Art & Social Justice in Philadelphia

February 14, 2018

Artists and art entrepreneurs as major players in confronting social justice issues.


Art serves as the most powerful and dominant form of communication of the ideals of social justice and the experience of oppression throughout history. The codependency of these intertwining disciplines (art and social justice) constantly molds and reflects society. While artists portray societal issues in their work, society’s awareness of social issues is influenced by the art they digest. Artists and art viewers constantly redefine, highlight, and attack political issues. Throughout history, governments have censored, surveilled, and controlled art to protect specific political agendas. Those systems’ reliance on the governmental role of restricting and commissioning of art is rooted in art’s significant value as a mode of communication. Thus, authoritarian forms of government the freedom to express themselves in order to protect dominant ideologies and power structures. Today, both artists and critics (i.e. art galleries, radio stations, film critics) control the flow of available art for the public. It is the responsibility of these organizations and institutions to protect a diversity of artistic expression and to allow artists to portray all aspects of our societal experience.


 Philadelphia’s dominant art scene has both a  long history of, and an immense respect for social justice-focused art, specifically pertaining to Pennsylvania’s struggle with injustices in the criminal justice system. The Philadelphian art scene approaches social justice from three angles: showcasing and curating art that confronts social justice issues, introducing art to youth in or at risk of the criminal justice system through concentrated programs, and using art to influence and brighten specifically crime-ridden areas. These approaches aim to create awareness for and break the cycle of the negative effects of mass incarceration.  


 Curating exhibits that challenge and experiment with the portrayal of things like oppression, justice, power, and privilege is crucial to raising awareness for the issues themselves. Founded in 1997, Philadelphia’s Art for Justice, a prominent non-profit organization, “shows the humanity behind bars…brings awareness to systematic flaws in the criminal justice system [and] seeks solutions to eliminate injustice.” Art for Justice recognizes art as the universal language that can reconnect current and former convicts to the rest of society. As Villanova’s Father Joseph Murray remarked, “[social justice issues] need more exposure. We need the narrative. Who are these…people we’re talking about? ...People just don’t understand the reality [of certain issues].” To visualize the reality of the social justice system, Art for Justice’s mission is comprised of three major points:


1)    Promote public dialog on ways to prevent crime

2)    Reduce levels of incarceration

3)    Find effective, humane ways to improve the criminal justice system


Through numerous exhibits and presentations, Art for Justice displays the work of prisoners to raise awareness for systematic flaws regarding wrongful convictions, the death penalty, juveniles serving sentences of life without parole, isolation units, mandatory sentencing, and incarcerated individuals with severe mental illnesses. This work bridges the gap between convicts and the rest of society, through raising awareness for the unfairness and faults in the system. Other notable organizations devoted to promoting socially-concerned exhibits includes Monument Lab (Philadelphia, PA. Read more here), The Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The opening of The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was recently announced by the Equal Justice initiative.


In recognizing prisons as colonial legacy, founders of Art for Justice Ann Marie Kirk and Charles Zafir Lawson developed the “Road Map for Life Workshops” to rehabilitate children at risk of entering or currently in the criminal justice system. It is their hope that the program can help break the cycle of children falling into the systematic trap of the prison system. It is a ten-session program that encourages art studies and highlights the work of artists like Charles Zafir Lawson, who reflects on his time in prison through his art. Kirk and Lawson hope that this serves as an admonition of the consequences of breaking the law and life in the prison system. This artistic, dynamic approach encourages participants to learn from previous mistakes, embrace their strengths, and reconstruct their lifestyles.


The third crucial artistic approach to managing social justice issues in Philadelphia is the utilization of art to influence and brighten specifically heightened crime areas. Mural Arts Philadelphia, the nation’s largest public art program, uses art to redefine public spaces and positively influence individuals inhabiting those public spaces. The organization develops approximately 50 to 100 public art projects every year, maintaining Philadelphia’s international recognition as the “City of Murals.” Through this work, Mural Arts Philadelphia aims to initiate conversations regarding social justice issues and bridge gaps among communities. Moreover, the organization stays true to its core values of societal equality, fairness, and progress through “Transforming individuals, victims, and communities divided by the criminal justice system.”


Systematic inadequacies are common within the Pennsylvania justice system, including previously mentioned issues concerning wrongful convictions, the death penalty, juveniles serving sentences of life without parole, isolation units, and incarcerated individuals with severe mental illnesses. These unjustly-functioning prisons as we know them today are a relatively new system of law enforcement, coining this era as the “Age of Mass Incarceration.” However, this term, originally rooted in a US context, reaches beyond the national context and into the global conversation of incarceration. The colonial heritage and history that produced prisons as the normative standard of punishment creates socially vulnerable groups and leads to social targeting. The European colonial idea of spheres of influence is reflected even in the architecture of prisons such as Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (a retired facility). This demonstrates the immense influence of historical and cultural relations on the criminal justice system. Furthermore, it demonstrates how the system supports and encourages social targeting of groups oppressed throughout history, which is prevalent in cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore. Specifically in these cities, repetitive failures of the criminal justice system predominantly hinders minority groups. Luckily, many Philadelphia-based organizations work to improve the criminal justice system, and evade society’s tendency to ‘throw-out’ and dismiss current and former convicts, viewing them as expelled members of society. Justice and Mercy, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Pennsylvania Innocence Project at Temple University, Centurion Ministries, and Witness to Innocence are a few of these major organizations devoted to empowering those affected by the criminal justice system.


These art-based, socially-concerned organizations in Philadelphia are currently paving the path for future discussions concerning critical social justice issues, especially relating to the criminal justice and prison system in Pennsylvania. The future of these issues depends on entrepreneurs, curators, and the public to study and share art that communicates and highlights the realities of pertinent social justice issues. We can spread awareness of social justice issues through visualization, which leaves an emotional impression on viewers. This is a fundamental aspect to change minds, opinions, and the world. Society can better confront, grasp, and digest social justice issues through the three-part functionality of art: showcasing art that confronts social justice issues, encouraging convicts to pursue artistic activities, and investing in art within crime-ridden areas. Art can and will change the future of these issues in Philadelphia, as society can no longer exclude and excommunicate convicts from society. It is crucial to embrace and rehabilitate them, to avoid the detrimental cycle of mass incarceration. The first crucial step to attacking these issues is through spreading awareness, which is most effectively done through art. At Villanova, we must develop a greater appreciation for all forms of art, in order to better communicate with, understand, and contribute to our community.


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