Art and Social Change

Photo Credit: Elena Eisenstadt

When shopping at Urban Outfitters, Uniqlo, or Pacsun, it’s rare to consider the meaning of the art on a piece of clothing. Art and Social Change, a J-Term course I took taught by Megan Culp and Robin Friedman, made me actually think about the designs on a T-shirt and the artists behind them. I enjoyed the freedom this class offered to be open and outspoken when discussing artists’ work and prominent pieces of art.

During the course, we explored multiple artists and their art, both abstract and realistic, which addressed social justice issues. Afterwards, we moved onto creating our own work about a cause we were passionate about. We started off with an activity called “Art Tasting,” where we were provided with a variety of different artists who either confront or have confronted social justice issues. These artists included Shepard Fairey, a street artist, graphic designer, and founder of the clothing brand OBEY; Ai Wei Wei, whose art of all different mediums challenges China’s government; and Picasso, whose “Guernica” speaks to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. 

After we researched selected artists, we discussed what we found interesting or confusing about them. Then we moved on to a study of an artist with a partner. One artist we studied was Keith Haring, whose iconic work spread awareness about AIDS and can be found on shirts in Urban Outfitters. We also learned about Banksy, an anonymous artist whose work speaks to a wide range of social justice issues, primarily ones that are often underrepresented by the media. Once we had an understanding of how art can shed light on social justice, we focused on creating our own pieces. We used a wide range of materials including watercolor, acrylics, ink, and magazine cutouts. We were encouraged to try different techniques, such as bookmaking, printing, or using Flashe (a matte, vinyl-based paint) or acrylic paint on posters.  This class taught me more than just how to make art; it made me think about why art is important. Through murals, museums, and even street art, we can spread awareness about issues in society to a wide range of people. Like protesting, art is a form of self-expression where people can creatively take part in fighting for social justice.