Protecting the Arts to Protect Our Freedoms


As people continue the fights for social justice, artists and activists wonder whether arts advocacy should be put on the back burner. Why are we pushing for something that seems like a privilege when there are so many immediate struggles that need our attention?

As Deana Haggag, the new president and CEO of United States Artists, told Vogue magazine, the arts are the critical tool that allow people to communicate and shape conversations around the bigger societal issues fighting on the offense. “The reason the federal government wants to defund arts is that the arts have the power to make people think for themselves,” she said, “and in every moment when there’s been a fascist society they try to remove the arts because they know that a painting can wage war.”

It’s easy to connect this concept to the recent controversy over a piece of student artwork that was hung at the U.S. Capitol back in January of this year. The painting depicts a police officer as a pig, pointing a gun at African Americans protesting against police brutality. Various representatives took turns taking the painting down and re-hanging it, in a clear disagreement on the appropriateness and offensiveness of the painting’s contents. Though the painting had won an annual art competition held by each member of Congress, it was ultimately found to be in violation of the rules because it depicted “contemporary political controversy”.


But does such a rule actually belong in a place like the U.S. Capitol, a place that is supposed to represent the freedoms of expression? This type of controversy over the right of an artist to express themselves in the face of oppression points directly to the necessity of the arts in the fight for social justice. In addition, the reactions to the painting reveal just how emotional art can be, because it brings a concept to life using form, aesthetics, and execution.

Art may seem like an extracurricular or an afterthought to some, but in reality, it is the actual force that drives our culture, our societal norms, and ultimately, our politics. When Beyonce performed her famous Superbowl 2016 halftime show last year, it was a combination of fashion and dance performance that referenced essential icons of justice, like Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. Using art such as musical performance creates a more accessible platform in which to engage viewers with emotional subjects like police brutality.

As artist Favianna Rodriguez, co-founder of the immigrant rights movement Culture Strike, wrote in her 2013 article on arts and culture, “Art is where we can change the narrative, because it’s where people can imagine what change looks and feels like.” The arts cannot be brushed off as something ‘extra’ any longer - it is clear that as human beings, we need space and tools to create and imagine in order to be innovative and progressive as a whole. “Artists are central, not peripheral, to social change,” said Rodriguez, affirming to readers the reality of who is in control of the culture undercurrent - the creatives 

Though Rodriguez’s article was written four years ago, its message is just as pertinent, if not more so than it was in 2013. As we face the task of shifting our culture to be more sustainable and compassionate, the solutions lies with the creativity in all of us.

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