“Changing The World Through Art: Do You Have What it Takes?” by Debra Hand

by Debra Hand

The artworld talks a good game—how noble artists are and how they enlighten us, how civilized we all are, standing around the artworld looking pensively at profound works that are deepening our consciousness. 

But are artists really being allowed to maximize their power by the gatekeepers of the art world?

I say “we” because I also ask myself this question regularly, not just as an artist but as a member of the human species. Am I maximizing my power to affect change? I know it’s not exclusively the job of the artists among us to save humanity. It’s all of our jobs to do what we can. So I never quite buy into the notion that just by being an artist, you are somehow magically imbued with solutions that will help fix the rest of us. 

People who do the work to understand life and people on a deeper level, and make a goal of participating in activities that have life-altering outcomes for others, are the people who make the real difference—whether they are artists or not.

But here’s the thing about art: Art by itself has a power, even to the point of being able to zap a person into a whole new way of seeing. Who among us has never seen a movie that affected the way they saw a subject or relationship in their life? A movie can make you go home and hug your family with a deeper appreciation, or even alter the way you see the world.  Again, art has power.    

You can look at a painting and not even know why the artist created it, and yet be moved by the painting on a deep and visceral level. No one can say with true authority what Rothko’s paintings are meant to convey in words. That’s because paint and words are two different mediums for communicating experiences to an audience. Paint generates light frequencies that don’t have to be processed by the logical brain to have an effect on us viscerally. Words, however, must make sense to affect us, or at least convey a sense of something logical in order to move us. Even poetry that sounds like gibberish to some, others are able to construct for themselves a meaningful message from.

“Together We Stand” by Dr. Samella Lewis (Poetry By Maya Angelou) | 30 1/2″ x 37 3/4″ hand embellished lithograph on paper — framed (1997)

With paint–the paint colors, combinations, brush strokes, the use of line and texture–none of these things have to be presented in logical forms to affect people. A painting can move viewers far beyond the experiences that words can convey.  Most artists are aiming for this result, at the very least. They are trying to create an internal response in the viewer that doesn’t just stop at the logical cerebral level. They want you to say “Wow!” even if you can’t explain what that “Wow” means.  Viewing Rothko’s works, some people claim to have a spiritual experience. Some have wept.   

Taking the idea of art as power even further, there is almost nothing more powerful than an artist who has the power to  wow us, and also the consciousness to take us on journeys that influence change in us. When I speak about artists and the power of artists, there is absolutely no separation of genres for me. I put visual artists, songwriters, singers, filmmakers, directors, authors, etc., in the same category when it comes to the potential to use art to change the world. 

Any artist who is capable of creating a narrative that helps to shift consciousness, or who creates change directly, or inspires and fortifies change-makers to keep going, possess an awesome power like no other.

I have even seen collectors become artists, and authors, and change agents, via art. One obvious Black artist who had the consciousness, skill, and a mastery of narrative capable of influencing thoughts and actions was the late writer, James Baldwin. His art was so powerful that it continues to create change, even today. A more current example is the director and film producer, Ava DuVernay, who creates powerful films that not only wake minds but also inspire others to take action. A well-known example of her art creating change is when one of her films inspired an art collector to take one of the greatest, most revolutionary actions seen in art history, on behalf of Black people. 

The art collector is Agnes Gund, the President Emerita and Life Trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. Although Gund has always been a lifetime devotee to ensuring arts’ education, it was the artistry of Ava DuVernay and her film 13th that unveiled to Gund a truth so shocking about mass incarceration that Gund returned home, formed a plan of action, and sold one of the masterpieces she owned (a Lichenstein titled “Masterpiece”) for $165 million. Gund then used $100 million to create and fund her organization “Art for Justice,” an organization devoted to “ending mass incarceration and underlying racial bias through art and advocacy,” according to their mission statement. 

Dr. Margaret Burroughs served this same community, regularly visiting the incarcerated and teaching art classes, in addition to founding the DuSable Museum, the South Side Community Art Center and the South Shore Cultural Center Fine Art Gallery. As a result of Burroughs using her art to create change, thousands upon thousands of artists now thrive, having the consciousness to create change. The artist/curator Faheem Majeed, greatly influenced by Dr. Burroughs, uses art to create platforms for community engagement.

Artists in general, whether they choose to change the world through art or not, have been given the power to create magical journeys out of the ordinary…journeys that can be further employed to shift our consciousness, or make us rethink our own character flaws when it comes to other humans, or the planet itself. Many artists coming into the artworld are concerned with global warming, for instance. They are concerned with the activities of museum board members whose actions they feel affect our lives adversely. Museum board members and affiliates—from families who own manufacturing facilities for weapons to pharmaceuticals—are being challenged by artists. Artists, young and old, are using their art platforms to change the artworld’s status quo, and they are succeeding in surprising ways.    

Finally, the thing that makes many artists most special is the thing that is finally being used to the greatest effect. Artists are both storytellers and creators. They think in terms of possibilities. At all times, they think about how to bring things into actuality that don’t yet exist. Both art and artists can be a powerful tool in helping to change the world. 

I once had an engineering professor who said artists should be hired by every corporation just to think about the problems facing the corporations. As an artist, I knew he was right, even as others in the class (current execs at engineering companies) looked unimpressed with his assertion. He asked me what I thought, since I was an artist. I said, “For me, especially being self-taught, creating a sculpture was literally the exercise of solving one problem after the other until there was nothing left to fix and there stood the sculpture I’d imagined.” We all laughed, but inside, I wasn’t really kidding. Art has definitely made me a better problem solver and taught me to think of multiple ways to approach problems. Many artists think in multiplicities of solutions as a problem arises, and could solve that same problem a number of different ways.      

But what else could I use these problem-solving abilities to fix? Solving the kinds of problems I want to fix about the world has always required me to think about how I might use my art toward that end. For many years, rather than directly introduce certain subjects through my work, I chose to create works that represented the beauty and strength of Black culture, and then invest the proceeds from the sales of works into organizations who were doing the work to solve more critical social problems. This is also a valid way to use art to help create change. 

“Writer James Baldwin” by Gale Fulton Ross | 30 x 40 inches, mixed media ink and acrylic on stretched canvas (2018) — unframed

In order to be a relevant artist or collector, or one that changes the world, you don’t necessarily have to make the water crisis in Myanmar, or world hunger, the actual subject of your artwork. You can also use your art to indirectly help with that problem. If you are an artist whose paintings are about seashells by the shore, you can still contribute in other ways—like volunteer some of your time to a youth center or to other activities designed to make a difference. As an artist, I create other content such as books and screenplays aimed at inspiring young minds, even though my sculptures and paintings are created to reinforce narratives of cultural greatness. There are many ways for artists and collectors to use art to help change the world. Collectors who are on boards might think more about how to always include art and artists in their annual galas or conventions. An artist has little resources to change the world if they are not able to show and sell their works. 

All of the artists I associate with are generous beings and have supported numerous organizations through auction donations. On that note, however, I would encourage every organization that asks artists for donations to also share the proceeds with the artists so the artists can also benefit from helping the organization. If we don’t help artists to sustain themselves while repeatedly asking them for donations, we are creating another social problem which certainly inhibits the creativity of the most creative problem solvers among us. And the line of people asking artists for donations gets long fast. 

Think of helping to change the world through art by partnering with artists for win/win opportunities that help to maximize their power to create change, as well as your own power. And, artists, think about new ways you might use your art to create change. It doesn’t have to be directly through the subject matter. It can be through the social media platforms your work attracts, or through partnerships with organizations who are doing the work you want to see done in the world.

The gatekeepers of the visual artworld are being challenged more and more every day to become relevant contributors to a better world. Arts institutions and Biennales are being challenged. Even the Met has recently had to remove the name of a powerfully wealthy associate from a wing due to pressure from artists to do so.  So, even as the gatekeepers still maintain the power to crown art stars, the balance of power is slowly shifting toward artists, which is the place it belongs in the first place. Despite that slow shift, no one has the power to stop us from creating change right where we are, right in our communities, where it is often most needed.

As you build your art practices, careers, or collections, be mindful of this fact: You, too, can help to change the world.  There is power in art, and in you! 

So keep creating, collecting, and supporting the arts. 

As always, Thank YOU for reading!  We always appreciate seeing your comments in the comment section below.

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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer.  She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park.  Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma;  Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University.  She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.


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