A Process For The Activist Artist

Jim Senti

Hello art people. Some of you may be angered, appalled, annoyed, dismissive, depressed, and scared by what is happening in the world around you.  Now to be fair, you’re an artist.  This is normal. Your state of overwhelm in response to your environment is always higher than the average citizen. This is with good reason too. Artists, for the most part, tend to “get it”.  Due to your powerful imaginations, shocking understanding of our universe, and profound ability to explore the human condition you tend cry a little harder, get a little drunker, and that eye roll of yours happens far more.  The times as of late feel exceptional. History will ultimately tell us whether this feeling of exceptionalism is real, but in the meantime we have a great opportunity to channel our feelings into very good art. I want to be very clear here— the journey we are about to go on may not be for every artist. I wouldn’t dare be the artist amongst the artists to deliver a foolproof formula. Unless we’re talking about F = G*((m sub 1*m sub 2)/r^2) – aka gravity - almost no formula is foolproof. Nonetheless, being the humans that you are in a state of overwhelm, you may desperately want to create artwork that not only aesthetically excites an audience and makes them think but also activates your audience to join a cause, have a conversation, or become an activist just like you.

Now you may also be an artist who is frustrated, even disgusted, by the idea of an art piece that begins with the intention to confront an audience with social or political issues. I understand. This is not the first time this argument has been made, but it is certainly important for it to be discussed. For many artists their craft presents their audiences with an escape or cathartic release from the “day to day”. The artist also creates work so they themselves can escape from the “day to day”. Artists also find their work can be an expression of their life’s journey, a seemingly apolitical narrative. It may be as a visceral purging, or a specific exploration of the infinite and unknown. An artist’s work is often times spiritual, personal, and curious.  Since the creation of artwork is so often a personal or collective reflection of the inner and outer world of the human experience we can find countless other reasons and ways to use the arts. None of which are wrong.  This is why the arts are so exciting. It is the practice of a person manifesting imagination. Art is the endless and boundless exploration of what it means to be human. Thus it becomes very important that the artist’s work must be genuine and honest in its creation. This is why some artists are driven mad when their crafts are used for consumerism and commercialism. A writer’s words can be edited out because the audience won’t “get it”, or an image can be altered because it will “alienate a key demographic”. When you combine the artist’s understanding of consumerism and commercialism with the harrowing political discourse we have been exposed to lately it becomes clear why using artwork to communicate in politics becomes risky.  The work can become manipulative and cynical. However, I believe it would be remiss to suggest politics stay out of art. We must remember what is at the center of both art and politics: people. Consider politics in its purist form. Like art, politics is also an exploration of what it means to be human. Politics, at its center, is simply the conversation of values amongst a community as they decide and create codes or policies that attempt to keep that community healthy and safe. With this understanding our view of politics expands and we begin to realize politics is not compartmentalized to shouting on cable NEWS. We participate in it in different ways daily. Activism is a part of this landscape. It is another way for a person or group to communicate its values in hopes those values are included in the policy or laws of a community. It is not that politics are fickle. People are. The key is the human beings’ ability to manage their conversations with one another. This is realized by being genuine and honest and by listening closely. The inability to follow through on any of those components is where we get lost in cynicism.

Artwork at its center is communication and expression. The artist uses certain tools or one’s self as the tool to communicate. Sorry art people, that is a horribly dry definition for the thing you are so passionate about. Yet we have to remember what makes your craft so exciting is not the craft itself but how you wield the tools of the craft to communicate.

At the center of both art and politics are two constants both need to exist – the human and their spirit. In the end art is a space that allows one to communicate honestly and help many listen. To ask people who genuinely want to express a point of view and contribute to a conversation about the policies that may affect their livelihood to not utilize art would be a terrible disservice to a community. I hope artists who reject what they understand as politics from their artwork at the very least consider the artists who use their mediums for political conversation.

Now, for those of you looking to participate in activism with your artwork and are wanting to start a conversation below I have given you a process that you may follow to help you think, create, explore, and share artwork with the goal of calling an audience to a civic cause.

Short Term Cathartic Response

Artists can be sensitive. This is a good thing if that sensitivity is used as a tool.  But unfortunately artist’s can become frustrated and ultimately do nothing in their day to day life while they dream up their big groundbreaking work. They have big ideas but those ideas often die quickly due to distraction or disinterest. This is habit you need to break. When it comes to activism you must do little things that you can habituate to remind yourself of the larger thing you want to tackle. Think of it like a fire. You don't just light a log for fire. You need kindling to get the fire started while we get those bigger logs prepped for the larger fire you want to create. So...What do you do to get the fire going?  What can get you inspired and in the habit of civic engagement while you work on your larger work? Where is your quick fix of catharsis and activism?

 Call A Congressperson. Seriously do it, heck, even if it is to habituate taking action.  thesixtyfive.org is a great site to visit and do this. You'll see how accessible and user friendly it is. It even helps you find your cause and who to contact about it. Note: I was lucky enough to meet a congressperson’s aide some time ago. She said that yes they do in fact answer the phones and listen to the messages, and it absolutely helps them to have an understanding of the public leanings. She went on to say that reading scripts are fine, but they certainly prefer personal stories as long as they are coherent and not mean spirited. So: write your own script and call. 

Post On Social Media Regularly.  Yep. Get over yourself and make it a habit. Change isn't easy and yeah, you are right, people will be very annoyed and might even un-follow you, but do it anyway.  The world we live in is not normal so commit to creating the normal you seek. If you're concerned with your image make your own activism account. In short, do not give into the social pressure. Be the social pressure. When you do post on social media one trick is to not always diatribe and "go off" with your own words. Writing a Facebook rant is not always helpful because it can be personal. In a world of obvious bias your rant is perceived as being biased, as opposed to thoughtful and correct, and may be ignored.  Balance the rants with credible, well-written, well-researched, and poignant articles (videos are even better) that discuss what you are keen on discussing. Even post articles or videos that you disagree with and simply announce you disagree. This gives your community an insight to what you are fighting against. See how many dislikes you can get.  Also, you’re an artist right? Share your craft daily in the name of your chosen issue. Maybe it is a daily poem, a daily drawing or photo, or a weekly song. Again, this is about building a habit of activism and reminding yourself to stay in the fray. 

Write Ideas Down. That is exactly as it sounds. Scribble notes, ideas, brainstorms, pictures, even feelings. It doesn't matter. Just make room in your head for more knowledge and creativity. Keep the kink out of the hose.



So here we go, while you do all that, it is time to begin a long term Artistic Activist Project.

Long Term Activism Project


Understand The Rules Of The Culture Jam:  A Culture Jam is basically what it sounds like, you are "jamming" something into a cultural movement to stop it for a moment. The most important thing for artists and activists to understand is that most people don't think like artists and activists. And it is not because they disagree with you, or that they are wrong, it is because they are rightfully being themselves and simply going about their days. Most people are just doing their best and need to get to the grocery store. They are complacent moderates. These are the very people you need to reach! Be careful though when reaching out with your work. You don’t want to persuade your audience. Persuasion can become coercive and manipulative. You want to help the audience understand. This allows the work to maintain honesty and avoid cynicism. So how might you do this with art? Well, interrupt their day, even if for a moment. Here is an example: Think of McDonald's. Many members of the socially conscious community see McDonald's and think of how it is bad for you, that you shouldn't eat there because of how the corporate culture doesn't always treat employees fairly, and the company is representative of economic imperialism. That’s why the joke "those fries though" is so funny to the socially conscious community. It is because they understand how "bad" McDonald's is. Here is the deal though: Most of the planet does not see McDonald's that way. There are areas of Los Angeles described as food deserts where McDonald's are the primary source of nutrition (Yes, nutrition). For the complacent moderates (let's call them Jane & Joe) McDonald's is not even thought of. Maybe they have gone to the chain a few times, but no big deal, it is mostly a part of the landscape. Yet one day Joe and Jane are carpooling to work.  They stop at a stoplight and see a huge Banksy along the side of a building. It is a painting of Ronald McDonald on a tank. This forces people in socially conscious communities to cheer, but forces Jane and Joe to stop and think for a second and hopefully even start talking about it. This is an example of a Culture Jam. Activist artists need to have the understanding that they must create something for an audience who do not think like them. They then want to create something to surprise and stop that audience in their tracks and force them to consider the work.

  How To Make An Effective Culture Jam: Take something concrete and abstract it. At a very basic level, another way of saying this is take something culturally denotative (like Ronald McDonald) and find a way to make it connotative (Put the damn clown on a tank). This forces your audience to stop because they see something they recognize but in a context that lights up their imaginations. The combination of taking something familiar and twisting or "weirding it" will most likely give your Jane & Joe pause.

Rule 1: Your audience does not think like you.

Rule 2: Don’t try to persuade your audience, help them understand.

Rule 3: Get them to stop what they are doing even for a moment.

Rule 4: Balance the concrete with the abstract.





Think Like The King: If you have not read A Letter From Birmingham Jail by Dr. King, do so. It is wonderfully written and insightful. Dr. King illuminates the non-violent protest process. The letter also makes a fantastic case for how complacent moderates can be far more damaging than demonstrative adversaries to your cause. So, since this non-violent interruptive process (a form of a Culture Jam by the way) was so successful, why not use it to help us hone and specify our art work?  Here is the process adjusted for the activist artist:

1. Negotiation

Attempt to negotiate for your cause with what you currently understand. Try it amongst friends. Speak up for your cause and try talking about the issue with what you have on hand (no Google). You most likely will learn that you didn't have much to say other than repeating the same few ideas in different ways.

2.  Collect Facts

Since the negotiation most likely failed, you probably learned you don't know enough. Use that fire to go and study and learn all you can about the perceived injustice at hand. This maybe the least fun (sorry artist) but in this world credibility is key. You could very well be wrong to call it an injustice in the first place. Yikes! You might even be on the wrong side!  Know everything about your issue.

3. Self Purification

After you learn all the facts and see the injustice still remains it is no longer your perception of an injustice - it is indeed an injustice. With this thought you must ask yourself:  AM I IN? If so, until the very end? Am I prepared for the positive and negative outcomes when I take action? Especially when it comes to your social circles. Will I be setting a double standard if I commit to this work?

 4. Direct Action 

This is where you begin to create the artwork. Remember that as you create your work: Artwork is the beginning to a conversation. Not an end. You need to be ready to participate in the conversation you are starting.






1.  What is the issue? Be specific. 

Thanks to the valiant efforts of our middle school and high school frontline teachers we are all aware of how important a thesis is when delivering a message in an argumentative essay. Artists may hate to hear this, but yes, activist artwork needs a very clear thesis or issue as well. Go there. You have to be specific so your audience knows what to specifically talk about. An example: "We should Recycle More" is not a specific issue either. What about Recycling? This is where fact collecting in STEP 2 comes in handy. If you did your research you would know that with good reason many labor unions do not allow sanitation workers to touch broken glass. This means broken glass in most cases is taken to the dump. Also, certain types of plastic are not recyclable. PVC 03, PS 06, O 07 are off to the dump as well. Don’t know what those plastics are?  Well, now you know they are not recycled. So, the more you know the more specific you can get with your issue. "We should all recycle more" turns into "we need to invest in recycling technology or reform our recycling system.” The specific issue leads to the specific audience.

2.  Who is your intended audience? 

For every action creates an equal opposite reaction. Dropping a pebble in a pond will always create ripples. As an activist artist assume you will garner an audience. Knowing this, what is most important is where you drop the pebble.  So, knowing that your artwork will have an audience (or create ripples) who is the specific audience you want to communicate with? Be careful here. It is very easy to want to communicate to the people who will receive it well.  Remember, this is activism and not commercialism.  You want to convert the complacent and moderate Jane & Joe to the cause, first by forcing them to be aware and second, by educating them.  It could be a particular demographic, or it could be a specific public figure. In short, know a larger audience will see it so make sure the specific audience receives the largest blow. It will be more effective. The specific intended audience will be put into shock and think, a marginal audience will pay closer attention, and your socially aware communities will cheer and share your work.

3.  Where will the piece be shared?  

It is so important to recognize that if you place the piece in the world outside of the internet and put it on a street corner, in a gallery, on a campus, the courthouse steps, mailboxes (legally, in mailboxes my friends) then you will gain far more power toward your ultimate goal which is to get people to STOP IN THEIR TRACKS AND CONSIDER THE MESSAGE. You will get the most notice when you interrupt the offline world.  Remember that first time visiting downtown? What do you remember? The conversation? The dinner? Perhaps. Yet, for some odd reason you have such vivid memories of those street performers. The first time you saw a person who painted themselves and did the robot for a piece of copper will be in your memory for all time. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but you may only reach those who are interested in you and what you like. Our Internet experiences are curated by us and for us after all. So you may have to leave your comfort zone and make your piece available in a physical public space. This kind of Culture Jam will, arguably, be the best way to get it on the Internet to your intended audience anyway.






Artists tend to be very brave, outspoken, and bold people. Since this is the case it is often forgotten that they too can feel afraid, especially when sharing their work. That fear could be even more present when it comes to activism. Don't be afraid, Artist. Remember: you have your community, and your wonderful brain is ready for the conversation you are about to start.  You must remember that you are necessary and needed, because the work you create is necessary and needed. It is so very important that Joe & Jane jump into the fray with us or at the very least understand there is a fray to jump into. To top it off, the world is full of inactivity.  There are plenty of half-baked ideas and opinions. The world is swamped with them. There is a lot of talking and pontificating and not a lot of doing.  Artists are doers. The Artist helps their community overcome the stagnate conversations trapped in a loop. Artists are an exceptional breed of person because they know how to take a little idea from their imaginations and make it real and tangible. Artists are well trained at taking a whisper and turning it into a yell. Also, always remember to follow through and finish what you started. It may not look like it did in your head, and that is okay! Your larger community needs to get the conversation started, and your work is the force that will inspire it. If you’re feeling timid that is okay. It is important to check in with yourself. There might be problem with how you feel about the issue (which should have been addressed during your self purification in STEP 2) or the work itself may be not quality enough.  These problems are common in art.  Often when on the creation train there are impasses. You may ask how to amend these issues, and how you make sure they are shared in a timely manner.

1. Schedule the sharing or launch date months in advance.

It is best to build yourself a release date. This allows you to work up your nerve if need be and also allows you to work out the details such as garnering the right audience and bringing awareness to the piece, particularly if it is in a live place. It also gives you the opportunity to clear up small snags or details you missed in your artistic process. Do not change that date. It is your deadline. In activism it is better when you have something to work toward. Also, if you are behind in the work it may ignite your artists “reptilian brain” (that creativity that tends to boil over when your back is against a wall). 

2. Give it to your inner circle of artists for feedback.

This will be more difficult than you think. However, it is a necessary part of process. Asking your artistic colleagues for critique to help with clarify or embolden the message can help you discover something new. It will also build your confidence when it is time for the real deal. Below are some tips to help lead your artist audience to giving you constructive criticism.

Communicate Your Expectations

·      It is necessary to unapologetically remind your colleagues that you are in process and that they are helping you see the piece with fresh eyes.

·      Artists have good eye for detail so ask them to use that eye. Being told if the piece is successful or unsuccessful is not helpful. Remind them to withhold thoughts about what they “like” and “dislike” while they watch the piece. Tell them you are looking for what they found memorable and why.  Memorable is not always a good trait, by the way. People remember moments that do not match their taste as well as the moments that do. Tell them you are interested in what exactly they are seeing before they comment on how it made them feel.

·      To help them avoid unhelpful rhetoric request they think of hard questions to ask you in discussion. Heck, ask them to phrase everything in the form of a question. Forcing an artist sharing their work to answer questions about their piece is a wonderful practice! Using start-phrases like “ I noticed ”, “ I saw ”, “ I’m curious about”, “ This was interesting because ” are always good for training constructive criticism.  “Why?” Questions are very good as well.

Post Sharing Discussion

·      After you share your work ask them to describe exactly what they experienced. Memories are selective, so this gives you an opportunity to see what parts of your piece will be most memorable, why, and how they may be interpreted.

·      Have them ask the questions you asked them to come up with.

·      Do not let them tell you what they would do. This is a terrible habit of many artists. This is your piece not theirs. If you want ideas be clear that you will ask for them then save time to allow them to share their ideas.

Remember The Issue

·      Ask your artist audience if the issue you are speaking toward was clear. If not, ask them how it could be.

·      Ask your audience what they learned, if anything, from your piece.

·      Finally, ask them how it made them feel.


Once you have shown it to your fellow artists and discussed it you may feel the need to tinker with the work before the date you set. This is good! You should have plenty of time. If you feel confident about the work, great! Maybe you can move your date up or if it is a performance you have time to practice confidently! But no matter what and when make sure you take the most important step in all art, especially activist art and share the damn thing.