Throughout our nation’s history, art has played a valuable role in propelling social justice movements forward while inspiring hope and celebrating our shared humanity. From Women’s Suffrage to Civil Rights to the United Farm Workers to Black Lives Matter, artists of all disciplines have amplified causes that give voice to marginalized groups and reveal systems of injustice to inspire positive change. Music, murals, graphic posters, political cartoons, spoken word and other forms of artistic expression have created spaces that bring awareness to social causes and build community. Today we’re sharing some of the inspiring ways art has become a tool for activism and the way it has helped shape social movements in the U.S.
Reshaping perceptions of women’s suffrage through posters and cartoons
“Bugler Girl” by Caroline Watts (1908)
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which secured a woman’s right to vote in the U.S. The campaign for women’s suffrage began in the early 1900s and involved the efforts of countless women, including female artists and cartoonists who advanced the suffrage agenda by conveying a collective narrative through their art. The movement’s bold banners, posters and political cartoons helped challenge the prevailing view of the times that a woman’s place was exclusively in the home. Posters were a relatively new form of mass communication and became an effective tool to deliver the movement’s messages to the masses. The allegorical bugler, calling her “troops” to battle in this 1908 “Women’s Suffrage March and Mass-Meeting” poster by British illustrator Caroline Watts, shows how strong female imagery was used to call together women who were ready to challenge the status quo. Watts first created her iconic “Bugler Girl” poster to promote the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies’ June demonstrations in London. This illustration was such a success, it was selected to become the logo of the British newspaper The Suffragette and was later borrowed by the women’s suffrage movement here in the U.S. Used to promote the National American Suffrage Association’s March 3, 1913 parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., Watts’ memorable poster helped mobilize over 5,000 suffragettes in the nation’s capital.
“Victory” by Nina Allender (1920)
Political cartoons published in newspapers and magazines were another accessible form of artistic expression that are credited with advancing the goals of suffragists during this era. The Kansas-based artist, cartoonist and women’s rights activist Nina Allender created political cartoons to counter anti-suffrage propaganda that depicted suffragists as unfeminine, undesirable and bitter. Allender instead created drawings with political satire that portrayed suffragists as young, bright and active women who were part of a new, hopeful generation unafraid to challenge authority. From 1914-27, she created nearly 300 political cartoons that helped reshape the view of women and suffragettes among both the public and the media, with perhaps the most famous being “Victory,” the popular 1920 cartoon showing a woman flying a victory banner in celebration of the passage of the 19th amendment.
Empowering art of freedom during the Civil Rights movement
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which aimed to end our nation’s institutionalized discrimination, segregation and violence toward Black people, called for equal rights and protections under the law. This era’s surge of activism was marked by non-violent protests and acts of targeted civil disobedience, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides and the Greensboro Woolworth Sit-Ins. The movement also ushered in a massive wave of artistic expression to communicate the issues and ideals of the movement. Artists like Jacob Lawrence, Mahalia Jackson and David Hammons created powerful paintings, music and sculptures that amplified the movement’s fight for equality. For example, Lawrence’s celebrated 1962 painting “Soldiers and Students” depicts a group of Black students accompanied by three armed guards, surrounded by a group of angry protesters attempting to block their entry into a school. The painting poignantly captures the determination and courage of Black students trying to exercise their right to a fair and equal education. Continue reading