Oh man, the power of art. The power of using the mind to create.Detroit-based Graffiti and Urban Environmental Artist, creator of The Heidelberg Project
Visual art is defined as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as a painting or sculpture, to be appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotional power. At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss art as something children create for fun, or a luxury item collected and displayed in buildings owned by high-income individuals and corporations. However, if we look closer into a work of art, we can start to find a story in each piece told by its creator. In America, the stories of dominant groups are often the only ones represented in our classrooms, museums and public buildings — all of which are home to a variety of art forms we see from the time we are a child in kindergarten learning to fingerpaint, to an adult reading a magazine or walking past a painting in our doctor’s office.
According to a recent study by Williams College, “85.4% of the works in the collections of all major U.S. museums belong to white artists, and 87.4% are by men. African American artists have the lowest share with just 1.2% of the works; Asian artists total at 9%; and Hispanic and Latino artists constitute only 2.8% of the artists.” While these percentages may vary across disciplines and mediums, much of what we see is created by visual artists. This statistic shares a glimpse into who is creating the images we most frequently see, and in turn, what viewpoints are being shared at large.
In addition to artist representation, access to arts education is also inequitable in the United States. Research has shown that youth with access to the arts show higher academic achievement, graduation rates and employment rates later in life. Still, according to Americans for the Arts, “African American and Hispanic students have less than half of the access to arts education than their white peers.” The fact that minority races have less access to arts education than white youth perpetuates inequities for exhibited and career artists, immediately affecting whose voice is represented in the visuals we see daily. Reflect on what groups of people have you seen represented in artwork throughout your life. What artists do you know by name? What does this say about whose ideas are being represented in our communities?
While representation is still disproportionate, there are many artists and community groups in Southeastern Michigan working to change not only access to the arts, but also to use creative expression as a tool to advocate for change. Art for social justice is artwork that is created to spread awareness of justice issues such as distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges within a society. Art is a powerful tool that helps us see into the perceptions and experience of others. Detroit artist Sydney James’ artwork not only counters the lack of Black women in art, but also sheds light on current injustices evoking conversations and promoting action by viewers. “She is a painter on a pointed mission to let each brush stroke spark conversations long silenced. In paintings and murals, Black women are first. Never last and never forgotten.”
Another key piece of social justice art is including the voices of individuals in a community, ensuring an artistic celebration of the stories of its residents. Garage Cultural, an arts organization in Southwest Detroit, serves as an anchor in honoring the community’s cultural heritage. A family operated organization, Garage Cultural focuses on four pillars of work in their community: art, music, resilience and activism. Under these four guiding pillars they use arts and culture as a tool to organize community and support crucial development in their neighborhood through public art projects, events and arts education opportunities. As a community, Garage Cultural believes that when individuals are proud of their surroundings, a natural process of positive self-imaging begins to take place, which ultimately affects the overall safety, empowerment and cohesion of a community. Garage Cultural uses artistic voice as a direct way to improve their community. For more information on the important work Garage Cultural is doing in Southwest Detroit visit their Instagram page.
Another organization working to amplify community voice and equitable access to the arts is Pockets of Perception (POP). POP is a youth arts program run by the Dearborn Community Fund that uses art as a tool to address issues of cultural diversity to arrive at a harmonious and more inclusive community. POP offers high school students the opportunity to create public art installations with local artists, providing them the space to share their interpretations of their world with their community through art. The piece you see here represents their idea of a bridge between the Detroit and Dearborn communities. How do you think having access to this arts opportunity has changed the lives of youth in the program?
There are many more artists working to promote equity and combat justice issues across our country. We encourage you to view some of the works of the artists below and ask yourself key questions about their meaning.