2016 in review: A time for explicit social justice debates in art

by Natalie Busch / Beacon Staff and Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff • December 8, 2016

Nearly three weeks ago, the cast of Broadway hit Hamilton addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence after he attended the show. The musical, which is a telling of Alexander Hamilton’s life story by a cast of color, is inherently political—creator Lin-Manuel Miranda explicitly takes a stand on immigration by framing America as a country founded by immigrants.

Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical is far from the only example of recent art taking strong social stances. Emerson is a community of artists and, throughout the year, that community has used an uncertain future as a springboard for socially conscious art as well.
 

At Emerson...

In September, Pink Taco, an art collective for female-identifying artists, hosted their first “sensitive soirée” with the artwork of student filmmakers, writers, musicians, poets, and other artists. The organization, intended to be a safe space for female expression, publishes submitted art to their website pinktaco4ever.com. Emerson Stage’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle commented on the refugee crisis, by emphasizing the commonalities between all people and the importance of listening to one another.
 
Once Donald Trump was named president-elect, art produced on campus became more overtly political. Flawless Writes, the writing and publishing branch of Flawless Brown, posted poems written by women of color in response to the election results on their blog. Alex Monto, a junior visual and media arts major, filmed the protest in downtown Boston the day after election day and created his video “You, the People.”
 
Several events brought activists, experts, and professionals to campus to start a discussion of social justice, politics, and activism. In September, Angela Davis spoke to students and members of the public at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Davis, a former member of the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spoke about her belief that art can and should challenge the status quo.
 

...And Beyond

This year we saw our first black superhero protagonist in Netflix’s Luke Cage, which premiered in September. Actor Mike Colter did not shy away from the symbolism in his portrayal of Cage, especially in a scene where the bulletproof hero walks into gunfire with a black hoodie on, in reference to the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin.

In music, the standout example was Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a visual album spanning multiple genres which was released in April. Although the album empowers the artist herself, the empowerment extends far beyond this definition with singles “Formation” and “Freedom” both serving as unapologetic anthems for black Americans.

In film, the Disney animated movie Zootopia, released in March, discusses prejudice with nuance. The film impressively remains entertaining and lighthearted enough for children to enjoy while still gaining a greater understanding of the dangers of bigotry. The critically acclaimed film Moonlight takes an intimate look at the coming of age of a young black man grappling with his sexuality. By avoiding clichés and stereotypes, director and writer Barry Jenkins sheds light on lives so often ignored and disenfranchised in art and society.

Art inherently reflects the environment it’s in, so it makes sense for recent works on and off campus to talk about timely issues. What is especially notable is the explicit stance some of these artists take on social justice debates. Going into 2017, with a divided nation and controversial president-elect, this trend is only going to continue.