Art and social change - confessions of a converted sceptic


03 November 2014

I can admit it. I used to be a political art sceptic. For a number of years when I was first involved in activism and mobilisations, I felt like the ‘real’ politics was happening on protests and actions and organising meetings. The ‘art stuff’ I thought was at best a sort of aesthetic supplement that made the spaces that we were operating in a bit prettier, and at worst a distraction that prevented more people from getting stuck into the ‘real stuff’. Looking back now, it’s hard not to cringe at my own attitude.

Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to be exposed to a number of great political art projects, from performance art interventionists Liberate Tate challenging BP sponsorship at Tate, to the incredibly inspiring Voices That Shake! team (a Platform project) mentoring young people on arts, media race and power. And now I’m looking forward to continue that learning with the Mexican street artists, Lapiztola Stencil, who are the subject of a crowd-funding campaign to come to the UK to transform the space where the Global Justice Now conference will take place.

Shake performance

This is a list of things I wish I could have told myself when I was younger (and being a bit clueless) as to why political art can be a really important and effective means of bringing about social change, and shouldn’t be hived off as a separate category from ‘the real stuff’.

In no particular order of importance…

  • Political art creates powerful symbols that resonate with people in different ways to reports or newspaper articles. ‘Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East’ documents a number of examples of how political art brought people out into the street during the Arab Spring.
  • Political art is not just a campaigning tool, but an organising tool as well – it brings people together, it creates community in the process of creating the art itself. A friend of mine wrote that “art can be part of building a strong alternative culture around social movements, which can be sustaining, inspiring, and attractive to new people.” As Thomas Mann wrote, "Art is to the community what the dream is to the individual."
  • I was speaking to my friend on this subject and she said, “We need transcendence to get us through and keep us going, to articulate who we are and our suffering. If we do not articulate and express our suffering, it boils inside us and eats us. Resentments grow and we turn increasingly mired in our ways. Artistic expression gets us out of circular individualistic habits and opens our inner and outer eyes. Collectively, this can bind us in ways no argument ever can. Rationality cannot cope with the senselessness of suffering.”
  • Art can be an important form of political expression for marginalized communities that may face a greater degree of repression in protest activities than people with a greater degree of privilege.
  • Creativity is a political form of movement, to move beyond blockages, impasse or thinking about 'retreat'. Another friend told me that “not having language (in the strict sense, words) makes things capable of skipping over (political, cultural) boundaries, so images might communicate, or performance might communicate more effectively than words or linguistically/rationally bound protest might. Art is a technology of expanding the mind- it has worked consistently over history to do this, expanding the mind makes new politics possible.
  • Political art can be a tool for education and preservation of traditions and local knowledge, which is in itself a form of resistance. There are lots of examples of how this has happened in Latin America.

My friend Farzana Khan has also been thinking a lot about the political impact of art as part of her work coordinating the Shake! project that provides young people with week-long intensive courses to engage with different art forms while exploring the issues that they feel are important to the world they see around them. This is some of how she sees the issue:

In the UK we have a familiar culture of an elitist, arty-farty, ‘high-brow’ relationship to art, public art institutions and public artists. Despite the prestige of art, it's telling that art is always the first to be cut, diminished or disposed of in public spending cuts. When we examine art historically within the western world, we see the important role the separation of myth and reason/art and empiricism played in the colonial and capitalist process and western hegemony. In western thought the totalisation of reason was a way to ‘other’ and delegitimise indigenous, non-European, non-masculine, embodied and spiritual knowledge.

One of the works of Lapiztola Stencil
One of the works of Lapiztola Stencil

“From a decolonial perspective, art can be a legitimate source of knowledge, where we can derive truths. Although many people have convinced themselves that it’s papier-mâché and prancing around, art can be far more than that, it encapsulates knowledge, voice and traditions of the ‘other’. This comes in different shapes and forms, not just in a rational tradition. In this way art can be, by its very nature, dissent, even more so, when that art comes from the marginalised, the global majority or non-Eurocentric, non-male spaces, because it existence challenges this dominant narrative. It can defy the norm on who is capable of creating and producing, who is the subject and who is the object, who are the knowledge producers and what constitutes as truth. It reflects the scope of legitimate knowledge beyond euro-centric masculine thought.”

Here's where you can support the crowdfunding appeal to bring the Mexican street-artists to create work in London.

Disclaimer – I am not smart enough about political art to come up with the vast majority of things I have written in this blog post. Instead I have ruthlessly ripped off and adapted contributions from friends including Farzana Khan, Marc Herbst, Sara Walcott, Ed Gillespie, Richard Houguez, Paula Serafini, Holly Hammond and Nicolò Wojewoda.

Some more reading on art and social change:

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