In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, artist Doug Aitken said that there is “a constant river of images from millions of iPhones. The question is: what has potency?” In a time when our lives are inundated with visual stimuli, whether in the form of an endless flow of Instagram posts, a perfectly-curated Pinterest board, or the inescapable phenomenon of advertising, art must fight for our attention. Studies have found that the average human attention span decreased by nearly a quarter between the years 2000 and 2015, with some scientists stating that we now have a shorter attention span than goldfish. And yet, despite this, certain images have the power to imprint themselves on our minds for years to come. Art can both challenge and encourage us, and its potential to confer a strong message is recognised and employed by campaigns around the world. From Black Lives Matter to the Women’s March and the People’s Climate March, social movements have recognised art’s ability to make an impact and to instantly create brand recognition.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
Springing from decades of suffering and injustice, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has sparked visual responses at every stage of its growth. Artists, captured by the movement’s passion and urgency, have united in creating images of anger, hope, empowerment, fear, and solace. For some, it’s about showing solidarity with those who are fighting. For others, their art is an attempt to capture the mood and energy of protest, or to convey a message of defiance. The movement’s art has given a face and identity to those whose lives were destroyed as a result of racist police brutality.
After a grand jury declined to indict the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner, illustrator Carson Ellis delved into the numerous examples of police brutality against African Americans. Picking 20 victims, she illustrated their faces in a piece of art that quickly went viral. The image brings the viewer face-to-face with the magnitude of the problem and also personalises statistics that are often hard to comprehend. Reading that “at least 39 unarmed black men were killed in the US in 2016” (The Guardian) is shocking, but seeing their faces reminds us that these people were more than a number. They had identities, lives, and ambitions. They were different ages, different sexes, and came from different backgrounds. They had unique smiles and styles. The #BlackLivesMatter movement centers around providing identities to a demographic often disregarded, and here art has proved a powerful tool.
Conversely, Andrea Levy’s work focuses on anonymity. In her illustrated opinion piece entitled ‘Portrait of Michael Brown’, Levy told the Washington Post that she was “aiming to capture one sober observation: identity. Or, more accurately, lack of identity. With few accompanying words, the image is a silhouette. A portrait of a figure for whom we often don’t even both to define features, history or context: the young black man in America.” Continuing, she explained, that it’s “a crude outline that at quick glance looks intimidating, but upon closer observation is actually the depiction of one of our society’s most vulnerable. A figure facing overwhelming odds. It’s a black shadow immobilized in a white frame.” She highlights the frustration of the African American population at being invisible, portraying a powerful driving force of the movement.
PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH
The People’s Climate March takes the power of protest art so seriously that the movement has its own artistic wing: People’s Climate Art. In the group’s mission statement on the website, they state, “It takes vision to build a movement. It takes creativity to transform society, and ourselves.” The art is used to “help uplift the stories” of the communities that make up the annual climate marches, and to “clearly communicate the historic urgency of this movement.”
During the first People’s Climate March in New York, victims of Hurricane Sandy made signs in the shape of life rings and waves. These images made it clear why they were fighting; for them, the march was about survival and keeping an entire community afloat. Their art conveyed the movement’s message to everyone on the streets, on social media, and in the press.
For example, sunflowers have become an icon of the climate justice movement. Sunflowers are often used to leach heav y metals from toxic sites. Writer Desiree Kane notes that these flowers “show us that the front lines of the crisis are the forefront of change, because rehabilitating the soil creates beautiful flowers.”
Additionally, In the People’s Climate Mobilization Art Kit, which guides artists in how best to use images for the cause, creatives are advised to include common unifying visual elements in their work. For example, the shape of a circle was listed as the top element that every contingent was encouraged to use. This is because a circle symbolizes the earth, and represents “the cosmos, the cyclical nature of life, the fullness of being”. For this movement, art is a unifier, and the use of circles powerfully conveys this message.