Inside the mind of a creative activist

What is the purpose of art? To entertain, decorate or communicate? With so many types of art, and such a range of motivations for an artist, it seems like an impossible question.

Or course, art - in all its various forms and applications - can do all these things and more. And some pieces may do none of the above. There are plenty of artists who create for pleasure, with no intention of sharing their work publicly.

Art as business

But for many, art is business. From actors to architects, illustrators to writers, artistic skill is a source of income. Turning this idea on its head, Andy Warhol once said: "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art."

The 'king of pop art', Warhol was a renowned artist–entrepreneur and the owner of Andy Warhol Enterprises. Enthralled by America’s appetite for consumerism, he famously used the dollar symbol to create artwork (Dollar Sign, 1982).

Born into a working-class immigrant family in Pittsburgh during the 1920s, Warhol had amassed an estate worth $220 million by the time he died. And perhaps it’s unsurprising that he was such a great businessman. Creative flair is widely recognised as one reliable factor in entrepreneurial success, and many flourishing start-ups are brainchildren of prolific ideators with the drive to turn inspiration into reality.

Dr Pragya Agarwal is an entrepreneur, printmaker and founder of The Art Tiffin, a social enterprise that campaigns for and raises awareness of cruelty-free, vegan art materials. The Art Tiffen’s monthly subscription boxes contain ethically sourced and eco-friendly materials that aim to foster a love of art while promoting creativity and mental wellbeing.

Pragya agrees that there are notable similarities between artists and entrepreneurs, including the desire to create something unique. She started The Art Tiffen after finding that creativity helped with her own anxiety and researching the science of creativity and its links to brain activity and mental health.

"I wanted to create something with a positive social impact," she says. "It started off as a social enterprise, and the idea of vegan/cruelty-free art materials happened alongside as I considered the impact of my own art and printmaking practice on the environment."

Art as action

This interface between art and the ‘real world’ is what activist artists depend on. These are the creatives whose work is "grounded in the act of 'doing'" - those who want to do something about the status quo rather than simply suggest or represent it.

Even those who don’t set out to protest, or even identify themselves as political, may find that their work cannot help but tackle significant current events head on. Generally considered an apolitical artist, Warhol did adopt the role of social critic to produce a series of prints inspired by the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, organised by Martin Luther King (Race Riot,1964).

But why is artistic expression such a powerful means of articulating discontent and catching public attention? Pragya Agarwal says: "Art is a form of personal and visual communication, used since the start of human civilisation to express society, relationships and self, such as in the prehistoric cave paintings. It then is natural for it to be a form of commentary on the current political and social climate, along with music and theatre."

Activist or 'protest' artwork is certainly the kind of art that is meant to be engaged with, not merely looked at. Tate.org describes it as "a form of political or social currency", quoting the Cuban installation and performance artist Tania Bruguera [below], who said: "I don’t want art that points to a thing. I want art that is the thing".

Art in public

Because activist art is a means by which change can be created, it is often put in public places, so people can engage with its message and cause.

London-based photomontage artist Peter Kennard defines his role as that of a communicator, and is committed to producing art that exists outside the elite and sometimes restrictive art world. He has said: "For me, getting the work out into the world and used is as important as its production."

Kennard - who is Senior Research Reader in Photography, Art and the Public Domain at the Royal College of Art - originally trained as a painter, but his involvement in student protests against the Vietnam War led him to look for a different form of expression that could bring his work to a wider audience, as painting felt "too weighed down with art history". He hoped to find a "different way of working, to make work that wasn’t part of the art market, that wasn’t commercial in that way".

And with photomontage, he had an art form that can respond directly to major political events. Using common news imagery of these events as they unfold, Kennard creates works that become part of our experience, not reflections of what has already happened. With an uncanny ability to tap into the collective consciousness, he is widely accepted as "Britain’s most important political artist and its leading practitioner of photomontage".

Through posters, placards and even T-shirts, he has brought art to the masses in support of a variety of groups, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. One of his best-known works uses photomontage to add three nuclear warheads to the idyllic Suffolk landscape of John Constable’s The Hay Wain. Kennard’s version - Hay Wain with Cruise Missiles (1980) - eerily reconstructs this familiar piece of art history in protest against nuclear missile development in East Anglia.

Read: David Hockney on art as a medium of communication

Kennard’s 2003 Photo Op is a similarly powerful story without words, summing up public feeling at a turning point in history. It shows a grinning Tony Blair taking a selfie on a smartphone as he stands in front of a blazing oilfield. Kennard says the aim was to "portray Iraq as it happened and not wait until afterwards and make a history painting".

'Useful art'

Like Peter Kennard, performance artist Tania Bruguera uses art as a tool for change and a means of empowerment. She coined the phrase "useful art" to describe something that offers solutions to social and political problems by directly implementing art in people’s lives.

Working within communities, Bruguera’s many projects include her Behavior Art School in Havana and Immigration Movement International (IMI), an advocacy group and art project that seeks to raise awareness of immigrant issues and provide practical tools to help those affected.

As part of this movement, Bruguera spent a year living with a group of illegal immigrants, on minimum wage in a small apartment in a working-class New York neighbourhood, while operating a community centre-cum-conceptual art studio in a storefront space. This centre offered free legal advice and English classes to recent immigrants, as well as an opportunity to raise awareness in a public space.

The power of the unexpected

One of the biggest draws of Bruguera’s IMI project is likely to have been its novelty and sheer unexpectedness. Pragya Agarwal, who has written and spoken extensively about how entrepreneurs can use creative thinking to drive innovation, believes art and creative thinking can help us approach problems in new and interesting ways and find innovative solutions that can change the world for the better. This, she says, is the overarching message and aim of The Art Tiffin: "to inspire people to think outside the box, develop a creative habit, and apply creative thinking in different aspects of life."

It is exactly this kind of creative thinking that can skyrocket a campaign’s success and breathe new life into a message that has become stale, routine or clichéd. Activists who can embrace new tactics and unexpected ways of communicating will attract attention and drive engagement. Artists, then, have a clear advantage, as their creative mindset should help them to be ground-breaking - rule-breaking, even - in their approach.

Pushing boundaries

A fascinating example of innovative problem-solving is offered by Women on Waves (WoW), a Dutch pro-choice NGO that collaborates with various artists and designers in its work to secure safe abortions for all women.

WoW commissioned Rotterdam-based design studio Atelier Van Lieshout to design a mobile abortion clinic that could help women in places where abortions are illegal or restricted to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies. The clinic, which is also considered to be a work of art, is in a retrofitted shipping container that can be put onto ships registered in The Netherlands and taken into international waters, where local laws do not apply.

Propaganda and influence

Of course, abortion is a political as well as an ethical issue, and there are many who would agree with the observation that "all consciously 'political' art is propaganda, an attempt at thought-control not worthy of true art".

Pragya Agarwal recognises the difficulties of trying to separate art from politics: "I feel that all art is propaganda in some way, even the religious art of the past. All art has some underlying subliminal message. It seeks to convey a point of view, and in that way it is opinion and seeks to influence or sway the viewer or audience."

This intent to influence has certainly had some degree of success for WoW. The organisation’s founder, Dr Rebecca Gomperts, says its direct action has been the catalyst for positive legislative change in countries including Portugal, where WoW’s campaign prompted a referendum that led to abortion being legalised.

Public participation

Just as Warhol involved others in his work (this is the artist who had ‘coloring parties’ where friends hand-coloured his artwork, and a studio known as the Factory that was staffed by workers who made lithographs and assembled silkscreens), so political and other activist artists often embrace the sharing of their work to strengthen its power. Peter Kennard [example of his work above] explicitly encourages the public to "print, Tweet, Facebook, email and share these images as a sign of protest".

The value of multiplicity

Warhol’s now-iconic artwork - like the repeat-printed images of Coca Cola bottles, rubber-stamped so they were all identical - gives us one unique commentary on living the American dream. For this artist, mass production was something to celebrate: it meant that Coca Cola, for example, was the same for everyone and, as Warhol noted: "No amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking".

And so, using everyday mass-produced items as his inspiration and mechanised techniques like screen-printing as his method, Warhol disrupted the concept of elitist fine art, making it approachable and ordinary, and certainly not lessened in value by multiplicity.

Us and them

Another disrupter in the art world, and long-time Warhol admirer, is the controversial Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. A committed social activist, Weiwei set up a temporary studio on Lesbos to highlight the plight of the millions of migrants who come to the Greek Island to try to enter Europe.

The works created here were not designed to be simply looked at, but engaged with, and felt. As Weiwei - who lived in exile during the Chinese Cultural Revolution - pointed out in one interview: "The border is not in Lesbos, it really [is] in our minds and in our hearts". He hoped that his studio would provide a point of contact that goes beyond an ‘us and them’ mentality to a broader idea of what constitutes 'we'.

Far more politically outspoken than Warhol, Weiwei also includes everyday items in his work, such as the Lego bricks he used to create portraits of activists and political prisoners. (For one previous exhibition, which showed his work alongside Warhol’s, he had ordered a bulk delivery of Lego so he could make mosaic images of human rights advocates. Lego is reported to have rejected the order because it was 'too political', but changed this policy after vehement public criticism.)

Art for progress

It seems that, politically motivated or not, artists cannot help but drive change. As Pragya Agarwal notes: "There has been some snobbishness associated with true, higher art forms as opposed to street art/graffiti and propaganda posters," but aesthetics and politics needn’t be mutually exclusive. After all, the great Picasso painted the widely acclaimed Guernica in protest over the town’s bombing in the Spanish Civil War.

But is it crazy to think that art can change the world? Not if you count artists and creative entrepreneurs as some of the 'crazy ones' referred to in that famous Apple commercial:

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. […] They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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