Art, culture, and internationalist solidarity for liberation

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As Israel continues to add to the more than 65,000 tons of explosives already dropped on Gaza, what good is a piece of art?

In the face of imperialist transgressions and violent oppression, artists, and cultural workers around the globe are playing an important role in the struggle for liberation. They are doing so in part by spreading the message of solidarity with the people of Palestine, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cuba, and other subjugated communities and oppressed nations.

As public institutions attempt to suppress citizens’ voices and censor artists’ works that show solidarity with anti-apartheid struggles, artists and cultural workers all over the world have signed onto an Artists Against Apartheid statement of solidarity with those resisting occupation and fighting for their right to self-determination. Just as revolutionary artists of the past have weaponized their songs, poetry, and visual works for justice and liberation, the undersigned artists and cultural workers of this statement commit to using their platforms to challenge at every turn the massive misinformation campaigns waged by those who have a vested interest in the destruction of the Palestinian land and people.

Art has always been a powerful tool for social and political change—from the earliest cave paintings to contemporary street art, from the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook to the music of Public Enemy, from Robertson and Murphy’s depiction of Calais in their stage play The Jungle to the visual symbolism of South African protest theatre. Artists of all types have used their work to express their views on society and the world around them. Art and artistic expression can serve many functions in political protest, with some producing knowledge and solidarity within the group and others communicating to those on the outside. Understood in the broadest sense to include music and street theater as well as all forms of visual representation, artistic and cultural expression have an undisputed place in contemporary social activism.

More stylized and professional art forms, and artists, have been involved in political protests and movements throughout the modern era and the linkages between aesthetics and politics, art and propaganda has been long debated. Can political art be good art, can good art be political? How effective is politicized art and the artists who make it? What exactly does art do in demonstrations of political protest?

Theoretical foundations and the politics of art

Since Marxist theory—a theoretical framework that serves as the foundation for socialist politics, class struggle, and revolution—aims at achieving social change, practicing Marxism has demanded not only that art be set in relation to the social conditions that apply to it, but also to making a critical revision of the history of art and revealing its contextualized social role in each case of resistance, liberation, or revolution. Therefore, the Marxist conception, definition, and practice of art and politics are determined within the various historical contexts and their accompanying social struggles. When seized on and operationalized by the masses, art can become a tool for the oppressed and marginalized, signaling solidarity, expressing the struggles of the working class, challenging hegemonic ideologies, and influencing radical social change. Taken as a tool for social change, resistance is the condition of art.    

In our current struggle, the role of the activist-artist is to create political art that evokes and stimulates a critical stance to the world. A clear example of this is the art of Artists Against Apartheid. As discussed by Hannah Priscilla Craig in a recent People’s Forum panel on art, culture, and the anti-apartheid struggle, art is effective in mobilizing the aesthetic consciousness of the masses. What such artistic representations do is to jolt the viewer into questioning an all-too familiar and largely unquestioned media-saturated world; the status quo of imagery.

The emancipatory potential of art

For Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, this status quo imagery in media and bourgeois art helps form and uphold the ruling class’ cultural hegemony, or the accepted and consented dominant worldview of society. Writing in his particular context of the newly-formed nation-state of Italy and mostly from behind prison bars, Gramsci argued the overthrow of capitalism should come not only from revolution but also through the rise of “counter-hegemonies,” or alternative cultures developed by disenfranchised groups. Through self-education, political organization, and the creation of new institutions of and for the oppressed classes, a proletarian culture can become tool in sharpening the contradictions and illuminating the exploitative nature of capitalist and imperialist societies. Art as a tool for social change— born from resistance—can be counter-hegemonic to the aesthetic cultural and political habits of the ruling class. As Artists Against Apartheid is demonstrating, the masses can wield art and culture to critique, expose, and by doing so, help dismantle hegemonic power.

From the Russian Revolution to the apartheid walls that try to separate Palestinians from the world, protest art, art in protests, and the art of protests, continue playing a vital role in transforming society and shifting perspectives. Art remains a powerful weapon for organizing and dissenting, provoking constructive dialogue, and creating space for debate beyond mainstream bodies of political discourse. In Palestine, art has served as a means to reaffirm identity and political agency, as well as develop an alternative political imagination against the Israeli-imposed reality.

Street art, in particular, has played a central role in Palestinian resistance and served as a key instrument in Palestinian civic and political activism. The main utility of street art lies in its functionality as a medium through which Palestinians reiterate and render visible their commitment to bringing an end to occupation. Among other functions, street art acts as a force multiplier for Palestinians, since artworks depicting the Palestinian cause serves to stimulate collective emotions and imbue Palestinians with a feeling of togetherness. Strategically used, historically meaningful symbols and icons suffusing street artworks instill in Palestinians a feeling of resistance as well as a determination of struggle. In the face of oppression, street art remains an indispensable element of resistance as well as an influential instrument in reaffirming Palestinians’ political existence and autonomy.

Art and the struggle for liberation from Indy to Palestine

Artists Against Apartheid and similar revolutionary groups are invigorating liberation movements with art and culture, revoking the internationalism and producing a new sense of political agency necessary for the anti-apartheid struggle. Art and culture make our movement stronger; they serve as unifying actions that deepen anti-imperialist solidarity, promote the common class struggle, and rally the global majority against oppression. They capture and produce our collective identity and inspire the mobilization of our revolutionary responsibility. As the Artists Against Apartheid statement states, artistic and cultural practices are tools of liberation in our struggle for sovereignty, dignity, and self-determination. 

In January, the Indianapolis Liberation Center featured a curated selection of works from Artists Against Apartheid as part of their monthly series, “Liberation Center First Fridays: Unleashing the creativity of the masses.” The series is organized by the Liberation Center and its member-organization, Arte Mexicano en Indiana, a non-profit organization that encourages and promotes Mexican art, music, and culture in Indiana through collaborations and by organizing and promoting public events. The newly-named Fonseca-Du Bois Gallery at the Indianapolis Liberation Center is the product of one such collaboration.

The First Fridays series is the only one in Indianapolis with an explicit focus on social justice and liberation. Another unique feature is that the First Friday events serve as openings for month-long exhibitions, including artist lectures and panel discussions on the exhibition, its relationship to political struggle, and more.

The title “Unleashing the creativity of the masses” embodies the struggle for a counter-hegemony that combats the ideals of the ruling class. In an ever-evolving struggle towards liberation and community power, we must have art that reflects the wills and desires of the working poor and oppressed, rather than works that center on the whims of the privileged few. Creating inspiring and meaningful artwork is a powerful tool to nourish not just our own souls, but to empower our communities to imagine that a better world is possible; it affirms that art is not a specific realm reserved only for the elite but rather a practice that all working and oppressed people engage and of which we are capable.

The title of the series, “Unleashing the Creativity of the Masses,” puts into practice a sentiment Stephen Jay Gould expressed in The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, a collection of 31 essays published in 1980. As Gould wrote: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Under this social system, art is a commodity to be bought and sold. At the Fonseca-Du Bois Gallery, it is a tool in our struggle for freedom. The vast majority of artists are forced to work outside the arts to support themselves while the rare few who find success must accommodate to the tastes of a select elite few. The gallery features art and artists who engage in community-practice or politically-based art and social justice movements.

A primary motivation for creating the series was the need to intentionally create a culture of resistance in the city. Since its opening exhibition in November 2023, each event in the First Friday series has not only helped build that culture, but has also exposed a diverse grouping of the city’s oppressed and exploited to the Center’s member-organizations and the myriad struggles it leads, facilitates, and supports.

The current exhibition on display, “Paint it Black: Black Revolutionaries and the Art of Rebellion” opens February 2 and features an elegant new mural of Indianapolis-born revolutionary Shirley Graham Du Bois by Edith Conchas of Good Job Signs and a collection of poster prints of Black and African revolutionaries in the U.S., each of which are for sale to help fund the independent liberated community space.

About the author

Zachary J. Patterson is a scholar-activist, cultural worker, organizer with the Indianapolis Liberation Center, and a contributor to the Review of African Political Economy. Patterson’s research interests center around Kenya, NGOs, and socialist politics and movements in Africa. He writes on and works in the space of art and revolutionary politics. His recent scholarly works include a review of “Climate imperialism in Africa: Critical commentary on the political economy of global climate change regime” and “Breaking the silence on NGOs in Africa – A review.”