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5 Times Artists Have Changed the World

A West Side Story Companion

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We often forget when we’re bobbing our head to a song we love or admiring some splash of color on a canvas, just how powerful art and music truly are. As one of the most profound expressions of humanity we’re capable of, art has the power to open minds, to encourage empathy, to breed understanding, to force questions on the unquestioning. It’s toppled dictators and inspired revolutions, raised voices and saved lives, given power to the powerless, and purpose to the lifeless. We here at Soundfly love music for so many reasons, but we know in our hearts that music and art will always be with us because they allow us to express ourselves in the deepest ways — ways that can move the world forward toward the place of our hopes and dreams.

Sounds heavy, eh? Well, it is. But luckily, there are so many examples throughout history of artists using their art to push humanity forward that we can learn from, whether the cave paintings that first brought people together around belief systems or the hippies sitting in a circle singing Lennon and McCartney’s “All You Need Is Love”. These are some of our favorite works of art that have effectively raised social issues and, we believe, moved the dial forward for humanity. Add yours in the comments below!

West Side Story

West Side Story was one of the first musicals to deal with serious issues such as gang violence, discrimination, immigration, and murder. By raising these issues in a medium where people don’t expect to encounter them, it forced audiences to confront their own biases and humanity — making it one of the most enduring musicals of all time. Musician and cultural diplomat Charles Burchell talks about some of the lessons he’s taken away from the authors of West Side Story about how to create change through art in a compelling way.

+ Watch more of our free course on West Side Story here, made in partnership with Carnegie Hall!

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly

Charles talks about this in the last video. Lamar’s most recent album To Pimp a Butterfly, besides featuring some amazing collaborators and being very enjoyable to listen to, delves into the way that racism manifests itself even when you’re successful, among many other issues. Lamar is consistently one of the edgiest and most conscientious rappers out there today, and still knows how to make a hit. Check out Genius’s annotated version of the song “King Kunta” for some of the references in his music, and how he balances the idea of feeling like a king but being treated like a slave.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica

One of the most well-known works of social commentary art of all time, Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica brought to light the brutality and absurdity of war in a way that has provoked visceral reactions for decades. The scene is based on a journalist’s first-hand account of the bombing of Guernica by Fascist troops, which took place during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The way it’s painted with sharp, violent shapes in positions of pain or protest create a powerful image of the horrors of war — and the fact that it’s a painting allows it to cross cultural and linguistic divides. The mural itself traveled around the world as part of the World’s Fair, carrying the message to a wide, global audience — and showing that who sees an artwork is just as important as the artwork itself.

Keith Haring, The Normal Heart, and the AIDS Epidemic

In the early 1980s, a new illness began spreading among the gay community in the United States. Today, we know this illness as HIV/AIDS, and we know all too well about the horrors it can cause, but at the time, there was very little known about it. It was a scary time, and because of the association with the homosexual community, many people were afraid to talk about it for fear of stigmatization. A number of artists and activists, however, did speak up, helping spread awareness about AIDS, fight stigmatization, and encourage more funding for life-saving drugs.

In 1985, The Normal Heart opened on Broadway, a play by activist Larry Kramer about the rise of the AIDS epidemic. The play pulled back the curtain on people living with HIV, making the issues more relatable and immediate.

Keith Haring was a public mural artist at the time, who was also gay. His artwork took on major issues such as sexuality, life and death, and of course, the AIDS epidemic. They were displayed in public places on street corners, walls and public buildings, breaking down the barriers between high and low art. His painting Silence = Death and others confronted people every day with the effects of their actions and the need to fight stigma and disease.

Larry Kramer and Keith Haring, among others, were able to raise awareness about AIDS in a way that led to dramatic changes, including better public information about the disease and more funding for treatment. By the early 1990s, AIDS drugs were widely available in the US, making it so that AIDS was no longer a death sentence. Their art also challenged people to question their own discrimination of gay and lesbian individuals, which has contributed to the incredible progress we see today.

social commentary art

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”

Based on a poem and song by Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit,” which recounts the experience of seeing lynchings in the American South, is one of the most chilling songs of all time. Billie Holiday started performing the song in 1939 but had a very difficult time getting a record label to publish it or a producer to record it given its serious and haunting nature. When she finally did record it though, it became one of the best-known songs of a generation and helped fuel the anger of the Civil Rights Movement.

Bonus: Our Challenge…

Learn more about the history, legacy, and artistry of West Side Story in our free course “The Somewhere Project: A West Side Story Companion” and take up the challenge to create your own work of social commentary art today…

There is a ton of amazing art out there tackling social issues. Do you have any favorites? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.