Art and Activism: Using Creativity to Drive Social Change

Emily Meng ’26 in Arts | May 5, 2023

The great power art holds is that it can be understood universally. Throughout history, artists from all over the world have used their work to inspire social change by promoting equality and breaking down stigmas. 
Faith Ringgold, an African American artist known best for her story quilts, promotes social equality, spreads the values of other minorities, and advocates for women and other oppressed groups. Ringgold’s activism peaked during the 1960s, one of the world’s most politically divided decades. During this time, America faced unprecedented protests against racism, war, and homophobia. Ringgold was one of many who fought for change, believing that “no other creative field is as closed to those who are not white and male as is the visual arts.” She had to maintain a mindset that, as a black woman, she “could penetrate the art scene…without sacrificing one iota of [her] blackness or [her] femaleness or [her] humanity.” Her story quilts told the history of African American life and promoted racial equality. 
Additionally, as one of the founders of the Art Workers’ Coalition, a group that pressured museums in New York City to effectuate economic and political reforms, Ringgold demanded The Museum of Modern Arts include minority voices in its exhibitions. The 13 demands of the Art Workers’ Coalition ordered The Museum of Modern Arts to create a section “under the direction of black artists, …devoted to showing the accomplishments of black artists.” In these demands, she also encouraged the museum to extend its activities towards other minorities to “encourage exhibits with which these groups can identify.” Along with the change she inspired through her story quilts and the coalition, Ringgold also led protests promoting justice, peace, and equality. 
Keith Haring, another well-renowned artist, created street art that advocated for queer rights, especially for those with HIV. At the start of his career, Haring drew on blank advertising spaces in the train platforms of New York City. Using simple, clean figures with bold black outlines, Haring’s artwork stood out starkly to passing New Yorkers. Even after receiving recognition, Haring continued to draw in subways and create murals for low-income neighborhoods. He believed that art should be available to everyone, not just the wealthy. Despite his great success, he continued to believe that “art is for everyone” and opened a merchandise store with affordable prices. As someone who was diagnosed with HIV during a time when this diagnosis was severely stigmatized, Haring created many art pieces educating people about this illness. He also founded the Keith Haring Foundation, which funds HIV research, charities, and education. As an advocate for queer rights, Haring opened up about his sexuality and created artwork advocating for safe sex.
Keith Haring and Faith Ringgold are some of the many artists promoting their political views through art. They both profoundly impacted the world and left a legacy that will be remembered for generations to come.