Attempting to change social and political conditions, activist art has recently been a popular subject among artists and art critics alike. Those most active within the art market have much criticism for activist and political art. Activists however, don’t seem to be too concerned as their main priority is the activism rather than the physical, which is where most criticism is based. Critics believe activist art cannot be considered true art because it is leaning on a notion of morality. They also believe it is lacking a certain quality of art and because it serves a function, it cannot fit in with traditional fine arts.
Activist art also, in a way, distances itself from traditional fine arts by sometimes presenting itself as unappealing as possible to bring attention to a cause the artist is fighting for. It’s difficult for activist art to immerse itself into the mainstream art world due to artists feeling they must distance themselves from the community and an unrelenting addition of several critics denouncing its contributions. An avid critic of activist art, Donald Kuspit negatively connotes the activist art movement with such adjectives as “narcissistic” and “egotistical”.
He argues no activist artwork is for the pure sake of art itself. They offer no artistic innovation or creativity, and simply would not be able to acutely represent themselves without moral justification. Kuspit remarks that activist art is a “subliminally anxious response to the modern inability to achieve a totally cohesive, seemingly self-adequate work of art”. He cites an example of the artist Ross Blecker who only after creating his black paintings did he think to attach an ethical standpoint of supporting AIDS victims.
An ethical standpoint simply gave his paintings a certain significance that was therwise not needed. While we all may believe that activist art may have a noble cause, Donald Kuspit believes it holds no place within the art world Yet activist artists would disagree stating that the beauty of the artwork is not necessarily printed on a canvas, the beauty is held within the actions of what activist art accomplishes. Activist art is not relying on a moral standpoint for validation or acceptance, rather, the activism is the art itself. Contrary to Donald Kuspits beliefs, it is exceedingly important that activist be able to belong within the art world.
Belonging in the art world, activist art would be able to be judged in the same fashion as functionless art and it would be able to possess some distinction and even preeminence. It’s crucial that activist art be taken as seriously as art without a cause, because the problems activist artists are attempting to fix are serious and do deserve attention within the fine arts realm. Without the divide between activist art and traditional fine arts, activist art holds great potential to become exceptionally more influential and impactful.
Before knowing whether or not activist art belongs among traditionally renowned art without a cause, we must first ask ourselves what is art? What is the one property in artwork that makes us regard it as true art? The answer is near impossible to define and neither clear nor objective, but according to Leo Tolstoy in his essay What is Art: Art is, not as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetically physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his xcess of stored up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity. In Leo Tolstoy’s definition, the highest form of art is that which brings people together for a greater cause and for the bettering of humanity.
Activist art attempting to bring attention to social and worldly issues certainly brings people together, and when these people are brought together, they are typically all in agreeance that a change is needed for the betterment of humanity. Activist art holds a special quality in that it is able to call out to masses and heavily influence others to become aware of current issues within the world and truly inspire people to make changes within their lives to help whatever cause the art is promoting Keith Haring, for example, one of the most popular activist artists, began his career with grassroots activism in the form of artwork.
His artwork, though obscure to many at first, was primarily a platform for social justice issues such as racism, income inequality, and environmental issues. For an antinuclear rally, he produced twenty-thousand copies of a poster to better support the cause. For an anti-racism event, he produced a piece named “Free South Africa” featuring a black figure with a white noose around its neck. And even today, all around New York City are featured Keith Haring pieces in promotion of child well-being a d other causes.
The activist works of Keith Haring undoubtedly brought people together in favor of a larger cause. Keith Haring brought together people who were willing to bring awareness to social issues and to help attempt to diminish these social issues. This is what all activist art is attempting to do, and many artists, just as Keith Haring, have definitely succeeded in doing so. Activist art, in bringing together individuals in favor of change and the improvement of a society, should be able to hold a high place within the art community just by its world changing properties.