There are innumerable examples of artworks that were informed by or intended to inspire social change. But so many of them are studied long after the specific causes and values they represented have lost currency. It is our job to allow art the power to teach and awaken. Looking, for example, at a socialist painting from the 1840s or ’50s can do more than teach us about historical moments in which individuals fought for workers’ rights. Works like these are never irrelevant, as they can be interpreted on a broad level, prompting us to acknowledge that there is always something or someone that needs support.
In the late eighteenth century, French artist Jacques-Louis David painted The Oath of the Horatii, which is now believed to embody the Enlightenment ideals (like freedom and equality) that fueled the French Revolution. The painting has become synonymous with the French Revolution and the notion that self-sacrifice is sometimes necessary to generate altruistic, long-lasting change. Ironically, even though this painting became the visual voice of the very revolution that abolished the French monarchy and King Louis XVI, it was King Louis XVI himself who commissioned the work. The painting’s direct link to eighteenth-century French history mustn’t be ignored, but the work can also serve as a reminder that there are always basic human rights that need upholding.
Throughout our lives, there are periods in which we are more bountiful, whether financially, romantically, emotionally, or energetically. It is important to luxuriate in this abundance while also looking outside of ourselves to our surroundings, as we recognize the existence of hardship. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the world’s tragedies, for often there is little we can do to make a widely perceived difference. Such is why we should focus on and feel empowered by what we can do—by observing, helping, and creating.
- Choose a simple cause. For one week, be open to and conscientious of the people you often see but with whom you rarely engage. Pay close attention to those individuals or places that might benefit from your presence. Is there a school in need of supplies or a homeless person to whom a daily hot meal would signify both kindness and nutrition? Decide to help, in a fashion as simple or complex as your life can afford.
- Make contact as you give yourself to another. Perhaps you’ll bring a box of new art supplies to an underprivileged school, or organize a children’s story hour at your local public library. Maybe you’ll simply smile at the strangers you encounter, making eye contact and connecting rather than shying away. Whatever you do, remain mindful of the experience, taking note of your own reaction as well as those of the people you interact with.
- Make art. Fashion a simple collage that speaks of your week of awareness. Look through magazines and junk mail for expressive and applicable words and images. So what if your artwork is seen only by you? It may not incite global change, but it can function as a visual reminder that you possess the power to bring pockets of love and goodness into the world.