Throughout the history of western culture, art has often been a luxury indulged in by the privileged. Nearly all of the artists celebrated in the art world were white, male, and came from wealth, had connections, or both. There have been outliers, but for the most part, the worlds of music, visual art, poetry, film, and photography were a white man’s game.
Things have been steadily changing, but as with any ancient institution, change in the art world has been slow. A 2019 study showed that 85.4% of the art in major museums is from white artists, and 87.4% of it is by men. African Americans account for just 1.2%, Asians at 9%, and Latino and Hispanic artists were at 2.8%.
However, one side of art is changing more quickly than the gallery and museum world, as the internet has had the same democratizing effect on art as with free speech, socialization, and entertainment. Now, virtually anyone can create art in any medium and publish it online, with platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr making it so that curators and auctioneers are no longer the sole arbiters of the art that gets seen. This is resulting in a younger, markedly more diverse class of artists gaining prevalence, and with that demographic shift comes a shift in focus.
One voice who has been around for longer than social media, but whose visibility has blossomed in the digital age is that of audiovisual artist John Akomfrah. The Ghanian-British Akomfrah is focused on social justice, exploring religion, immigration, cultural identity, and environmentalism. He co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982, and has been building up underrepresented voices his entire career. His influence continues today, as the internet’s video accessibility has put his work in more hands than ever before. He was named Apollo Magazine’s Artist of the Year in 2018 among many other accolades. His most recent work has focused on African refugees, ecological destruction, and the disrupted migration patterns of African elephants.
On the newer end of the spectrum is an artist whose work we may never have seen before the digital age, Martine Gutierrez. Being a non-binary trans woman born to a Guatemalan father and an American mother, Gutierrez uses her art to explore identity. She interrogates her connection to gender, culture, and ethnicity, and the gray areas between binaries through visual art, mostly photography. Much of her popularity has come about through social media, primarily Instagram, and her striking satirical faux fashion spreads make it clear why. Featured in The New York Times, with art appearing in many major galleries, she’s used the internet to launch a major art career, drawing attention to indigenous and immigrant lives, as well as LGBTQ+ lived experience.
A brand new artist using the internet to draw attention to important social justice issues is a bit unconventional, creator Radheya Reinkarn8ed. Radheya is an anonymous artist who works under a pseudonym, and presents as an animated animal character in a suit. Somewhere between songs and poetry, his pieces are accompanied by this character in video form. The first of these released in August, a passionate recitation of the modern history of black activism in America, exploring how personal video technology has shone a light on a dark part of our culture we’ve avoided, from Rodney King to George Floyd. His pieces lean into controversy, dealing with Black Lives Matter, cancel culture, and systemic corruption. Every aspect of his presentation is made possible by the digital age, making him an interesting indication of the possibilities of this new era of art.
Art has always affected and been affected by social change. All the great social shifts throughout history have had accompanying equally dramatic art shifts. During this time of cultural and political upheaval, when the internet has made activism available to the masses, art is again a barometer of a massive change in society.