Since its birth, the United States has valued certain demographics over others. The resulting systemic biases continue to color the fabric of our society. In the United States, the deeply rooted belief that we are not all created equal affects politics, the legal system, educational opportunities, housing, access to healthcare facilities and even healthy drinking water.

However, I believe that the arts can play a leading role in reversing the current culture of divisiveness and inequality in the U.S.

  1. The arts do more than inform.

The power of art to invoke cultural shifts and pursuant policy changes has been seen time and time again. In many cases, the art does not contain otherwise unknown information or facts. Beyond informing people, art has the capacity to compel people to act. Photographs in the 1960s of policemen hosing down and police dogs attacking black did not illustrate facts that were not already known. However, they illustrated the facts in a way that moved people and, eventually, national leaders to act on those feelings.

When asked what role the arts play in social change today, art and art history department professor Shana Klein replied, “Artists during this current regime play a role more important than ever. They are at the pulse of political exchange and can communicate political messages in a way that prose or literature cannot. Revolutions and regimes have always relied on visual images to express messages about the political condition of a society, and this time period will be no different. Images perform distinct cultural work from other sectors of the humanities and, depending on the artist, will seduce the viewer into naturalizing or revolting against the current administration.”

Authoritarian leaders know that the arts can be a threat to their control.  When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, one of his first actions was to suppress arts and education. In the 1950s, McCarthyism targeted Hollywood and authors as possible threats. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare writes, “… many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither,” more often cited today as “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

  1. The arts anticipate and, in part, shape the future.

The biographical background of an artist can illuminate some of the past influences and historical developments that influenced her or his work. As valuable as this historical context is, it remains important to deliberate the ways in which artists are also visionaries, who develop new ways to envision and, ultimately, build the future.

  1. The arts start at home.

The industry of art is entrenched in the same historical biases that shape the general economy. In the arts, demographics such as gender, race and socioeconomic status are primary dynamics that define who plays and who pays. Elitism in the arts is rampant; equality in terms of access or income is rare. Recent efforts to diversify who makes or experiences the arts are a step in the right direction but still suffer from a conflation of diversity and equality. Diversifying the players on the art field does not necessarily guarantee equal access.

One of the most powerful and effective ways for the arts to play a leading role in social development is for the industry of art itself to embrace and adopt some of the visionary insights artists explore. Practicing rather than preaching builds a more demonstrable path other industries can follow. In his book “Art and Physics,” author and surgeon Leonard Shlain asserts that when times call for a paradigm shift, artists will be at the forefront of overturning one set of truths for another.

“All art is subversive,” said Pablo Piccasso. Subversive acts do not materialize out of a vacuum. They want to change the standing historical context.

Art, by its very nature, is about challenging the standing historical context.

I choose to qualify Lemagny’s sweeping claim that all art is subversive. When considering the arts in their entirety, it is obvious that some works are less engaged or visionary than others. But 19th century French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin put it this way: “In art, there are only two types of people: revolutionaries and plagiarists.”

There is no valid reason to insist that all art must be socially or politically engaged. Nonetheless, artists can at least examine the role they play in their own industry and choose whether to be complicit or forward-thinking. A pen yields no power until it is used with power in mind.

Bruce McKaig is a professor in the art and art history department at Georgetown University. This if the final installment of Frame of Reference

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