Poetry is not a luxury.
                    —Audre Lorde

From the street posters and performance art, to pop-up galleries, giant light shows, poetry readings and micro-plays, the expressive arts are a fundamental component of the Occupy movement.

The movement’s new wave of organic creative expression revives the idea of art as necessity for an engaged citizenry. This is not self-referential art for art’s sake—art that pleases only the artist. Rather, this is timely art—art of and for the times—that is self-consciously responsive to immediate social concerns. Occupy has re-established art as a unique vehicle for social analysis and collective action that is as important to understanding—and potentially reshaping—the world around us as are the economic analyses and sociological studies inspired by the movement.

There are already a great many archives documenting the art of OWS, including the Smithsonian, Occuprint.org, and Occupennial.org. They reveal a consistent concern with both the politics of art and the art of politics. These growing archives draw our attention not only to their content (such as the U.C. Davis cop who pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters on campus and now has been collaged into numerous classic paintings and photographs) but also to the places and conditions under which such political art can be produced. The art-activist group Occupy Museums, which has organized to protest the “cultural elitism” of the art world, has an antecedent in the 1970s Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), which was, in turn, inspired by Black Power and student activism. As art critic Ben Davis notes, AWC

advanced demands not dissimilar to some of the first rumblings from Occupy Museums: expanded support for artists and artists’ rights, more democratic museum structures that addressed New York's diverse communities, more attention for women artists and artists of color, less corporate influence on museum boards, and support for progressive causes like environmentalism and the antiwar movement.

AWC used Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), which captured the bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War, to protest the Vietnam War by holding up their “And babies” poster in front of the painting. One can find many similar echoes in today’s movement from past artist-activism, such as Yayoi Kusama’s 1968 “Naked Demonstration at Wall St.” whose press release for the event read: “Stock is Fraud.”

The oeuvre of Occupy embodies the idea that art is activism.

A major theme in many of the OWS posters, exhibitions, and performances is inequality. The works highlight not only racial, sexual and economic inequities but also critical questions about who is allowed to speak, lent an ear, or given the stage in the first place. Writer and activist W.E.B. Du Bois was among many who recognized that for people of color and the marginalized in general, art is an especially potent vehicle for social change. Creating the art is not enough, he insisted: the critical gatekeepers of art—the movie reviewers, the book editors, scholars and the theatre-owners—need to change how art is defined and disseminated.

Occupy has been very effective, however, at bypassing the institutionalization and corporatization of art. With important exceptions, Occupy artwork has been made in the spirit of participation—not in private studios, not hosted by museums, nor sponsored by official agencies, but instead created and displayed through acts of collaborative protest in the spirit of a public march or demonstration.

Some have criticized the Occupy art as crude, propagandistic or, conversely, pointless. And still others dismiss the work for being either too humorous or too angry to count as “true” art. Some of these criticisms are legitimate but they do not de-legitimize the importance of Occupy art. In fact they illustrate and underscore artists’ ability to spark debates about the value of free speech and the valuation of artistic expression.

In sum, the oeuvre of Occupy embodies the idea that art is activism. These artist-activists have emerged spontaneously across the world and join a historically deep and global community of painters, writers, performers, musicians and others—from novelist Sinclair Lewis to graphic artist Ai WeiWei, from singer Paul Robeson to visual activist Adrian Piper—whose work has shaped the cultural imagination that effects social justice.

Collectively, such activist-artworks make a similar revolutionary call: to create a better world, you must first occupy your imagination.

 

Note: This piece was written in association with The Op-Ed Project, an organization aimed at including more women in opinion writing.