Sunday, September 29, 2019

Artists or politicians?

In times of struggle and uncertainty, art provides escape, comfort, and empowerment. Especially today, amidst political unrest and widespread fear, art is being used as a powerful tool for change. Our increasingly global and media-driven world is giving artists a unique opportunity to add to the conversation with their own political voice. Contemporary art is taking on many roles, whether it be to serve as a mere representation of political injustice, a unifying force of a political community, a seed for optimistic political alternatives, or even as a haven from overwhelming politics.

Women’s Rights
Using art as a space to comment on the current political climate is not a new concept. For example, in the 1980s, Barbara Kruger dared to express her view on women’s rights and the inequality plaguing society.Barbara Kruger’s contemporary art takes accepted, harmless images from mass media and reworks them into unwelcomed slaps in the. Her words are pointed and not to be missed, using phrases like “Your comfort is my silence,” and, “We don’t need another hero”. Barbara Kruger has transformed these images that culture has deemed acceptable into suspicious messages.

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Old Art Reused and Recycled
Amidst the 2008 presidential election, Shepard Fairey, American contemporary street artist designed a portrait of Obama portrait with a stenciled face, visionary upward glance, and the caption “Progress”. The portrait of the President-elect became the portrait that came to symbolize his iconic campaign in becoming the first African American president of the United States. The campaign sold 50,000 official posters, and streetwear companies produced T-shirts and hundreds of thousands of stickers. Second versions of the graphic were also designed with a new slogan, “hope”.Today, Fairey’s design has outlived the Obama era. Where Obama once gazed out into the distance from the design, now there are non-famous faces representing some of the USA's minority populations – Muslims, Latinos and African Americans in multiple political movements trying to promote equality for all.
Shepard Fairey inauguration postersA close up of a sign

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Art Blurring Divides between Mexico and the U.S.
Politically-inspired contemporary art has expanded beyond borders (literally) as well. Within days of the Trump administration's decision to rescind theDeferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protecting 800,000 immigrants, French artist JR used the Mexico-US border wall as a canvas, rather than a means of dividing people. He installed a 65-foot tall photograph of a smiling toddler just behind the border in the Mexican city of Tecate (Dwyer). The curious child peers over the destroyed fence, and according to JR, “represents any kid, any person — anyone that has dreams, and dreams that are not alienated by any political vision or any prejudice” (qtd. in Dwyer). Rather than dividing Mexican and American citizens, the photograph transformed into an interactive art museum, making the wall feel nearly invisible: visitors on both sides chatted through slats of fencing and passed phones back and forth to photograph each other.
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Art Uniting Hong Kong Protesters
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, rallies sparked by opposition to the extradition bill have become increasingly violent. Even with street battles and tear gas, protesters have remained strong, allowing art to emerge as a unique uniting force that informs, inspires, and offers relief. Contemporary protest art in Hong Kong has taken on its own distinct style. Banners are not plastered or hung up on walls; instead, the digital age is allowing designs to be shared instantly with AirDrop and file-sharing functions (Wright). All offer a shared theme to “be water”, a phrase inspired by martial arts icon Bruce Lee that encourages fluidity and adaptability to any situation (Wright). These graphics, regardless of the purpose they serve – whether it be to advertise an organized march, criticize certain authorities, or even provide humor in a highly stressful time – show how the changing face of contemporary art is becoming increasingly important in our society.
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Works Cited
Dwyer, Colin. “As Boy Peers Curiously Over Border Wall, His Artist Asks: 'What Is He Thinking?'.” NPR, NPR, 8 Sept. 2017,
Neshat, Shirin. “When Does Political Art Cross the Line?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Dec. 2018,
R, Maria. “15 Influential Political Art Pieces.” Widewalls, Widewalls, 29 Nov. 2016,
Wright, Rebecca. “The Power of Poster Art in Hong Kong Protests.” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 Aug. 2019,

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