You may attend a rally or vote, but you also read books, listen to music, engage with visual art, turn on the radio and create your identity through culture. Artists are central, not peripheral, to social change. To have the movements that make the wave, you need cultural workers.” – Favianna Rodriguez (Artist)

Throughout history artists have utilized their works as a tool to communicate ideas, inspire emotions, challenge cultural narratives, and shift imagery. Many artists create their work solely to address social issues and current events on a local or global scale. In an attempt to generate social change, these artists use their art to question, challenge and address controversial topics such as immigration, sexism, and gun violence. Overtime, simple artistic representations can have far reaching consequences, inspiring hope and giving a voice to people who might otherwise have not been heard. Let us show you the significance of art as a means of social engagement and change in comparison to the traditional political routes.

What is social change and why is it important?

Visitors to Ai Weiwei's art installation "Sunflower Seeds" (2010) at the Tate Modern in London, England. The installation was made up of 100 million tiny porcelaine sunflower seeds alluding the globalization and mass production in China catering to western consumerism. 

Visitors to Ai Weiwei's art installation "Sunflower Seeds" (2010) at the Tate Modern in London, England. The installation was made up of 100 million tiny porcelaine sunflower seeds alluding the globalization and mass production in China catering to western consumerism. 

Social change refers to the transformation over time of behaviour patterns, cultural norms and values, social institution and social structure. Both intrinsic and extrinsic societal factors can instigate social change. When social change occurs it often yields profound consequences, which can be both positive and negative. Regardless of the outcome, these changes are essential for societies to evolve, to remain relevant and to shape the beliefs of the collective individuals.  

How can art bring about social change?

Within art is a form of nonverbal communication that transcends boundaries of all kinds. Regardless of age, gender, spoken language, and nationality, art is not biased in who can interpret its message. Art can be utilized as a means to spread information in a unique way that can shed light on certain aspects of a current issue or event that might be hard to grasp in spoken language. Furthermore, depending on the art form and popularity of a piece, members of the receiving audience could have been previously unaware of the issue it addresses. Geographical separation, cultural distinctions, language barriers, government censorship and corruption or lack of media attention are all reasons that prevent awareness of these issues that art can help to address.

The artist takes the role of educator by creating artworks that draw attention to and communicate universal ideas of how to change these issues in society for the benefit of it’s individuals. Consequentially, the artist must be careful in how they project their messages. They should aim to find the most effective way to communicate a message that is clear to their viewers and cannot be misinterpreted.

Important artists in social change

“I think everybody has to defend, has to fight, has to really make their own voice be heard.” – Chinese artist Ai Weiwei

"In this art installation Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei showcases thousands of used life vests by refugees from the Greek island of Lesbos, on February 14, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. The orange vests are wrapped around the pillars of the city’s Konzerthaus to highlight the plight of refugees trying to reach Europe." - The Observer

"In this art installation Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei showcases thousands of used life vests by refugees from the Greek island of Lesbos, on February 14, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. The orange vests are wrapped around the pillars of the city’s Konzerthaus to highlight the plight of refugees trying to reach Europe." - The Observer

Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei is one of the most influential artists still living today who has utilized his artworks as a platform to speak out for social issues. Ai Weiwei is well known for a variety of artistic mediums including sculpture, installation, curation, photography, film and architecture. Most notably, his best-known works are sculptural installations that are made up of reproductions of everyday objects commonly found in Chinese culture such as sunflower seeds, ceramic vases and grass. When these objects are arranged into an art installation, they signify and highlight issues of inequality and oppression of freedom in the modern day Chinese society. By using traditional Chinese symbols and objects, Ai Weiwei’s art installations have sparked immense dialogue between the contemporary art world and the traditional Chinese modes of thought and production. The messages Ai Weiwei’s artwork represents have far reaching consequences beyond Chinese borders, since many other countries experience similar issues. He has gained recognition internationally, thus his influence exceeds far beyond his native China. He uses his ability as an artist to spread his message and inspire hope.

My work is always navigating between issues that I face as one woman, one Iranian, one artist – and issues that are far larger than me.” – Iranian artist Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat's photographs bring to light social issues displaying contrasting themes, for example: black and white, male and female, life and death. On each photograph Neshat places calligraphic poetry written by contemporary Iranian women superimposed on female body parts. These verses cover topics such as the role of women in the Revolution, exile and martyrdom, all topics close to Neshat's heart. 

Shirin Neshat's photographs bring to light social issues displaying contrasting themes, for example: black and white, male and female, life and death. On each photograph Neshat places calligraphic poetry written by contemporary Iranian women superimposed on female body parts. These verses cover topics such as the role of women in the Revolution, exile and martyrdom, all topics close to Neshat's heart. 

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian artist who also uses her artworks to bring to light social issues about being an Iranian artist and female in society today and her own personal position as “self-imposed exile” to Iran. Neshat is best known for her work in film, video and photography. She creates stark visual contrasts that offer glimpses into religious, cultural and social codes of Muslim societies. Neshat wants to bring to light the struggles Muslim women have in contemporary Islamic societies. Through her artwork Shirin provides a voice for Muslim women and an enlightening perspective to those who share her sentiments and how art can possess the immense power to engender change. Her work gives a sense of empowerment to a segment of society who often feels at risk. Neshat is always striving to foster justice and the awareness that change is possible.

These artists’ artworks confront and are honest about the flaws in society. While an honest representation of reality can be difficult to face, it is also a way to connect with individuals suffering from certain social issues; it gives them a safe place and a sense of understanding within a community. These artworks create bonds and a secure environment where individuals affected can come and connect with others peacefully. Art unites those who are similar as well as dissimilar to act toward a common goal and is a powerful tool that can speak universally spanning many generations. To see results and effects of social change takes time; art is a means to pose questions and start a dialogue. This can in turn strengthen and drive the need to bring about the desired social change. During times of fear and uncertainty for what the future holds, art inspires hope.