What is the relevance of art to justice?

‘If you don’t like something, change it.

If you can’t change it, change your attitude

Maya Angelou 

Perception: How you view something is half the battle. 

‘If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude’. This quote is from the late American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. This quote embodies so much of what justice is and should be. In this quote, Maya Angelou’s depiction of activism should fill every individual with hope. 

Angelou doesn’t say, ‘if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, complain about how hard it is to change things’. Maya Angelou illustrates so brilliantly through this quote that we have the power to cause change in the world around us. It is this very perception that influences our relationship with justice. 

Direction: An artist’s art makes us aware of what we initially can’t see. 

Art can manifest itself in different forms yet still leave an impact on those who are receiving it. James Baldwin once mused that the artist’s role is the same as a lover, to make others conscious of the things they don’t see.  

The 42nd President of the United States of America – Bill Clinton – was preparing for his inauguration 29 years ago. President Clinton asked Maya Angelou if she could write a poem for the inauguration, having resonated with the poem that she had penned a decade before this. The poem was titled ‘Caged Bird’ and explored two birds: free and caged. Angelou used her poetry to bring attention to the racial climate of the US at that time.  

Clinton resonated with this poem since, growing up in Arkansas – the same state as Maya Angelou – he had seen first-hand what she was referring to. The example shows how an artist can use art to bring attention to injustices and put them at the forefront of other people’s minds.

Attention: Handing the microphone to those who society has made voiceless. 

Acts of police brutality against citizens have become difficult to ignore. In 2020, the world reacted to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery by police officials in the US. Protests and calls for change ensued as a result. Music artists such as Lil Baby and Usher released songs calling out police brutality and asking for a change in how people view black skin. Masses took to the streets to partake in peaceful protests. Placards were made, and murals were painted.  

Individuals stood up for those trodden on for centuries. The act of kneeling became symbolic of bringing attention to issues of racism and racial inequality. Artists didn’t stop creating and used their art to give a voice to the voiceless. Their art provided an impetus for those who were standing against police brutality to keep going and also raised awareness that it was an issue in the first place. 

Reflection: Why is this important? 

Throughout the Bible, God is referenced with creative imagery. Genesis outlines the steps by which God created the heavens and the earth, man and woman. In Isaiah 64:8, God is called the potter, and we, as humans, are called the clay. The author of Isaiah comments on how we are all the work of God’s hand. In the same way that artists help us to see what we can’t initially see, God does the same. God points our eyes towards the Biblical call to help those in need.  

As I was reflecting on the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, I decided to write a poem to help me primarily process the events that took place between March 2020 and June 2020. I titled the poem ‘Change’ and used it to explore the myth that racism is becoming more prevalent. My response was to the protest’s trends, such as posting black squares on social media. I wrote the poem both for catharsis and to allow myself the time and space to reflect on the injustice and explore my role in working towards change.

We are the clay that God has moulded in his image. Not only that, but God has also given us the creativity to create ourselves in line with his will. When we use our creativity to help others in the way God illustrates in the Bible and according to his will, we ultimately leave room for a better world to emerge. 

Listen to Tshepo’s spoken word ‘Change’ here.

Join More articles