Written by Rachel Hammitt //
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
The visual arts are a funny thing. They confuse. They move. They astound. They bewilder. They are both beautiful and unsettling, arresting and startling. They cause you to wonder and to question.
Art takes a variety of forms and many people don’t know what to do with it. It provokes. It aggravates. It simultaneously asks questions and provides answers.
A number of people think art is dumb. Let’s be real, art can easily be perceived as pretentious and downright weird.
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t understand.”
Art often brings to mind white galleries, quiet onlookers, the scrutiny of security workers. Art can feel stale, forced, overpriced. Art can seem fake, copied, crude, ridiculous.
“I would never buy that.”
“Even I could do that.”
Artists are, perhaps, in one of the most ridiculed professions. Parents discourage children from becoming ‘an artist’ because artists “don’t make money” (read starving). They may or may not be taken seriously. But artists are doing some of the most serious and important work in our world. Artists are agents of justice.
Justice and art have an interesting intersection because they both are inherently saying, “______ has value.”
People have value.
Nature has value.
Culture has value.
On and on it goes.
Justice and the visual arts go hand in hand. Art equips justice initiatives. And justice, or the lack thereof, fuels the work of certain artists. Many individuals make the pursuit of justice and/or the pursuit of art their life’s work.
Art can be the sucker punch, the spark. Art makes a statement, with or without words. It is a catalyst.
It voices something deeper than a person spouting off statistics or a presentation filled with bullet points. Art informs and inspires in a unique, visceral way.
How many movements have begun because of a viral video, a televised image, a famous painting, a controversial installation, a song? How many times has art been the spring board which launches something bigger, something greater?
When I think of artists using their platform to practice justice, I think of Vik Muniz, a Brazilian artist known for using unconventional materials to craft portraits of marginalized people.
I think of Kara Walker, a contemporary painter, silhouette creator, print-maker, and installation artist, who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity in her pieces.
I think of the artist Banksy. The streets are his gallery and the statements he makes through his installations are far from subtle. The subject matter of his graffiti is intriguing; his placement strategic.
When I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, working for a non-profit called the Warehouse, one of my co-workers came up with an unconventional conference titled, “Shit Talks: Sanitation, Health, Information and Theology.”
The gist of Shit Talks: gatherings meant to raise awareness and facilitate conversations centered around the lack of sanitary toilet conditions in the townships (slums). They highlighted the drastic difference between how the wealthy and the poor experience going to the bathroom.
One of the most compelling parts of the conference was a series of paintings by a local artist named Ntobeko Mjijwa.
A piece of Mjijwa’s that stood out to me in particular was a side-by-side portrait. One half of the canvas depicted a person using the restroom in a township setting (essentially sitting on a bucket already filled with excrement) with a gas mask on and flies on the wall.
The other half of the canvas depicted a wealthy white man on a clean, flushing toilet, casually reading a book. The contrast between the man who had the privilege of reading while relieving himself and the man whose bucket toilet was overflowing made a stark statement to the viewers passing through the conference.
All of the artists mentioned above create work that is both powerful and memorable (albeit jarring and sometimes aggressive).
After all of this, we are left with the question: how can the visual arts be integrated into daily practices of justice?
(Especially for those of us who aren’t spray-painting at midnight, or finalizing large-scale installations for a show, or painting canvases as a means to raise awareness.)
To quote Skye Jethani, an author, speaker, consultant and pastor known for examining the intersection of faith and culture, many of you might be saying:
“I’m not an artist. That’s not my calling. You’re thinking this message won’t apply to you—that you wasted your time [reading this]. You’re wrong. If you are human, you’re an artist. If you are made in the image of God, and we all are, then you were made to create…”
Here are a few suggestions for you to consider:
- Encourage the voices of the artists in your community, in your home. Instead of offering judgment or passive indifference, choose to listen and engage.
- Facilitate a community art project, bringing in people from different backgrounds and walks of life to participate and create a piece.
- Educate yourself; think beyond your sphere, your bubble. Who are the oppressed and marginalized in your community? Who are you ignoring? How could you be helping? How could art be incorporated?
- Take the time to understand the shapes and figures your small child drew on a piece of paper for you. Maybe there is meaning there you didn’t see before.
- Partner with an artist and pursue justice as a team;
take a risk together.
- Step out in courage and pursue your own artistic endeavors, whatever they may be.
Whatever thoughts, ideas, questions come to mind as you read this, consider them for a moment.
Artists and agents of justice ultimately use their skill, their craft, their occupation to increase awareness of various issues. They force us to ask ourselves: what will I do in response?
It is my hope that you will not distance yourself or become callous. Engage, take action, and be a catalyst for transformation.
Rachel Hammitt is a graphic designer and photographer living and working in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She does design work for her alma mater, Wheaton College, and a variety of freelance work. Rachel loves to create and design pieces that are both beautiful and functional. Her goal as a designer and photographer is to help bring people’s vision to life, with clarity and heart.