Activism Gets A Makeover

Photography Credit: Holly Pyne

Emma Halahan writes about the rise of artivism and its doble edged impact upon activist communities.

Activism hasn’t always been the prettiest or the most aesthetically pleasing activity. The activist activities of marches and sit ins, often complete with their associated ‘grunge’, were not exactly the most photogenic. And whilst this old style activism is inspiring to those inclined to appreciate activists methods and beliefs – the appeal of activism can often be lost on may due to this less than sanitary image.

So how do you go about cleaning up activisms image problem? Artivism is the word on every activist thinkers lips, a timely amalgamation of art and activism as though the two haven’t been deeply intertwined for decades that promises to bring us a hip, gentrified and altogether better looking kind of activism. Artivism can range from graffiti to political resistance posters and defiant murals. But does the passivity of artivism actually count as activism?

If activism is about getting more people involved for the cause then artivism seems like a great solution. Communal art like graffiti and murals have long been created by marginalised groups who are often closed off from formalised activism. Including the work of artivists and their political graffiti or the murals outside Grenfell Tower for example, allows a lot more people to feel comfortable with the term ‘activist’ than previously.

But there is a darker side to artivism that we musn’t forget. Graffiti, art performed by gangs and those traditionally working class, is being commissioned by local governments and formalised. Whilst this means the decriminalisation of graffiti for certain peoples may occur, graffiti artists related to gangs and the lower classes are being squeezed out. It’s a form of cultural appropriation that comes with gentrification and the attraction of having a piece of artivism on your prime piece of London real estate is forcing working class families out of homes.

Activism works in a way that makes complex messages easier to understand. Anyone can look at a piece of well-crafted art and decipher some kind of political meaning. But artivism does have a part to play in the gentrification of urban areas and quite possibly could be pushing those out that activism at its core is meant to be helping the most – the marginalised. But its non-aggressive approach to conveying activist messages is helping to make activism trendier, more acceptable and better understood.

It all comes down to how you like your activism – radical but misunderstood or easier to understand and at odds with itself. Either form isn’t perfect and you can’t help but wonder if it is possible to harness the radical elements of one with the beautifully captivating part of the other.