Is social activism acceptable in Art?

I won’t lie. Sometimes I try to pretend that the refugee crisis hell doesn’t exist, and I don’t want to face difficult questions. But every time I go to the playground with my two-year old child and see other children running around and happily playing, I cannot help but think that this is exactly how childhood should be —- having no responsibilities, playing with friends, having healthy food and loving family who would do anything for you. This feeling of security, stability and unconditional love is precisely what every child deserves.

Growing up in Kazakstan in the 1990s, I often saw children in the streets working and begging. I was fortunate to have a loving family and safe environment. Watching now what is happening in Syria destroys something inside of all of us. The tragedy of war will affect those children in ways that you and I will never understand, and it will affect future generations. The horror makes me feel helpless, and it makes me very angry that this problem could be resolved if only our leaders wanted to.

It may be risky to generalize in a very global and diverse artistic world, but as far as the major nations on the international art circuit are concerned I increasingly have the feeling that many art galleries, museums, media, and curators are avoiding difficult social and political issues. I’m not saying that there aren’t artists who are activists, but as the art world over the past decade has become increasingly market-oriented and obsessed with glamor, there seems to be an unspoken consensus that social and politically-oriented art is bad for business. And who doesn’t want to sell art?

I have been denied exhibitions because certain of my works were deemed too controversial. At times, our unfortunate reality drives me to create very political and social works, as well as those questioning the inner world of a human being and how it affects the outside world and actually all of us.

My experience is that social and political commentary in Art is often difficult to digest precisely because when such ideas are embodied in a work of art they literally penetrate our being, and can unsettle. However, in our highly global and inter-connected world, you can be sure that someone will be offended when one takes a stand on an issue. Don’t get me wrong. I strongly feel that we must be respectful of each other’s cultures and opinions, but there needs to be a careful balance with creative freedom, and we must ask ourselves: What is the point of art? And what to do when it causes controversy?

For starters, if you don’t like it, then don’t look at it. Art should be allowed to be created freely. If we don’t have the freedom to show what we want to create then Art looses its core purpose, and we will fail to accurately reflect the times and age we live in. And this is precisely one of the main missions of Art. It helps us to understand where we live in Time, and who we are. But if Art is increasingly sanitized and defanged of its bite, then what does it say about our world? It says that as a society we lack the courage and strength to engage in intelligent self-reflection and criticism. Is this the world that we really want?

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About Annya Sand
Annya Sand is a London-based contemporary artist, originally from Kazakhstan. Deeply influenced by childhood memories growing up in Kazakhstan where she was exposed to Central Asian and Russian cultures, her body of work includes oil paintings made with harmonious colors, earthy tones, resembling soil and bark. In July she participated in a two-week UNESCO Art Camp, Colors for the Planet, in the mountains of Andorra that explored themes of conflict resolution. In September her art was exhibited by UNESCO at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

Originally featured in The Huffington Post