Dewhurst, M. (2009). A pedagogy of activist art: Exploring the educational significance of creating art for social justice. (Doctoral Dissertation).


The researcher conducted an ethnographic study examining teaching and learning in a teen after school activist art program at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The pre-existing program recruited teens interested in art as activism and accepted 14 students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to participate in a 14-week program and final exhibition. The researcher collected data through observations, interviews, and document review to understand what happened as students engaged in an activist art program. She found that through creating activist art, students developed skills for critical thinking, leadership, community engagement, and communication. These skills were fostered through three fundamental learning processes in which students engaged in the activist art program: connecting, questioning, and translating.

Key Findings:

Through participation in an activist art program, students developed skills for critical thinking, leadership, community engagement, and communication. While creating works of activist art, they engaged in three learning and teaching processes that were key to the development of these skills:

  • Connecting – As students thought about the injustices they intended to address through their art, they considered why these injustices exist and how they could be changed. They identified relationships and connections of cause and effect, actively constructing an understanding of community relationships and civic leadership.
  • Questioning – Once students formed ideas about their topics, they began a long process of critical thinking: How can we impact this injustice? Who is my audience? How do I want them to think about the topic? How can I communicate my ideas effectively? Does my art work as I intended? Students began to see the legitimacy of their own insight for challenging the status quo, and they began to understand their power as active creators of society capable of initiating change.
  • Translating – Representing an idea through art required a shift from verbal to visual language. By translating their ideas into art, students re-framed their ideas literally, metaphorically, ironically, dialogically (as an interaction with the audience), or through a mixed approach. Students learned to see art as a way of “teaching” the audience. They sought to present their ideas with a balance between message and aesthetics, and developed communication skills in the process.

Significance of the Findings:

The field of activist art previously lacked specific vocabulary for discussing its benefits to students and communities. The three learning processes of connecting, questioning, and translating identified by the researcher provide concrete language to inform future research and aid activist art educators in developing curriculum and communicating the value of their programs. Furthermore, the thorough description of the course’s curriculum and student responses offers evidence of activist art’s civic engagement, leadership, communication, and critical thinking skill development outcomes.


Fourteen high school aged students, selected by MoMA’s studio program admissions team for their diverse socio-economic backgrounds and enthusiasm for art and social justice, participated in a fourteen-week-long teen art program. The researcher began collecting data immediately with the participants’ application essays, and identified themes early that guided continued research. Two MoMA teachers developed and taught the class as a team. The researcher attended every class session and collected data by videotape, observation notes, and digital photos. She emphasized the learners’ perspective by including three rounds of open-ended interviews with each student. She also analyzed final artworks, sketchbooks, homework assignments, and lesson plans for emergent themes. Many direct quotes and images from the class appear in the dissertation, building a thorough and detailed portrait of the whole class and their learning process that allows readers to interpret data for themselves.

Limitations of the Research:

With a small group of very enthusiastic participants and a relatively short duration, the findings of this study may not generalize to other activist art programs in other contexts. However, the author candidly presents this limitation while stressing the intention of this study. It is not intended as a generalization of all activist art programs, but serves to outline useful vocabulary on the subject and spark continued conversations in the field.

Questions to Guide New Research:

The author points out many questions for further investigation including: How does the setting change the activist art learning experience? How do previous arts experiences influence the students’ studio practices? Does art for social justice build a sense of self-efficacy? How do youth view art’s role in shaping culture and leading opinion? How much impact does activist art have on the community?