Artists: the Human Rights Activists of Our Time

Ostensibly, it might sound surprising that artists and the art world has anything to do with human rights issues, or even politics in general. The commonplace image of an artist is of a rather self-involved hippy who creates art for its own sake; surely, Marcel Duchamp exhibiting a urinal is not a demonstration of a drive to tackle social inequality.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, photographed by Steven Zucker

However, art serves many purposes in social life. It allows us to see our experiences through a different lens and so it can act as a tool for dissemination of knowledge. Art can reference injustice and help to raise the bar on awareness of human dignity. In the case of human rights, art can raise awareness of issues of concerns on their violation as part of protest efforts or campaigns for social change. The role of the artist has been on display in the art world, and it has been agreed that they can act as indicators of change making a meaningful contribution to community by using the creative products for intervention. In reality, many artists have been making politically engaged artworks not just recently, but throughout history. Many have even been included in the traditional canon of art history for centuries. For instance, renowned artists such as Goya and Picasso made artistic interpretations of the agonies of warfare and the horrors of war. Goya created several propaganda paintings against Napoleon III and the massacre carried out by the French against the Spanish freedom fighters. Goya’s representation of suffering was thought to lead into a new era of artistic depiction of atrocities and led up-and-coming artists, such as Picasso, to deal with politics and the horror of war.

“No, painting is not made to decorate apartments,” Picasso said, “it’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” His Guernica is based on the events of 27th April in 1937, when Hitler’s German air force bombed the village of Guernica, a city of no strategic military value, signalling the first time in history when aerial saturation bombing targeted a civilian population. Today these events live on through Picasso’s masterpiece, as a widely understood symbol of people’s inhumanity to one another.

3rd of May 1808 in Madrid by Francisco de Goya

Recently, within the current political climate, more and more artists have grown to act as activists of global human rights issues and to influence public opinion through their art practices for social development. Today we can find artworks relating to most types of human rights, for example pieces on issues of domestic and public violence and racial or religious bias. William Kelly, an American artist and human right advocate, argues this growing trend for humanist ideals in art practice is due to the fact that art has the capacity to be visionary and to spread information as well as a worldview with “sensitivity, compassion, and wisdom.” These works of art have to be able to responsibly and independently address questions through critical dialogue and raise awareness of established power bases. Moreover, when an artist is seeking to intervene in the violation of human rights, when addressing these problems they have to use strategies to inform, but also to motivate and challenge, the audience to go beyond a passive reception of the visual construction, and impel the viewer to participate in the conversation on inequality and injustice. This way, the reminiscent influence of these artworks can help to support human rights causes, even if their efficiency is problematic to measure. For example, the Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s Non-Violence, a sculpture depicting a revolver tied in a knot, was found so influential it was displayed not only outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City but at sixteen other places, including in front of the European Commission in Luxembourg and at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin.

The recent dissemination of the inclusion of human rights issues in artworks might also be due to the fact that fine art practices are now often collaborating with other art practices such as performance or film and are frequently able to occupy sites other than the traditional gallery, thereby creating a more transferable, versatile product. One of the best example of this is the appearance of street art. Street art is often conceived as political protest and performance art, as the act of drawing on a private property but on the public display can be seen as taking a deliberate stance against the state’s authority.

Right: Non-Violence by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, photographed by Timothy Vogel

The act of making street art itself is read as a tool against elitism, making the artworks accessible to everyone. Many see the art world as snobbish because most galleries and museum charge a great sum for entry (unlike most British institutions), and often the exhibited works require a certain level of education in art history. However, street art located in public places does not require money, and often artists put up pictures of their works onto the internet. Furthermore, most of these works use direct visual imagery with clear meanings, so their interpretation does not require a high level of education. These features make street art an excellent form to propagate human rights. Unlike commissioned public art, street art is illicit and many find it subversive, thus most street artists are forced to use pseudonyms to avoid legal prosecution for vandalism. Banksy, arguably the most famous street artist, keeps his identity a secret. His work focuses on the process of intervention and public engagement, and he travels across the world to stimulate political dialogue on social struggle by making site-specific, temporary art. He has made works related to, inter alia, LGBT+ rights, oppression of marginalised groups, workers’ rights, government surveillance, and, recently, the refugee crisis.

Kissing Policemen by Banksy, photographed by David Singleton

In January, a new Banksy appeared on a wall opposite the French Embassy in London, depicting a young girl from Les Miserables with tears in her eyes as CS gas billows towards her, criticising the use of teargas in the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais. Additionally, this artwork is interactive and includes a QR code, linking people to an online video of a police attack on the camps on 5th January.

If you are interested in Banksy’s work, you can visit his website, check out his work at the French Embassy, or see his preserved works, such as Kissing Policemen in Brighton. You can also watch the aforementioned video here.

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