We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. – John F. Kennedy
Max Levi Frieder is the co-founder and co-executive director of an international community-based public art organization that seeks to ignite social change through collaborative art making.
Together, Max and his team facilitate projects around the world that connect people and communities through things like mural art and community sculpture in order to “explore critical issues related to armed conflict, trauma and social marginalization.”1
Their work reaches refugees and street youth, people behind bars, people with physical and mental challenges, and young people living in areas of violent conflict and extreme poverty.
Their work reaches people where they are; where it matters, and asks them one, radical question:
“What do you want to say to the world?”
The purpose is self-expression and reconciliation. The reason is pain, painted into the past, persistently. The reason is hope, swirled and streaked in brush strokes across communal canvas.
In January of this year, I stood in a darkened room in MoMA The Museum of Modern Art at the exhibit, Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter. I stood in front of refugee camps mapped out on the floor and on the wall, looked inside tents erected in the gloom that real people inhabit in other places—not just for days, but for years and years—and wept at our human passivity in the face of the displacement of more than sixty-five million people.
Months later, I was listening to Max on stage at Jonathan Fields’ annual Camp GLP gathering. The fact that Max had been to some of those same refugee camps—the sites of so much pain—and took action, through art, to heal something of what people are experiencing there, broke something open inside of me.
Towards the end of his talk, Max said something that stopped me in my tracks.
“At their core, ALL humans are artists. That’s what makes us humans.”
A day later, during a workshop session with thrive-catalyst Tanis Frame, I daubed paint onto paper; onto someone else’s paper; with my right hand; with my left hand. And I laughed at the imperfectness of it all, and I thought, Yes. Yes I am.
Right after, I went and brushed white paint onto a giant communal canvas that Max was breathing into being with the help of the GLP community.
I was nervous about “doing it wrong” or messing up.
“A lot of people are,” Max said.
I painted anyway.
Last Sunday, I stood, mesmerized, inside a room in the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art as I watched “The Origin of the Blues” As Told by Confuserella 2015, in which multidisciplinary artist Ariel Jackson wraps blues music around archival footage of racially oriented violence.
She juxtaposes that with images “from everyday Black life to reveal the unsettling coexistence of the brutal and the mundane in Black communities.”2
There is a poignant moment, at the end, when a little boy is asked if he’s willing to wait until next week for freedom.
The little boy replies simply, “No.”
He is asked again, insistently, “Are you willing to wait until next week?”
He says again, “No.”
ART… facilitating, connecting, igniting social change.
ART… juxtaposing, revealing, waking people up.
Charles Moore had been in the military. He’d been a boxer. And yet he said, “I don’t wanna fight with my fists, I wanna fight with my camera.”
So he took photos of the Civil Rights Movement. His photos even frequented the pages of Life magazine throughout the 1960s.
As a white, Southern journalist, born and raised in Alabama, he was fighting against Jim Crow discrimination the only way he knew how: by taking pictures. When Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Alabama in 1958, Moore was there. When police dogs attacked anti-segregation demonstrators in 1963, Moore was there. When a march for voting rights culminated in tear gas and police clubs in 1965, Moore was there.3
He was there.
He was fighting.
He was there.
He was an artist who was using art to fight.
He was there.
And it made me realize that, no matter who we are or what we do or which form of art we choose, we are artists and we’re here.
We’re here and, if we care about social justice, then we need to be making art and making movies and taking pictures and using our voices and writing about all of it.
We need to be thinking about what we want to say to the world, and actually saying it. We need to be using what we have to send a message.
Six years ago, in an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Eric Friedenwald-Fishman expressed his belief that, “In the future, human, social, and creative capital will have the greatest impact”:
“There is no discipline that nurtures and sparks the cognitive ability to imagine, and unleashes creativity and innovation, more than arts and culture. There is no approach that breaks barriers, connects across cultural differences, and engages our shared values more than arts and culture. There is no investment that connects us to each other, moves us to action, and strengthens our ability to make collective choices more than arts and culture.”4
When we begin to infuse our pain into art that refuses to be only color on a canvas5, but emotions brought vividly to life—art that refuses to stand still, but narrates the truth in which we presently stand, tilted on the edge of uncertainty, and hints at a better future—when we do that, when we begin to sing and dance and paint and make and write and march, that’s when we activate our fullest creative potential.
I’m thinking about artists like Max Levi Frieder.
I’m thinking about artists like Ariel Jackson.
I’m thinking about artists like Charles Moore.
I’m thinking about artists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Maya Angelou and Beyoncé and Faith Ringgold.
I’m thinking about artists that send a message.
…I’m thinking about artists like you.
You might be nervous about “doing it wrong” or messing up.
A lot of people are… (me, included).
Here’s the message:
Make art anyway.
- Mark Rothko once said, “If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”