Artists as Activists: Two Inspirational Visits

Students in the interdisciplinary Artist as Activist class – co-taught by visual arts and humanities faculty – have been venturing out in the field to learn from other artists who have expressed their visions and belief systems through their art.

First stop: Keith Haring: The Political Line at the de Young Museum
Keith Haring was an American artist and social activist whose work was made in reaction to the New York City street culture of the 1980s. Images of birth, death, sexuality, consumerism and war dominate the 130 pieces that hang in the gallery spaces. Students were struck by the color schemes, saturated compositions and powerful visual symbolism that flood viewer’s minds and eyes. Many of the works “repel” the viewer, and yet you cannot help but look and look again and wonder what is happening. As a group, we talked about the tools artists use to captivate their audience, and how you get your ideas across clearly.

Next stop: Ai Weiwei’s installation, @Large on Alcatraz Island
Students experienced seven different site-specific works made by the Beijing-based artist and activist. Ai Weiwei’s work hones in on themes of repression, flight, freedom, oppression, confinement and communication. Ai is able to adapt his style to fit any environment. He creates art for the purpose of social commentary, not for beauty. People generally want art that is pretty; his work is not pretty.

Rainier ’15 shared her thoughts on Ai’s activism: “Ai Weiwei goes against social norms and works to go into unexplored ideas. He does not conform to social or political notions of correctness. He is very socially outgoing. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind in public, or to shake up the media…Like Keith Haring, he forces you to look at his work.”

– Ascha Drake, Visual Arts Faculty & Jane Uyeda, Humanities Faculty

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