Let me rashly and prematurely propose a name for our era: the Age of Activism. Here’s a preliminary sketch for a history of the age in which we are currently immersed, as well as a diagnosis of where this activism is heading.
I stumbled across this article published by Foreign Policy in Focus way back in March. It’s interesting and exciting to read, and author John Feffer does an excellent job of offering readers the wide angle view of activism today.
The article got me thinking about scale, and how the perceived scale of a movement may impact how individuals approach it. When protesters take to the streets and march, why do some passers-by cheer – but continue to stand aside watching, as if frozen?
I read this article and noticed two internal reactions. The first was expansive – I felt excited and a bit proud. The Occupy Wall Street protests have situated New York within this global ‘age of activism’, and I’ve played a small part in that.
But the second reaction was constrictive – I felt a little intimidated, dwarfed by the immense temporal and spatial scale that Feffer invoked. I was embarrassed I haven’t done more.
I thought about the Occupy Wall Street protests in relation to the popular movements that have changed so much of the world over the last year. And at the same time, I got this image in my mind of all the signs I’ve seen people carrying around lower Manhattan – so many of them written in marker on the backs of pizza boxes. One thought expanded the scale of the movement in my mind, and the other shrunk it dramatically. Pizza box signs aren’t intimidating, especially those that are spelled incorrectly (there are many).
Art can shrink and expand scale. It can do it immediately and viscerally. Activist art can – and must – decide when an how to manipulate scale. How can art remind activists that they’re a part of something huge? And how can art welcome passers-by into a new experience?