Art’s Impact on Politics and Society

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey

When was the last time a piece of art moved you? Was it a film, a painting or a street performer? Art in many ways can enrich the human experience and initiate change in society. These types of changes can be used to better society by not answering questions, but by asking questions.  

How can art be used for a political purpose? Well, it can be used to raise awareness and shift perspective. For example,  Beirut based artist, Lawrence Abu Hamdan asked 2 sheikhs in Cairo to deliver city wide speeches about the danger of noise pollution as a public health issue instead of their usual weekly Friday sermons. Cairo is the 3rd worst city for noise pollution, according to Worldwide Hearing Index. Another example is Definition, by Czech artist, Ivan Kafka, who placed 1,000 wooden sticks to block people from going to work. In order to understand this work of art, one has to understand that Prague at the time was under control of a communist government. Thus, Kafka created a critical dialogue that asked the local population to take a stand, one way or the other, to define their existence.  

How can art impact society? By translating experience across space and time. Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, does exactly this in his art piece titled, Law of the Journey. Which was to confront and question the west’s complicity in the refugee crisis in 2015. This piece is a oversized life raft (60 feet long) composed of faceless figures and is made from rubber that the manufactures use in the boats most often used by the refugees.

As you can see, art can be used to transform an experience through art. Finally, in the words of Eli Broad (entrepreneur and philanthropist), “Civilizations aren’t remembered by their business people, bankers, or lawyers. They’re remembered by their arts.”  

Works Cited:

Blanc, Nathalie and Barbara L. Benish. Form, Art and the Environment: Engaging in Sustainability. 2016.

Larmon, Annie Godfrey.(2018, May 21). Can Art Change the World?

Eastham, Ben. (2015, September 22). Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “The All Hearing”.

Gray, Alex.(2017, March 27). These are the cities with the worst noise pollution.

The Cynical Side of Art Censorship

Before diving into art censorship, let’s ask ourselves, what is censorship? According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, censorship is: “The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.” Censorship can shelter citizens from reality and infringe on their rights. Below are some examples of art censorship.

In 2011, Facebook closed the account of Frédéric Durand without warning after he posted an image of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World). For those not familiar with the painting, it showed a woman’s genitals.  Durand took it to French court and sued Facebook for violating his freedom of expression. After a 7 year battle, a French court ruled that Facebook was wrong to censor Courbet’s painting. However, the social media network did not pay the $25,000 in damages, due to the fact that he was using a pseudonym and opened up a new account on the same day his previous account was deleted.

Another example of art censorship involves low-level detainees at Guantánamo Bay and their artworks. 32 works of art by 8 detainees are now owned by the US government which were previously on exhibition at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The reason for this is that the US government suspects that their potential sale would go to supporting terrorist activities. This new policy is a no-win situation when ownership is taken away and barbaric, especially when the art poses no security threat.  

As you can see, censoring art does more harm than good. It makes society less accessible and open for citizens. Finally, in the words of Ai Weiwei (artist and activist), “words can be deleted, but the facts won’t be deleted with them.”

Works Cited:

Rea, Naomi. (2018, March 15). A French Court Rules Facebook was Wrong to Censor Gustave Courbet’s Provocative ‘Origin of the World’.

Thompson, Erin. (2017, November 27). Art Censorship at Guantánamo Bay.

Toor, Amar. (2015, March 3). 19th Century Vagina Sparks French Lawsuit against Facebook.

Rosenberg, Carol. (2017, December 1). U.S. Military May Archive Guantánamo Prison Art Rather than Burn It.

(2018, February 1). Facebook to French Court: Nude Painting did not Prompt Account’s Deletion.

(2015, May 3). Court to Rule that Facebook can be Judged in France in Vagina Painting Case.