I definitely believe that art is the best way to produce social change.
– Pedro Reyes
Using our creativity as a means of responding with compassion to suffering is a balancing act. The socially aware artist runs the risk of sabotaging her art and even appearing annoyingly self-righteous. And after all, isn’t a little “art-for-art’s sake” necessary to the production of good art?
The answer is a matter of heavily defended opinion, but one thing the following writers prove is that even if it’s hard to be both a great artist and a great social activist (although a few have managed to do both), one can create good art that initiates social change.
The following list is just a sampling, and readers are more than welcome to submit more names.
Luke the Apostle
Although very close in story arc and content to the other gospels, the gospel attributed Jesus’ apostle Luke is widely accepted as the gospel most relevant to social concern. In Luke we find not just the seeds of radical social thought but its blossoming in action; the emancipation of women, social justice and equality, the corruption of power, and caring for outcasts were first given clear and full expression here. This gospel is also beautifully written; its Christmas story is the one most widely quoted.
Even atheists and agnostics have to admit that the ideas passed down to us in Luke’s gospel were instrumental in the end of slavery in Europe and the Americas, civil disobedience movements, the emancipation of women, and the creation of social safety nets. In Cultural Amnesia, agnostic Clive James points out that humanism would not have been possible without their first having been Christianity. The Gospel According to Luke was the seedbed of a radical social transformation that’s still being carried out the world over.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most popular books in the United States in the 19th century (second only to the Bible). The book sparked an unquenchable national passion to end slavery by humanizing the characters of slaves and clearly showing that there was no way that the institution of slavery could be rendered humane. Abraham Lincoln is said to have jokingly suggested she’d launched the American Civil War. She was also a vocal proponent of women’s rights.
Mark Twain’s southern black characters were sensitive, kind human beings and his racist characters were heartless, depraved monsters. His humorous writings were so successful that they granted him a platform for persuading his country that slavery destroyed a society as much as it destroyed the enslaved, claiming that Lincoln’s proclamation freed not only the black man, but the white man as well. One of his methods was to get his high-born and low-born characters to trade places, thus showing how pointless and barbaric classism and racism truly are.
D.H. Laurence is best known for his frank portrayals of sexual affairs, but much of his work was dedicated to addressing the oppressive and sexist class system in Victorian society. His portrayal of sexual freedom was to some extent an illustration of social emancipation. His opposition to social inequality lead to a national change in attitude that improved conditions for the laboring class in England.
Charles Dickens wrote in such vivid detail of the suffering of the poor and the egotism of the rich in England that the British government was eventually forced to cave to public opinion and bring in reforms to end workhouses, close debtor’s prisons, and ameliorate the wretched living conditions of the poor. An ardent advocate of social reform, he has since inspired writers all over the planet to openly address problems of social inequality.
Henry David Thoreau’s writings persuaded readers of the importance of liberty, justice, and our duty to hold ourselves accountable to our deepest convictions. His essays on simplicity, ecological stewardship, and the importance of green spaces continue to shape the ideas of today’s social innovators.
Upton Sinclair’s “muckraking” prompted reforms in the food industry and lead to professional standards being implemented for journalists to prevent the publication of corporate-serving propaganda.
Gabrielle Roy’s depictions of the lives of the black, Irish, and French inhabitants of the St. Henry district in Montreal were a wakeup call for Quebec, leading to the social reforms enacted during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960’s.
Frederick Douglas’s accounts of his personal experiences as a slave and his eloquent speeches were instrumental in ending slavery in America. But even before the American Civil War he persuaded Great Britain to end slavery at home and in the colonies (including Canada).
Anne Frank gave a loving, forgiving, imaginative human face to the millions of people annihilated by the Nazis in Europe, fueling tireless efforts to make amends and to ensure that such a thing never happen again.
Alan Paton’s sensitive characterizations of black South Africans and the injustice of segregation raised world awareness and helped to bring down apartheid. In addition to producing a highly influential body of excellent written work, he also found time to be a dedicated social activist.