A recent conversation with an activist led to some interesting thoughts. The gist of the conversation was that in order for activist art to be effective it had to be in your face, brutal and angry.
But my opinion is that angry art looses the viewer. Before the viewer ever has a chance to see the art they are already biased towards it, no matter how effective the message might be within the art.
Consider pro life advocates against abortion. Whether you are pro life or pro choice, the signs they use at abortion rallies are repulsive. There is no room for their message to get through when most people won't even glance at a photo of an aborted fetus.
Art that makes you angry is as important as art that makes you happy. But art that repulses will not get viewed. The message is lost. Art is not always about beauty. Its about content and yes sometimes even ugliness. But art that has a message should not totally turn off the viewer.
I suppose the argument comes back to what art truly is. My personal definition of art is that it is the artists way of trying to give the rest of the world a glimpse of the world through the artists eyes. For the viewer it is a way of interpreting a world we often do not understand. We use art to explain things in a way that we can grasp. But if we close our eyes instantly to that art, then how does the message ever get through?
For me, I prefer to take the approach that a beautiful piece of art is the first step. A well crafted message is the second. I call this *casting a glamour. I am attempting to veil the message within the beauty. I want the viewer to be caught up in the beauty of the piece first. If they instantly turn away in disgust then I've lost any chance to show them the world through my eyes and the message within my heart.
Don't get beauty mixed up with an absence of a "gut punch". It is possible to craft a piece of art where the beauty pulls you in, but the message is sometimes brutal and can hit you in the stomach once you realize what it is saying. I think the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is a great example of this. His work is often mesmerizing and beautiful, but it often has a very brutal message about the problems we face in society.
The best political art is often subtle. It comes at the viewer from the side instead of straight on.
My activist friend I mentioned at the beginning of the article was not an artist. In his view, brutality was sometimes the best way to get a message through to others. I doubt I convinced him to think differently. I see a lot of activists approach their message with anger. That in turn creates anarchy rather than a message people can understand.
Protests often end up in anarchy. The message is totally lost within the violence. This says to me that activists can learn a thing or two from artists about crafting more of their messages with beauty. Martin Luther King understood this completely. He wasn't only an advocate of peace. If you look at his messages, sermons and how he conducted his protests, they are all laced with a certain unique beauty that marked the man as an artist, not just an advocate. Even though he never lifted a brush, he was more an artist than those who claim to be the great artists of our own era.
So for me, as an art advocate, crafting beauty into my messages is more important than anything else I could possibly do as an artist. I want my work to have meaning, but I also want even my most die-hard of opponents to stop for just a moment and see the beauty. If they cannot do that, then there is no beauty within them to respond with. Either way the message is never heard.
* The casting of an enchantment or spell to cause one to seem different or more glamorous than they normally would be.