Art and activism have deep roots, expert says

By Jim DeLa

Art and activism are inexorably linked, especially in today’s political climate, a Harvard professor told New College students and staff during a wide-ranging lunchtime discussion Feb. 22.

In collaboration with the Black History Month committee, the weekly Feminist Friday forum welcomed Dr. Timothy McCarthy, who talked about art-based activism as director of “A.R.T. of Human Rights” and host of “Resistance Mic!,” two ongoing series with the American Repertory Theater in Boston.

Harvard professor and author Timothy McCarthy speaks to New College students and faculty Feb. 22 about the intersection of art and activism.
Harvard professor and author Timothy McCarthy speaks to New College students and faculty Feb. 22 about the intersection of art and activism.

“The role of politics and art has played a central role in my life,” he told about 20 people at the lunchtime gathering in the ACE Lounge. McCarthy described the protest art he has seen display on walls and barriers in Northern Ireland, the West Bank and Berlin. “Artists are always at the center of conflict,” he said. The murals, the paintings, “even the graffiti,” becomes part of the structure, he said. “Walls are being contested even as they’re being built.”

Much of McCarthy’s work at Harvard revolves around doing art in public spaces. “I try to create these collective communities of kindred souls. We try to create space, we try to share our art, and we try to, what I call perform truth to power in these perilous times.

“As a scholar and teacher, I’m trying to create spaces where we bring artists and activists together,” something he encouraged New College students to think about. “Where are all the public spaces where people can gather?” he asked.

Even the label of “artist” can become politicized, McCarthy observed. “Whom do you define as ‘artists?’ What if we dismiss the people we label as propagandists and radicals? That’s a legitimate question.”

Some creators are even rejecting the “artist” label, he said. “To me, everything is about respect. You can say ‘I’m not an artist.’ But I can appreciate what you produce — that’s what matters.”

– Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator at New College of Florida.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 700 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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