By Matthew Harris-Ridker (Community Outreach, GED, & Cultural Intern)
As Americans, we live in a country where activism is everywhere. This year especially, resistance has taken to the streets and caught the attention of citizens all over. Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Women’s March, and #NotMyPresident protests all over the country are just a few of the many activist events that I have both watched and been a part of this year and have proven that when people come together change can happen.
However, while rallies and protests can be effective ways of getting a point across, art activism can offer people a more unique, and sometimes, more poignant way to send a message. Throughout time, art has sparked emotion within its viewers — art activism tries to do just that by evoking empathy in the general population so as to garner support for the artists’ causes.
According to Buckland, Boyd and Bloch from beautifultrouble.org, artwork creates this emotional reaction in people by inviting viewers/consumers to think rather than telling them what to think. This is seen as one of arts’ great powers: if you make art accessible and aesthetically appealing enough, people will want to follow where the thought goes. And, because they’re deciding where to go with it, they’ll easily connect it to their own experience.
Human banners, artistic vigils, creative disruptions, and diverse social justice theatre performances are just a few examples of how art activism can be used to encourage an audiences’ emotional connection to causes that are not taken as seriously as they should be (Buckland). In that vein, the title of this piece is “Philadelphia’s Pride Flag: Art Activism in Action” because I think Philadelphia’s decision to add the black and brown stripes to their pride flag is a timely example of art activism within the LGBTQ community.
Simply put, the reasoning behind the controversial additional stripes was to better represent people of color within the LGBTQ community and address the myriad of problems surrounding race and ethnicity within the LGBTQ community. Vox reports that people of color within the community have complained about not feeling totally welcome due to a lack of intersectionality within the LGBTQ community and that issues regarding people of color are being overlooked. Examples of this include failure to fully address the escalating violence against transgender people of color, the increased prevalence of and lack of programming for LGBTQ homeless youth and LBGTQ people of color who are affected by HIV/AIDS, and the consistent whitewashing of LGBTQ history. Vox also reports there have been complaints about casual discrimination because there is an “ideal” gay man image within the LGBTQ community that men of color cannot fit into as easily as white men. In many ways, it is harder for non-white LGBTQ people to get the same kind of respect that white privilege grants Caucasian members in the community.
By changing a historic and recognizable symbol within the LGBTQ community, Philadelphia is participating in a kind of art activism called détournement, also known as “culture jamming,” which is defined by Zach Malitz of beautifultrouble.org as alteration of an existing media artifact, one that the intended audience is already familiar with, in order to give it a new, subversive meaning… often with the intent to criticize the appropriated artifact. A past use of détournement would be the neo-Situationist magazine Adbusters creation of American flags with corporate logos substituted for the stars, so as to send a message Americans that corporations run this country, not the people (Malitz). Another good example of détournement would be the activist superimposition of UC Davis police officer Lt. John Pike in several famous art pieces (Malitz). To clarify, Pike became a polarizing figure when he was captured on film whilst casually pepper-spraying peaceful protestors; the activists who created the images wanted to call attention to police brutality in America (Malitz). One image had Pike superimposed in the Beatle’s iconic Abbey Road cover pepper spraying Paul McCartney in the face; another depicted Pike in Georges Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as he pepper sprayed a woman lounging in the grass (Malitz). Each of these examples showcase ways in which an oppressed group successfully caught the public’s eye and demanded social justice through visual art.
Philadelphia is taking similar action by changing a well-known image and altering its meaning to get their point across; the issues surrounding people of color in the LGBTQ community are not being treated as seriously as they should. Amber Hikes, the executive Director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, stated to Vox that this change in the pride flag is, “a push for people to start listening to people of color in our community, start hearing what they’re saying…And really to believe them and to step up and say, ‘What can I do to help eradicate these issues in our community” (Abad-Santos).\
Obviously, just reading headlines about the rampant mistreatment of people of color are not pushing the LGBTQ community to do more to fix issues like Trans violence, homelessness s, and preferential treatment of white LGBTQ people. Hopefully, Philadelphia’s art activism will create an emotional response that causes the LGBTQ community to “wake up” and take action. Changing the symbol that is supposed to represent a community of equality by adding something that symbolizes the reality of inequality in this community could be the push we need to change as a social group. It could very well be the call to action necessary to make more privileged members of the community stop just reading headlines and statistics and start actually doing something. LGBTQ people of color must be supported members because there is no escaping these issues now that they are staring at us in the face as the pride flag waves in the winds of Philadelphia.
Abad-Santos, Alex. “Philadelphia’s Ew, Inclusive Gay Pride Flag Is Making Gay White Men Angry.” Vox. Vox, 20 June 2017. Web. 28 June 2017.
Buckland, Kevin, Andrew Boyd, and Nadine Bloch. “Balance Art and Message.” Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Beautiful Trouble, Various Authors, n.d. Web. 28 June 2017.
Malitz, Zach. “Détournement/Culture Jamming.” Beautiful Trouble. Beautiful Trouble, Various Authors, n.d. Web. 28 June 2017.