23 décembre 2015

Art and Activism: A Purpose, A Medium, and a Hope for Change

Many believe that art, merely by its existence and its aesthetic value, inherently portrays a specific ideology. However, it may be most realistic to contend that art, throughout time, has served as a medium for expression, rather than manifesting within itself a belief system standardized among all elements of the discipline. Indeed, art exists as an opportunity for the artist to portray her own ideologies and her own opinions, and, provided she attracts an actively engaged audience, potentially provide the informational or emotional importance in effecting positive change to the problems the art addresses. <1> Moreover, art can encompass both wishes for pacifism and the like for militaristic engagement, among other ideas—the ideology it may portray cannot be limited in direction by the medium itself. Rather, art preaches empathy to those who grapple with it, fostering the beginnings of emotional understanding across boundaries that differ from portrait to portrait but nonetheless exist among all artistic works, while simultaneously pushing its viewers to yearn and to search for a greater solution to the problems it addresses. If the power of empathy for those struggling with new, different, and unique challenges may direct an audience to ameliorate the hardships of the other, brought to the viewer’s eyes via the art itself, however, the intent of the author effectively suffers from the strain of mortality, as the only aspect of the artistic piece that lives beyond its own production is the viewer’s actions after engaging with the work. The activist ideology of any work is ultimately the stream of meaning stringing across the audience’s forthcoming actions, the light streaming from the portrait, penetrating the viewers’ eyes, that encourages the diligent spectators to witness the weeping women of another world and care for them, fight their oppressors, or stand idly by the interpersonal torture. Ultimately, a reading of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, combined with contemporaneous visual art, suggests that art’s usage, the historical contexts of its societal impact and its post-production employment in pushing for positive change to the problems it addresses—rather than merely its existence—encapsulates its power for activism in whichever direction its audience, after grappling with the work, decides.

Prior to confirming any specific ideology art may portray in its public manifestation, it is crucial to concretize an understanding of art as a medium of expression, an artist’s tool for introducing and promoting her ideations to a larger audience. Art, in this case, may portray a variety of emotions and ideas, to best bring forth the recognition and legitimization of a problem. In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf denotes this idea in the inverse—by confirming that one may leverage the arts and sciences in educating students for the cause of war, one must thereby acknowledge the powerful effects of art to express, and force its audience to contemplate the ramifications of, an ideology: “If we are asked to teach, we can… refuse to teach any art or science that encourages war” (Woolf 46). By emphasizing art’s role in “encouraging war,” Woolf effectively states that art must manifest itself as a medium for the expression and the communication of ideas, enough to conjure up, for those willing to listen, a poignant belief about the topic the art concerns. Under the pretenses that this logic does not fail and that Woolf’s point remains valid, it is wholly possible that, art, as a medium to showcase and alert and audience of contemporary problems—even if the art does not offer the tools to fix them—with the potential to preach interpersonal understanding and appreciation, can actively instill change. Thus, it is next crucial to discuss the role of the visual arts evoking empathy within the larger schema of generating a unique, activist ideology.

In order to produce any tangible change, art must both bring forth a problem for the viewer to contemplate and discuss and be powerful enough in its composition to pull its audience to alter their lives and assuage the dilemma the art encapsulates. Critically, aside from pointing out problems, art must force us to live more ardently and right the wrongs of our existence. This is the challenge of art. As Maxine Greene, professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, writes in “Art and Imagination: Reclaiming the Sense of Possibility,” “By such [aesthetic] experiences we are not only lurched out of the familiar and the taken-for-granted, but we may also discover new avenues for action. We may experience a sudden sense of new possibilities and thus new beginnings” (379). In understanding and deconstructing visual art, each member of a piece’s audience must stow away her own conception of life and, instead, confront perspectives outside of “the familiar and the taken-for-granted,” actively scouring the portrait for unique testimonies of contemporary issues. In doing so, she ultimately exposes herself to a future potential to enact a better future, encountering “new possibilities” to fix the foes of the her own existence, as well as that of all whom she may have previously discounted. It is important, however, to realize the gravity of Greene’s omission of any methodology that art may inherently suggest. By solely acknowledging art’s effectiveness in eliciting social action, Greene ultimately demonstrates that art exists not within a single realm of ideological possibility, but instead as a powerfully ambiguous medium for interpersonal expression. As such, Greene leaves open the bold opportunity for one to fully experience art, empathizing with the weeping women of other cultures, and still pursue actions that would ultimately lead to their own demise.

Art ultimately serves as a medium for expression, and a powerful one at that, yielding the potential for empathy across any boundary. However, at this point, one must recognize that the actual portrait plays a starkly limited role in the visual art’s effectiveness in augmenting an audience’s propensity to put away its privilege and stand for a greater sense of justice: An audience’s trail of actions following the engagement with any artistic work ultimately determines the activist and ideological qualities of the art, cementing the viewer’s experience as critical to understanding a work of art in all of its historical contexts. Greene’s discussion of art yielding empathy includes an important caveat, however: “Mere exposure to a work of art is not sufficient to occasion an aesthetic experience. There must be conscious participation in a work, a going out of energy, an ability to notice what is there to be noticed in [it]” (379). Here, Greene argues that visual art may only truly yield “an aesthetic experience” when members of the audience engage in “conscious participation,” in questioning a portrait and searching within it for answers, and in actively expending one’s own energy to divine meaning from the work. An aesthetic experience, thus, is immersion into the portrait, the universe the artist formulates. This generates a key distinction in the way I, in this paper, understand and analyze the role of the visual arts in promoting thoughts and ideologies: I assume that art, be it physically manifested in the realm of photography, paint, or poster paper, must arrest the viewer in an aesthetic experience. This allows for a proper analysis of art’s effectiveness not as a subject of casual glances, but as an expressive being able to speak to those willing to listen, offering unique testimonies of genuine experiences to every viewer.

While art may be confirmed as both a medium for interpersonal expression and a tool to elicit empathy across boundaries, the ideological direction art forges for the viewers is often unclear, and may, intentionally or otherwise, lead to violent, militaristic outcomes, as is seen in many of the responses to certain artworks produced contemporaneous to the Spanish Civil War. Firstly, in Three Guineas, Woolf depicts the subject of one of the photographs with which the Spanish Republic regularly inundates her: “[It] might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig” (14). By metaphorizing the lifeless person as potentially “the body of a pig,” she comments on the utter dehumanization of the war effort in Spain, hinting at the true misery of a culture swept away by air raids. While modern viewers regard not the photographs Woolf contemplates, as she omits them from her book, it is worth noting that the Spanish Republic popularized those photographs and well distributed them to all those caring to look. Indeed, the grandiose power of coming to terms with the certainty of “dead children” strewn across a foreground suggests the power of the Spanish government to spur those aesthetically experiencing the photographs to action (14).

It is critical, however, prior to discussing the potential effects of the aforementioned photograph, to bring to the conversation a second, unnamed, image, located in the first plate of the appendix. The painted poster depicts, in the words of its curator at the University of California, San Diego, Alexander Vergara, “the struggle of man against beast. The revolutionary—red-hued, naked, and muscular—wields his hammer against a serpent coiled about his body” (Vergara). Scribed across the snake’s struggling body is the word “fascismo,” demonstrating simultaneously the contemporary importance of striking down the rising threat of fascism within Spanish society and the potential honor for anyone willing to embody the man of the poster and take part in bringing down his hammer against the encroaching monster. The justifications to join the International Brigades permeating this poster are both selfless and selfish, embodied by the utter necessity of murdering the Spanish fascists before their ideology may spread further and by the beautiful possibility of becoming the heaven-sent man with a hammer of unimaginable power. Combining this portrait with that which Woolf contemplates in Three Guineas, it is apparent that the variety of horrifying images distributed by the Spanish Republic was enough to send an equally powerful message to the world that the Spain’s misfortune could not be understated and that the international world’s role must be to involve itself within the conflict and end the widespread horror. However, the message of these works halts there. Continuing beyond the production of this collection of art is solely the reasoning of those electing to actively stand against the Spanish fascists, be it through volunteering peacefully or enlisting in the International Brigades. Thus, the ideological intent behind these portraits ceases to hold much relevance in their historical contexts—their post-production usage—given that, regardless of any potentially peaceful purpose in the arts’ creation, these portraits encouraged thousands of people across the world to enlist militaristically and perpetuate further violence in Spain. Thus, while the subjects of these works may not necessarily promote physical or murderous vengeance towards the Spanish fascists, their overwhelming post-production history clarifies that, for all intents and purposes, these portraits instilled powerfully militaristic repercussions in an already damaged time.

Surely, many examples of the visual arts of this period presented or implied a stance in favor of militaristic engagement within war-torn Spain. Alternative examples of contemporaneous works, however, demonstrate that, in encouraging viewers to both empathize with war’s victims and contemplate the harsh repercussions of militaristic violence itself, art may present a powerful justification to assist victims of institutionalized and systematic violence by using pacifist, rather than militaristic, methodologies. Firstly, one may look to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, shown in Plate Two, which illustrates the aftereffects of the air raids in Guernica, a small Basque village, in Picasso’s cubist style. Guernica imprints upon the eyes of its audience a painful image of the tortured men, women, children, animals, and spirits of the town, all trapped in a seemingly inescapable room, likely to soon engulf all of its members in flames after merely a few more moments of chaos. Although this painting may be of a violent scene, it is not, in the words of Woolf, “a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye” (14). It is a work to be reckoned with, contemplated, and questioned, for the meaning to be gleaned from this portrait must be after elongated deliberation, forcing the viewer to take enough time in attempting to understand the painting to outgrow and ignore her supposed bodily, innate urges to dispatch violence with violence, and to, instead, encompass armed fighting in peaceful cooperation.

In this light, we may look to a final portrait, El último abrazo, a painting by an anonymous artist and distributed by the Confederación Nacional Del Trabajo and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica, which is available in the third plate. As I have written before, El último abrazo shows us “one man lay[ing] down the dying body of his lifelong companion. Humanity’s looming mortality consumes this painting, leaving us only a blurry conception of hope lost.” Permeating the despair of this scene is the ultimate wish to cease wartime violence in its entirety, by presenting to the audience the absolute misery of going to war, of laying down one’s dying brother in the face of seemingly unending and unjustifiable violence. El último abrazo exposes the grand truth that enlisting during wartime only worsens the prospect of peace. Together, Guernica and El último abrazo ultimately inform their audiences of the murderous repercussions of supporting military insurgence in a nation already engulfed in ceaseless violence. More pertinently, their post-production pacifist usage evidences further that pacifist artistry has existed, but only as a single element within the grandiose continuum of possibilities for ideological presentation.

Indeed, given a reading of Virginia Woolf’s letters in Three Guineas, in combination with the powerful, previously aforementioned examples of visual arts contemporaneous to the Spanish Civil War, it is clear that art certainly has a purpose—to bring forth unto humanity a heartrending vignette of suffering, encouraging those who seek aesthetic experiences with art to find the problems of their existence and strive towards solving them. Beyond that, however, the role of art is very much encapsulated in the forthcoming actions of the audience, as those decisions ultimately determine the historical contexts, and the ideological power and stance, of any artwork. While art presents aspects of the world via unique, emotional perspectives, it is ultimately our decision, as aesthetic experientialists and members of the human race, to formulate our future decisions meaningfully and purposefully, however we decide to act. The death of the artist means the birth of mankind, and, for that, we may only be mindful.


<1> Of course, not all art must focus on the struggles of those portrayed within it or the portrayers themselves. However, that subgenre of visual art, for the sake of depth in an atmosphere of brevity, will be the focus of my paper henceforth. Additionally, while art may certainly be produced for the artist’s own benefit, enjoyment, or therapy, among countless other possible justifications, for the same reason, I shall exclusively consider visual arts procured for an audience larger than that of the artist herself, emphasizing art’s grand role in inducing an alteration of public opinion at large.


Plate One


As I have previously published, “The above selection of propaganda from the Spanish Civil War, distributed by the Spanish Office of Information and Propaganda, depicts a strong, muscular man wielding a hammer, attempting to defeat the snake that is contemporaneous fascism… [It serves] as a source of inspiration to both become a powerful and ethical global citizen and defeat the emerging wrongs, fascism, permeating Spain at the time.”

Plate Two


As I previously mentioned, “Pablo Picasso’s Guernica… illustrates the aftereffects of the air raids in Guernica, a small Basque village, in Picasso’s cubist style. Guernica imprints upon the eyes of its audience a painful image of the tortured men, women, children, animals, and spirits of the town, all trapped in a seemingly inescapable room, likely to soon engulf all of its members in flames after merely a few more moments of chaos.”

Plate Three

As I have once written, “In this image, El último abrazo… one man lays down the dying body of his lifelong companion. Humanity’s looming mortality consumes this painting, leaving us only a blurry conception of hope lost… [The artist’s] work here transcends war’s partisan boundaries, serving as a traumatic reminder of war’s true victim: humanity, abandoned for the ether and painfully pieced together through art. Ultimately, El último abrazo confirms that ceaseless, unjustified violence fails to usher in prosperity, and destruction never yields peace.”

Works Cited

Confederación Nacional Del Trabajo, and Asociación Internacional De Los Trabajadores. 1936. University of California, San Diego, San Diego, CA. The Visual Front - Posters of the Spanish Civil War from UCSD's Southworth Collection. University of California, San Diego, 1998. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

Confederación Nacional Del Trabajo, and Federación Anarquista Ibérica. El último abrazo. 1936. Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford, PA. Estampas De La Revolución Española 19 Julio De 1936. Spain: La Confederación Nacional Del Trabajo and La Federación Anarquista Ibérica, 1936. N. pag. Print.

Greene, Maxine. "Art and Imagination: Reclaiming the Sense of Possibility." The Phi Delta Kappan 76.5 (1995): 378-82. JSTOR. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. .

Medansky, Kevin. "For Spain? For Equality? For a False Sense of Future? One Mayn’t Know." Testimonies in Art & Action: Igniting Pacifism in the Face of Total War. Haverford College, 1 Dec. 2015. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. .

Medansky, Kevin. Label for El último Abrazo. 1 Dec. 2015. Haverford College, Haverford.

Picasso, Pablo. Guernica. 1937. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Web. 20 April 2015. [18 December 2015]

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938. Ed. by Mark Hussey. Annotated and introduced by Jane Marcus. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006. Print.

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