Art and Activism

Motivating Students to Take a Stand

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Art and Activism

by Larry Gaffney

Activism has many faces. The most familiar are distinctly, viscerally human: a Kent State student’s look of agony as she kneels by her fallen comrade; the stoic visages of Gandhi and Mandela. Artists committed to protest show not their own faces, but those of their subjects. Norman Rockwell, so often associated with illustrations of freckle-faced farm boys and other representations of Americana, addressed racial strife in Little Rock, Ark., by painting a black girl in a white dress being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals, an image forever burned into the national consciousness.

Protest by artistic, original thinkers can also be subtle. When the painter James McNeill Whistler was a cadet at West Point, he was assigned to draw a bridge in an engineering class. His inclusion of two boys fishing from the bridge displeased the instructor, who ordered him to draw it again without the young fishermen. Whistler did as he was instructed, but unwilling to completely stifle his artistry, he drew the boys fishing from the riverbank. Told he would still not receive a passing grade, Whistler handed in the drawing one more time, without the boys in the picture. But on the riverbank, as monuments to the death of creativity, stood two little headstones.

At Susquehanna University, faculty and students are engaged in the arts as an expression of activism. One faculty member is a painter who, like Whistler, has been censored. Others are exploring environmentalism, protest and social movements through film, literature, music and theatre. Students inspired by such teaching are using various media to tackle the issues that speak to them. Following are the stories of Susquehanna faculty and students engaged in these pursuits.


FOR ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ART ANN PIPER, the chance meeting of her paintings and a Girl Scout troop led to a familiar situation for many artists: She was censored. In 2003, her solo exhibition at the Wichita Center for the Arts included two pieces showing bare breasts and implied sexual activity. Piper works primarily in portraiture, depicting human figures in poses that suggest a story. As a feminist, she often paints women in situations that balance subjugation with strength. One can speculate that the young girls, perhaps encountering serious, adult art for the first time, gazed with wonder upon the paintings. The troop leader, however, was unambiguous in her response. Her complaint led to the removal of the paintings.

A year later, Piper submitted 14 pieces for a show at the Museum and Art Center in Roswell, N.M. Seven of these portrayed people with breathing apparatuses, an emotionally charged motif generated by the recent death of Piper’s father from emphysema. They were rejected by a newly appointed art director, who feared that the images might be associated with terrorism.

“It felt like a personal attack,” says Piper, “and I had no recourse other than to turn inward, to express my outrage through art.” The result was a painting entitled Censored #1, a nose-to-bellybutton nude whose breasts are hidden behind a string of cutout dolls held aloft by the figure in the painting. “The dolls are androgynous and anonymous,” says Piper. “They represent the faceless people I couldn’t confront, yet who controlled what the public saw of my work.”


FRENCH NOVELIST, ART HISTORIAN AND STATESMAN ANDRÉ MALRAUX said that all art is a revolt against man’s fate. An artist may feel the juggernaut of fate at a personal level, through censorship or prejudice, or in a broader sense, by observing social injustice or the destruction of ecosystems. Artists who also teach—and professors who mold teaching into an art—have the unique opportunity to lead a rebellion not only in the gallery or the concert hall, but in the classroom.

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