Art and activism have a long history together. As art is a representation of the truth of the world around us, it can often force us to see things that we typically choose to ignore.
Sometimes – often times – this type of truth telling can cause trouble for the artist. Especially in countries where freedom of speech is not valued as it is in the west.
In Iran, a 29-year-old painter named Atena Farghadani was sentenced to 12+ years in prison earlier this summer, for depicting members of the Iranian parliament as monkeys and cows. She created the artwork as a response to their vote to restrict contraception and ban certain birth-control methods. Even while in prison – where she suffered abuses and more injustices – she would draw on paper cups until they were no longer given to her.
I came across the news while researching my show Joe Schmoe Saves the World, which is about a similar Iranian activist combating the restrictions of the previous regime. I like to think I would have always had empathy for the fate of artists being persecuted by their governments, but my delving into this story has opened my eyes to it in a deeper, more personal way.
There is so much life in the Iranian art scene, so much vibrancy, and all of it underground. You really begin to feel the evils and injustices of an oppressive regime.
It’s no surprise, though, that just as art got her into trouble, artists elsewhere are coming to her support. Comic Riffs – a section of the Washington Post – launched the #Draw4Atena campaign in June, after the sentencing occurred, and so far many artists are using the hashtag to draw attention to works created in protest of her suffering.
One of my favorites is this one by @Halltoons:
Often in these instances, it’s easy to wonder, “What can I do?” I feel like I’m struggling enough in my own life to fight obscurity and earn money by doing something I believe in. How can someone like me – or you – make a difference?
I was thinking about this while I wrote a previous blog post on race and the new generation of musical theatre. And I realized that as artists, the way we make a difference is by raising attention and creating awareness. Just as Atena did and just as the artists who are coming to her support are doing, by using art to tell the truth, we force the world to look at things it oftentimes wants to ignore.
That’s the power the artist has, and it’s a power that has been used throughout the centuries to combat oppression and injustice. Media helps shape public opinion.
If you’re an artist in any capacity – a writer, blogger, playwright, composer, actor, director, painter – I urge you to dedicate a portion of your work to portraying the change you want to see in the world. Put it out there, and you’ll quickly learn the power you have to affect the minds and hearts of others.
And if you’d like to help Atena, sign this petition from Amnesty International to release her from prison.
So, what do you think? Can art really make a difference in the world? Or are we too numbed by entertainment to be moved to action?
Share your opinion in the comments below.