Art as a vehicle for social change

Vladmir Mayakovsky: “Art is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.”


Hannah Hoch: “I wish to blur the firm boundaries which we self-certain people tend to delineate around all we can achieve.”


Printmaking is an amazing form of creative expression.  The basic materials you need to create a print are fairly inexpensive, and the medium itself is about creating multiple copies of an image in order to make the image available to multiple people to experience.  I work in printmaking in part because of this democratic nature of the medium. Over the years I have been drawn to creating art work that ranges from bold imagery with very blatant slogans to very subtle and complicated work that requires the viewer to spend time with the art in order to understand the intended meaning.  Sometimes I make art that has attempted to educate, agitate, and organize about the injustices that exist in the world around us.  I’ve also worked to create images that can envision what a better world can look like. I’ve been torn though in trying to figure out if some art has had more of an affect than others in being useful in social change movements. Effective social change requires the union of both critical and creative thinking in the development of a new system.  The critique allows remembrance of the mistakes of the past while the creative allows for the transformation of beautiful possibility to become reality.  I believe that the most effective messages come from a loving voice rather than an angry one, thus I am inspired by Mahatma Ghandi’s sentiment: “be the change you want to see in the world”. However, how does this idea translate into the placement of art in social change movements?

A healthy society which expresses love, cooperation, mutual aid, community, justice, diversity, and equality must be built in a manner which expresses these sentiments.  Currently, American style capitalism has created a society which has become unsustainable and unhealthy for humans and other living things.  The success of an individual is held to be separate from the health of the entire society, which has simply encouraged the rise of massive inequality and competition between people over resources. The path to expanding consciousness, and community, is to allow for open (not closed) dialogue.  The current problems we face require creative solutions that we need to solve together. Our society has become so unhealthy that we are filled with fear, distrust, and isolation. In order to actually change the unhealthy impulses that have been socialized into us, we need to believe another world is possible.  For society to truly transform on both an individual and societal scale, art and politics must address both social issues within the institutions that run our society, but also present tangible lifestyle changes that will render these institutions obsolete and unnecessary.  This means working on several levels of existence to impact change. We need the belief, courage, and energy to decide to change the world and then to work with each other to figure out what the world we want to live in looks like, and to start working to create it. We can build our own world while the current one collapses around us.  The only thing that can hold us back from creating the world we want to live in is the belief that we can’t change it.  We must believe this change is possible.

It is my intent to use art as a tool to deconstruct and critique the world as it exists around us, but also to present images that can inspire us and transport us into another world. Communicating through words and emotions are both very powerful.  So too is the meaning in art that can be expressed subtlety through in texture, color, and composition. Ideas presented through artwork can also remind us that another world is possible and can be even more beautiful than what currently exists. The imagination is infinite. As soon as we believe that our dreams can become reality, our reality will become our dreams.

A succinct cultural analysis of the use of cats in representing social change

I have been asked several times about the use of cats in my artwork and so I now present a succinct explanation of why I am not simply obsessed with cats and instead am very intentionally choosing to use cats to represent ideas of social change.  On a very basic level, cats are free of dog-ma.  Also, using animals rather than people as the central figures in a piece allows for a more open interpretation of who is being represented.  When images of people are used in artwork, it’s easy to attribute a specific ethnicity, age, gender, sexual identity, or other cultural associations to the person in the image.  Through the use of animals, all these identities are vague, and the reader can instead allow themselves to be transported into the activities being presented in a fantastical and playful way.

The first time that I created an image that had anthropomorphic cats in a print was in a print called, “Safe Sex Is Hot”.   This was a print that I created to accompany safe sex kits which were given out as a part of a peer health project. I chose cats in this instance to in part because of the subtle allusion to female sexuality.  The cats in the print were actually meant to be gender ambiguous, so that they could be the same gender as one another, or of different genders.  By being vague in their identity, I hoped to reclaim and deconstruct the association of cats as being related to a specific gender.

Cats appear as subjects in artwork among the oldest surviving art in the world. Some of the oldest cave paintings in the world are over 30,000 years old and are found in Chauvet Cave in the valley of the Ardeche River in France, where there are images of wild cats on the walls. In ancient Egypt, cats were highly revered. There was an Egyptian feline goddess called Bastet who was worshipped as early as 2890 BC.  Cats also have a long history of being associated with social change, anarchy, and spirituality.  The IWW (International Workers of the World) have a black cat in their icon.  Black cats have also been depicted accompanying witches in their spiritual practices.  Anarchists have often claimed the black cat as a symbol for anarchy.  Overall, cats have been thought to hold a great deal of power and mystique. Cats are commonly perceived as having a duality in their personality- they can be loving and sweet to humans, but also fiercely independent.  Though we have domesticated cats and dogs, dogs have genetically evolved to more directly serve humans through their companionship, which we seem unable to do with cats. We can’t make them follow our orders, but we do find comfort in one another’s company. There is a certain cooperation that exists between humans and cats- they kill the mice and we feed them.

In light of all these ideas, their fur is very soft and they can be simply spellcasting in their beauty can be for those of us who are not allergic to them.  I believe cats hold a sort of anarchistic spirit in the natural world. With so much meaning and symbolism associated with cats, I’ve found myself drawn to use them to promote ideas of mutual aid and cooperation.