Art for Politics’ Sake

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By Maura Kinney

For centuries, people have used art as an alternate form of protest, experimenting with music, painting, sculpture, and performance to address issues of violence and oppression. The benefits? Art catches people’s attention, it makes the messages of social and cultural change easier to swallow, and it’s FUN. Just ask anyone who has participated in Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade, a massive march to celebrate and bring awareness of the LGBTQ movement to folks across the country.

Since its beginnings in 1970, Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade has used performance to celebrate the history of the LGBTQ movement and to further the fight for civil rights. Scores of Chicagoans and visitors from around the world flood the streets of Lakeview in outrageous outfits armed with boas, crowns, and banners. The weekend-long celebration features two parades where people of varying gender expressions colorfully and loudly assert their presence in this world. Through drag shows to huge parades, the gay community of Chicago makes a clear political statement. Pride allows a group of historically marginalized people to literally take over the city (if only for an afternoon) and do it while having fun. Creating social change while dressing up and acting silly for a day – what better way to avoid the burnout that so often accompanies activist work?

The Occupy movement provides another lesson in art-based activism. Although initially wildly successful, the American Occupy movement has dwindled significantly since it began. Although I attended only a few rallies downtown, my memories of them involve a lot of chanting, a lot of screaming, a lot of anger. Now anger can be helpful. Anger can motivate. Anger has its place. But anger, without immediate results or a healthy outlet, leads to burnout.

The anti-war movement of the 60’s and 70’s is well-known for the culture that accompanied it. Famous songs and songwriters were born out of that movement as were entire fashion trends. Occupy served a wonderful purpose by tapping into the anger many Americans felt, but there has been a serious lack of art and creativity attached to it. Although it is a stretch to say the movement fizzled as a direct result of this, I do believe many people lost steam without the possibility of an artistic outlet – without the opportunity to sing together, build community, and have fun.

This problem is emblematic of how our culture approaches social change. The angry, reactive, and often vengeful responses that so many groups display in the wake of unjust happenings does little to shift the complex and expansive societal institutions that created such problems in the first place. The recent case of a Montana high school teacher sentenced to thirty days in jail for the rape of a student who later committed suicide is one such example. The response to this injustice did not express a desire to change a cultural mindset that allows relationships with such power imbalances to form in the first place. Those angry about the verdict did not seem concerned with ensuring a safer outcome for other young victims. Instead, our collective response was one of anger and indignation. People wanted the teacher to serve a longer sentence. People wanted the judge who made ruling to resign. No one seemed concerned that these angry and symbolic actions were, in the end, empty. They would have done nothing to stop such an instance from happening again.

Although political and social movements based on art, theatre, and music can at times seem trivial, they change our cultural fabric. The music of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan became popular. It trickled into homes across America and changed people’s perception of the world around them. Through art, these musicians were able to express their anger and confusion with American policy and by listening, others came to see their point. The music of the anti-war movement was infectious and effective. Not only can artistic political movements prevent burnout, but they can incite real change – not just in the immediate when we want justice here and now, but in the long run. Art is the piece that’s missing from movements like Occupy and it is the ingredient that in the end, can affect the lasting change we need.

A version of this essay was originally posted on “The Scribbling.”

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