I don’t know that art can change the world—that somehow implies that there would be a universal ideology shared by all cultures, and that sounds impossible. But art certainly has the power to influence, persuade, and inform ideas and attitudes.
One can think back to an artist like William Hogarth whose work is surprisingly contemporary as he grappled with all the issues we do today: sexuality, political corruption, crime, etc. His satirical drawings were popular and amusing but also provided a sharp critique of society. Gericault’s painting, Raft of the Medusa, whose subject was drawn from the headlines of the day, provided a harsh indictment against the French government. In fact, the French government perceived this epic work as a direct political attack by the artist.
In our own country, we can think of the American Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry whose social realist paintings inspired Americans during one of its bleakest periods—The Great Depression.
Photography, especially, seems imbued with the gift to affect minds and hearts. I am thinking now of the photographs of children laboring in factories (Lewis Hines) or children sleeping huddled together in doorways (Jacob Riis). These photographs opened the eyes of the public and paved the way for many social reforms including the enactment of child labor laws.
Eliminating the argument of photo manipulation and acknowledging the advances in digital photography for the altering of images, there is, nevertheless, a certain directness to the medium that allows or facilitates the viewer’s identification with the image, which may explain the emergence of documentary photography as the dominant mode of expression between 1925 and 1950. According to art historian Peter Barr, “The popularity of the documentary mode of expression during the 1930s and 1940s reflects, to a certain extent, the cynical public's desire for direct, straightforward communication in the wake of the mid-1930s Dust Bowl and the unsettling stock market crash of 1929. It can also be seen to record and celebrate the New Deal social programs, which were designed by Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration to help alleviate the most troubling conditions of the Great Depression.” Migrant Mother (1936,) by photographer Dorothea Lange, communicated to the rest of the country the despair and desperation of a mother and her children starving in a camp for seasonal workers at the height of the Great Depression This photograph motivated the federal government to ship food and supplies to the camp and inspired Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Ansel Adams comes to my mind also as both an artist and an activist using his photographs to inspire the American imagination and raise awareness of our national parks as treasures to be protected and preserved. Adams, according to former president Jimmy Carter, is "At one with the power of the American landscape, and renowned for the patient skill and timeless beauty of his work, [he] has been visionary in his efforts to preserve this country's wild and scenic areas, both on film and on earth. Drawn to the beauty of nature's monuments, he is regarded by environmentalists as a monument himself, and by photographers as a national institution. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans." Adams’ photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contributed, in part, to creating this park, which is an example of art “changing the world.” Of course, we know the Bush administration has been trying to open this pristine land up for oil drilling in lieu of developing energy alternatives, and so while Adams was successful during his lifetime influencing decision-makers these decisions nevertheless can be reversed and laws can always be changed. Therefore, an artist like Adams can show us, and tell us, and inspire us, but without constant vigilance on our part all we may have left of our national parks will be his black and white photographs.
But, if art could change the world then I would offer this suggestion: “universal” goals like a commitment to clean water, clean air, renewable energy sources and a concerted effort to reverse the effects of global warming could be established and seem like objectives that would be to the benefit of all. Once accepted, a battalion of artists would unleash their talent on the world with the purpose of persuading every villager in the global community to a new way of living and moving through the world. Artists like Jenny Holzer, Buster Simpson, Meg Webster, Lynne Hull, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Hans Haacke, and Helen and Newton Harrison would begin the ongoing life/art project tentatively titled “Saving Us From Ourselves.”
— Robbin Zella is Director and Curator at the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Since her appointment in June of 1998 she has organized over twenty exhibitions including Ansel Adams: Classic Images; Sol LeWitt: Forms Derived from a Cube and the first retrospective for renowned folk artist and author Kathy Jakobsen titled Innocence of Vision.