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Creative Resistance: Why We Need to Incorporate Art Into Our Activism

Art has added energy to advocacy — and it reaches people at deeper emotional levels, conveying what cannot be said with mere facts.

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In 2011, when Occupy encampments exploded across the United States putting the issue of the unfair economy and corruption of Wall Street on the political agenda, there was also an explosion of activist art. Beginning with the iconic image of the ballerina on top of the Wall Street bull, art has been central to Occupy and was an important reason for its powerful impact.

The explosion of arts activism involves a wide variety of artistic forms: puppets, balloons, music, memes, posters, banners, plays, street theater, poetry, animation and light displays among others. Art has added vitality and energy to advocacy, and it reaches people at deeper emotional levels, conveying what cannot be said with mere facts.

We had been covering art as part of our reporting on the movement at Popular Resistance, but it wasn’t enough. There has been so much artistic activism we decided it needed to be highlighted with its own website, Creative It is a place where community members, activists and activist artists can connect and inspire each other. We encourage everyone to find ways to incorporate art into your actions and the work in your community.

Art Builds Commitment, Community and Movement

Charles Tilly, who some describe as the founding father of 21st-century sociology, wrote that social movements are driven by "contentious politics," ideological conflicts that result in social change. He described social movements as a series of “repeated public displays” that bring greater visibility to the issue in contention.

We have written in other articles that the goal of public protest is to pull people to the movement in order to grow into a mass movement that cannot be ignored. Activist art turns a protest into a spectacle, from a turn-off to a turn-on, from an event ignored to one that is widely reported. The protest itself becomes art. If done well and with intention, it will draw people to the movement.

For example, before a protest or other event, a community art build can be organized where people involved in advocacy create art together, and where families, community members, professional colleagues and others are invited to co-create. This process builds stronger connections within the community, deepens the understanding of the issue and provides a way for individuals to express their personal relationship to the issue.

One of the goals of building a mass movement is to pull people from the pillars that maintain the power structure such as workers, students, business owners and the media to the movement. Art is a tool for outreach. Inviting people from these pillars to participate in art builds on issues that they care about provides an opportunity to build relationships. Inviting the local media to cover the art build is a great good-will story about the community coming together.

In the process of creating art there is a tremendous opportunity to build deep support for the issues the movement is working on. During the occupation of Washington DC on Human Rights Day we had a banner creating event organized by Baltimore artist, Diane Wittner. It was a tremendous opportunity to get people thinking about what human rights they had and what human rights were being denied them. It was powerful to look at all of the images that were created together in one place.

As Tatiana Makovkin, an organizer with Creative Resistance, wrote recently: “Art is good for our communities, and artistic collaboration is a bonding experience. We make art together, not just because of the changes it can bring to the world around us, but because of the way it changes us internally.”

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