The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has collected street art from the Occupy movement in an exhibition titled “Artists Take Action: Protest Posters Today,” which will be on display in the University’s Davison Art Center (DAC) from April 5 to May 26. The exhibition demonstrates the potential for art to promote political action and for posters to serve as a means of documenting history. In a gallery talk last Thursday evening, Professor of Philosophy Lori Gruen commented on the ethics and politics of the exhibition, bringing up questions of the role of creative works in activism.

“What role can this sort of art…play in motivating social change?” Gruen asked. “How do you change hearts and minds and beliefs and thoughts…and what role might art and art messages play?”

Gruen also described seven ideal qualities of effective protest posters: a clear and accessible message, an arresting image, an inviting and familiar—yet a little bit startling—appearance, the ability to appeal to a diverse audience, timely subject matter, thought-provoking content, and the ability to motivate people to take action.

Many of the posters featured in the exhibition were on the street during an important social movement. The collection includes four sections: “War is Trauma,” “There is an Emergency! A Reproductive Rights and Gender Justice Portfolio,” “Occuprint,” and “Resourced.” The works deal with newsworthy topics, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), sexual assault in the military, abortion, economic and social equality, and environmental and political problems.

Website addresses were provided in each section’s portfolio in order to help spread awareness about each movement. The website for the portfolio of hand-produced prints shown in “Resourced,” which was organized and created by the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative in 2010, explains more about this section of the exhibit.

“[It is] a teaching tool, a collection of reproducible graphics for activists and organizers, and a dialogue starter for community spaces, schools, conferences, and galleries,” the website reads.

In this way, viewers of the exhibit are encouraged to search for more information online about the artwork and even to download pictures of the posters. Overall, the exhibit often focused more on social change than the art itself, inviting viewers to consider the exhibit itself another venue for political protest.

In her talk, Gruen drew a parallel between the difficulty of changing people’s attitudes through art and the difficulty of doing so through philosophical discourse. Her talk gave many insights into what types of posters are most effective in changing attitudes, but some questions were left unanswered: do people change their behavior when they change their attitude, and to what extent can this change of behavior effect real social change?

“These prints remind viewers at once how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go,” the introduction to the “There is an Emergency!” portfolio reads. By the end of the exhibit experience, it becomes clear that this idea can be applied to all of the posters on display in the exhibit. Collecting topical political art is not only valuable as a means of recording history; art can, if effective, contribute to the movements that make history.

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