Art & Culture

Wild About Political Art

All art is political. This truism of the art world seems especially valid as capitalism tries to wring the last dollar from every artist endeavour and AI hoovers up images to spit out pirated copies. While the very act of creativity can be seen as a political act, protest art elevates the intersection between the artistic and the political, making an overt statement. 

Art has the power to move us, to challenge us, to document who we are both as individuals and as part of society. The power of art to evoke an emotional response can be used both as protest and for propaganda. In Canada, posters featuring majestic mountains and lush agricultural lands were produced by Canadian Pacific Railway to lure both immigrants and tourists to Canada and helped to impose a colonial regime on a newly formed country. Whether or not we realize it, these images are ingrained as part of our national identity, even today.

A poster advertising land in Canada. A figure of a man holds a poster of a rural landscape. The test reads:
"It's Mine!"
Canada: The Right Land for the Right Man
Canadian National Railways
The Right Way!
Art was used to lure new settlers to Canada. Art by G. Attwell. Photo by David Wilson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Later, works by the Group of Seven, some of Canada’s best-known artists, further solidified the perspective that Canada was a nation of wide open spaces and rugged landscapes, rather than the home to Indigenous peoples across the country. Art—even if it is beautiful—is political. 

An oil painting of a mountain lake with blue water in the foreground and snow covered mountains behind.
Lake McArthur, Yoho Park by J. E. H. MacDonald, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Art and politics intersect most fully with activist art, where artists seek to create or document social change. Even in these circumstances, art doesn’t stand alone. Research shows that pairing art with climate data can make people more receptive to understanding climate change. 

Art as activism is not new. For centuries, art has challenged the status quo. Certainly in the 20th century, artists such as Diego Rivera used art to highlight worker’s rights, while Keith Haring’s pop-art murals provided direct calls for action on the AIDS crisis. Today, art is used to raise awareness and provoke action on a range of issues from Black Lives Matter to the climate crisis. 

One of the more interesting forms of climate-related art are the well-known ‘climate stripes’ which were conceived by Ed Hawkins from the University of Reading. Showing the change in global temperature over the past 150 years, this artwork makes the climate crisis easy to understand and has inspired other artists to produce their own works in knitting, weaving, and other mediums.

A series of vertical lines in a gradient from blue to red, representing the changes in temperature over the past 150 years.
Climate stripes by RCraig09, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Five woven tapestries in blues and reds, based on the original climate stripes.
Art inspired by the original climate stripes. Justin Connelly, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether it is overly or implicitly political, the act of making art for art’s sake has increasingly political overtones in a world that demands that every hobby be monetized as a side-hustle. Outside of the rich, leisure time is a relatively new invention that arose thanks to limited working hours and the rise of time-saving household inventions. While cross-stitching a flower in front of your TV may not seem like a political act, the ability to make art with no purpose other than enjoyment is born from political action.

Nowhere is this more true than with Indigenous art. The cultural genocide created by colonialism in Canada and around the world sought to erase Indigenous art, culture, and language. Reclaiming that is inherently a political act. 

Art is a fundamental part of how we interpret the world. Whether we make art for ourselves or for a larger audience, its very existence can be an act of resistance or a call for change.