, I guess, if that’s your thing…) in infinite variety? Why would you keep telling the same damn stories about the same damn people in the same damn way, when it becomes something familiar yet new and fascinating with a changed perspective?

  3. froborr November 6, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    if you didn’t have an agenda about who is Normal, and who is a Real, True Person… how could you not produce art with all kinds of mirrors? How could you not observe and reflect the world and its awesome (and awful, I guess, if that’s your thing…) in infinite variety? Why would you keep telling the same damn stories about the same damn people in the same damn way, when it becomes something familiar yet new and fascinating with a changed perspective?

    Privilege. It is entirely possible not to be aware that art in general, and your work in particular, is missing large swaths of humanity if you haven’t noticed that those large swaths exist and have unique perspectives.

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