When Artists Become Activists
As a college student studying art history and Jewish literature, I am particularly interested in how language and art create the stories that we tell about culture, community, and faith. Words and images cannot exist in a vacuum; almost anything we create is influenced by where we are, who we are surrounded by, and what ideas we hold.
Everyday, we are saturated with images; our eyes are met by a whirlwind of advertisements, cartoons, and infographics that tell different stories. Recently, we’ve seen how images are flexing new muscles in the global conversation on religion and violence; the varying responses to January’s attacks on French cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo have once again revealed the power of images to both inspire and enrage.
Gilbert K. Chesterton, an English writer and lay-theologian at the turn of the century, once said, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” Though intended, perhaps, to be witty, Chesterton’s words are profound when thinking about the recent role of images in conversations about religion and morality in the public sphere. Where do we draw the line between free speech and hateful speech? Can they be one and the same? Should they be?
Recent events in the United States have highlighted the importance of asking these difficult questions of ourselves. A series of bus advertisements have shown how free speech, and its darker cousin, hate speech, can play out in the culture of images around us. In late 2012, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) ran a series of ads in MTA stations across New York City that depicted the burning Twin Towers with the quote: “Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers (Quran 1:151).” The ads were intended to strike a fearful chord, building on the emotional trauma of 9/11 with an inflammatory quote from Muslim scripture.
These public images came on the heels of a set of similarly incendiary ads released earlier that year that, after initial rejection, the MTA was lawfully required to put up in order to protect AFDI’s right to free speech. Many of the advertisements were graffitied, an organic expression from individuals throughout the city that found the advertisements distasteful. Several New York religious communities were outraged as well by each set of advertisements; one of the groups, Jews Against Islamophobia, asked that New Yorkers create their own counter-ads and share them online with #mysubwayad. Every year since 2012, AFDI produced more inflammatory advertisements in cities across the country; in turn, communities of faith responded with new counter-campaigns.
Earlier this year AFDI was at it again, releasing an advertisement on the side of buses in San Francisco that read: “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s In The Quran. Two-Thirds of All US Aid Goes To Islamic Countries. Stop the Hate. End All Aid To Islamic Countries.” Interestingly, one of the more public condemnations of the advertisements came not from a religious group but from artist-activist groups, including Bay Area Art Queers Unleashing Power (BAAQUP) and Street Cred. The beginning of 2015 saw these San Franciscans come together to cover AFDI’s ads with positive images featuring comic heroine Kamala Kahn – Marvel’s first Muslim superheroine. Messages reading “Calling all Bigotry Busters,” “Free Speech Isn’t a License to Spread Hate,” and “Islamophobia Hurts Us All” accompanied Kamala, offering words to unite rather than divide.
In San Francisco, people used images of Ms. Marvel not only to draw the line between what they saw as simply right and wrong, but to offer alternatives to the hateful use of words and images in the public sphere. By combating Islamophobic advertisements through empowering images, groups like BAAQUP and Street Cred are using art to promote dialogue, a refreshing counterpoint to uses of images that, all too often, seek to establish narratives of hate. As images continue to face off on either side of great debates in the public arena, we see the great power that art can wield when marshaled into service. It is crucial that we continue to examine the power of images in all contexts with a critical eye. Through active engagement with images and their stories, we can begin to stake claims in these visual dialectics and the effect they have on our public spaces and communities.
In a culture of conversation that often focuses on intolerance and fear, it is inspiring to see people taking advantage of art’s power to tell stories of peace and togetherness. Each image of Kamala Kahn plastered on the side of a bus intentionally creates a space in time for religious freedom and dialogue. These are spaces that can also be found in the interfaith movement; although groups like BAAQUP and Street Cred hold no religious affiliation, their work to promote public understanding broadens the conversation about religion in America and joins interfaith voices in the quest for a more just society. Through the example of grassroots activism in San Francisco, we are once again reminded of the power of art to foster conversation about religion in the public sphere. At a moment when these conversations are often fraught and groups like AFDI continue their narrow-minded work, I am inspired to see images mobilized in the service of tolerance.
Miriam Aniel is a Religions for Peace USA Intern.