Art during COVID: The communal art of protests
This piece is a part of a series on "Art during COVID," an exploration of art forms to keep our idle minds creative during this pandemic. With many of us at home, our minds have ample time to wander, wonder and create. This series highlights accessible and immersive art forms to both produce and consume during the pandemic months and beyond.
Summer graciously lends us picturesque lazy evenings, and I use them to create art. Sitting on my deck with a packet of oil pastels, or on my driveway with a palette of watercolors, is my way of winding down against the background of a warm summer twilight.
I usually let my mind wander as I create, and recently I’ve been thinking about what exactly art is. Even dictionary definitions are ambiguous, and rightfully so: How can you define something that encompasses such a diverse range of personal expression? If I had to define it, I would settle for “a form of expression that holds meaning to the creator and the viewer.” Under that label, the Black Lives Matter protests I’ve been attending fit squarely under the art umbrella.
I attended two protests last week, one in my hometown of Canton and the other in neighboring Northville, towns that are 69.6 percent and 95.2 percent white respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite their proximity to each other, both protests were different — I marched with a diverse crowd in Canton, but stared out into a sea of white in Northville. Regardless of demographics, in each protest I felt a pull to those I walked with — a sense of solidarity, as if the world was crumbling but we were creating something beautiful out of the ashes.
Protests can be a form of communal art, often the most powerful of art forms. Community-oriented types of art, such as collaborative murals or community dialogues, can be a poignant way to create bonds within a neighborhood, and its message is heard with more vigor than art created by one person. Everyone has a piece to add, a role to play, a story to tell. I love the conversations that arise when I create art with a friend or loved one sitting by my side. It seems natural to share such a gratifying experience with another person.
Protests are making national headlines in part because of the sheer number of people turning out and the enormous geographic range they cover. I’ve lived in the suburbs of metro-Detroit all of my pre-college life, and I’ve never seen protests like these before in my own hometown. I feel an undeniable connection with the strangers I march side by side with, even though I know next to nothing about them. Linked by invisible threads, protesters create a visible movement, a passionate piece of art that is now receiving international recognition. This intangible art can be turned into something concrete as well, such as the wall of protest art now surrounding the White House, but the intangible is just as valuable.
Activism isn’t unknown territory for me. I was raised by a family of political activists, and I’ve been campaigning for political causes around my hometown before I was old enough to vote. But today’s Black Lives Matter movement feels different to me. Half of my battle is getting someone to listen and be agitated enough to care about topics close to my heart, like voting or the environment. I struggle every November to get my friends to the polls, and many of my attempts to engage my friends politically end in frustration. Now, I finally feel the tide turning. We’re angry, but eager to channel this exasperation into change. The art of protesting allows us to express this frustration, and each local march adds to the larger, international, illustration. There’s still mountains of work ahead of us, but, as I see open ears and accepting hearts around me, in my mind a small part of the battle is already won.
If we view protests through the lens of collective art, we realize that every piece is important to the collective whole. Everyone who engages is adding a tile to the greater mosaic, enriching the Black Lives Matter movement and spreading the message further. The more people we engage, the bigger the scope of our art becomes, and as our reach widens, more people want to listen. If this momentum continues, the collaborative art of protesting can move the world.
I protest because the communal energy of thousands of voices uplift my own. To be among people who love others enough to fight for them is breathtaking. It’s the same reason why my eyes brim with tears of empathy at every march I attend. Here are people who refuse to be complicit and recognize that the world is bigger than themselves or their neighborhood. Shouldn’t we all be attracted to a love this compelling?