The Intersection of Art and Social Change
Art often speaks of societal issues and societal issues often inspire art. When art intersects with social issues, it can be powerful and explosive. This intersection can create a lasting impression and can start a social change. Women artists use their work to bring attention to issues that would not be known otherwise. “If These Walls Could Talk” is a movie that brought attention to the issue of abortion and is an example of how art intersects with social change. The movie was groundbreaking in its time for casting light on to the personal stories of women regarding abortion issues. The movie may not have changed people’s minds, but it made them think again about where they stand. The trend of women artists letting their work challenge people’s views can be seen in creative women of the late 20th century such as Maya Angelou and the Guerilla Girls.
Women have always been involved in art. Most often, women were suppressed as artists due to their gender and society’s view of what a women’s role should be.
But beginning in the 20th century, things began to change not only for women
artists, but for women across the domestic and public spheres. A new women’s
movement, with an emphasis on the advocacy of equal rights, organisations devoted
to women’s interests, and a new generation of female professionals and artists
transformed the traditionally male-driving social structure around the world. These
social shifts, which began to emerge at the beginning of the century, developed
further with the advent of World War I and expanding global unrest, propelling
more women into the workforce and exposing them to social, professional and
political situations that had previously been limited to men (Gajewski, C., 2015. Khan Academy. A Brief History of Women in Art. Para. 7).
The issues that women in the arts addressed ranged from sexism, racism, equality, motherhood, employment, family life, and so many more. Due to women being forced to have to join the workforce during World War I, women were exposed to something different than the home in which they were told they belonged in. This gave women a unique insight to use in the works of art they created. Having come from being a female thought to only be good for housework and birthing children, to working in the workforce, once forbidden, is a viewpoint that is different than any viewpoint of any man.
As stated above, this trend led to pieces of work like “If These Walls Could Talk” and to phenomenal women like Maya Angelou. Angelou was an author of poetry, prose, and autobiographies. She was also a dancer, singer, actress, director, composer, writer, playwright, editor, educator, and activist. She was Hollywood’s first black director. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These are wonderful feats in and of themselves, but let it be known that she was an exceptional poet. In her poem, Phenomenal Woman, she addresses how she feels she is viewed as a woman. The poem talks about how she feels that even though she is not pretty, she still gets attention from men. She talks about how she is cool and calm when she walks into a room and the men flock to her. She discusses how women and even men wonder what they see in her. She answers in the final stanza of the poem which sums up what it is to be a woman for Maya:
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care
’Cause I’m a women
That’s me. (Angelou, M., 1994. Poetry Foundation, Phenomenal Woman. Stanza 5).
Angelou, in this poem, shows that being a woman isn’t about fretting or rushing to a man’s side. It is about being.
Likewise, the Guerilla Girls took action to bring attention to the inequality in the art world. In 1985 they got together to protest that most of the money in the art world went to men. They made and put out large posters and billboards challenging this. One of their billboards state “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female” … so they ask the question … “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum” (Guerilla Girls billboard)? This question was relevant then and unfortunately still relevant today. The Guerilla Girls know that this unequal representation is an important issue. If all people of society are not able to contribute to the art of a society, it is not the art of that society. It is the art of the rich and powerful. Art history should be the history of the art of all the people, not the history of power. (Guerilla Girls. 2016, Jan. 14., The Stephen Colbert Show). The intersection of art and social change is still very important as not much has changed since the Guerilla Girls took on this artistic venture to change the art representation.
In conclusion, there are many female artists throughout art history who have been inspired by societal concerns to create art. There have also been many female artists whose works inspired people to institute societal change. Art and societal change often go hand in hand. Why does art have the ability to instill ideas to create change? Because art often talks to places within our hearts and minds that mere words can not reach. Art is primal, where words used in a political arena are cold and sterile. Art makes it personal, as Maya Angelou displayed and as the Guerilla Girls demonstrated with their passion to push for change.
In Merced, Ca., there is a high instance of gang activity which includes spray painting of gangster “tags” on buildings, fences, train cars, etc. Over the past 5 to 10 years, art groups have reclaimed these graffiti-ridden walls and created beautiful murals, thus showing kids what can be artistical with more than a can of spray paint. In an article about one such mural, the purpose is described as two-part, “This serves the dual purpose of bringing art into the community while creating an atmosphere that would discourage additional unsanctioned graffiti” (Gonzalez, C., 2015, Aug 17. Local Art Group Beautifies Beachwood. We’Ced Merced’s Youth Voice). It is known that once graffiti goes up in an area, it will soon spread over more of that area. The artists’ groups murals have made a sense of pride within the neighborhoods that house them. And created a beautiful piece of art that people will be less likely to spray paint on.
Another art project in Merced, CA are the painting of bowls by citizens who sign up and pay to paint them, to be used later to sell hot soup in, to raise money for homeless programs. It is called The Empty Bowl Project. It happens annually and is a successful fundraising event for the area’s homeless programs.
Angelou, M., (1994). Poetry Foundation, Phenomenal Woman. Retrieved from
Gajewski, C., (2015). Khan Academy. A Brief History of Women in Art. Retrieved from
Gonzalez, C., (2015, Aug 17). Local Art Group Beautifies Beachwood. We’Ced Merced’s Youth Voice). Retrieved from
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (2016, January 14). Guerrilla Girls talk the history of art vs. the history of power (Links to an external site.) [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/FxBQB2fUl_g