Posted in Art and Artists, Research & Reflection

Art as an agent for change

Context

One of the areas that I have a growing interest in is the use and application of art as a catalyst for change. There are many artists who have got involved in different ways, see Chumbawumba’s “Sing about love” (http://www.metrolyrics.com/sing-about-love-lyrics-chumbawamba.html) an example. To help in considering this I signed up for the “ART of the MOOC: Activism and Social Movements” (https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/home/welcome) to see what they had to say.

Artists and Social Movements

One aspect of the course points out that as Artists start to be involved within social movements they will often become part of the movement. (https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/MVffX/organizing-sustained-and-sporadic-actions: ” The Teatro Campesino, for a few decades already, they still exist, has been staging these plays that are about the daily lives of farmers. But they were officially started as the theatrical wing of the Farm Labor Organization, basically the farmers’ union. And so this is one aspect of, when artists really care about organizing, they often end up becoming part of the very social organizations that they’re trying to help.”)

As well as refusal/boycott and humour, I found the comments the course places on subverting symbols and power structures as potentially important. (“Many of these artists who use detournement or humor parody have actually used what we call culture jamming or camouflaging. So the Yes Men have created fake website for the World Trade Organization…. Where they say that the organization’s mission has radically transformed and they will now start to work on resolving world hunger. “, https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/6OP64/subverting-symbols-and-power-structures)

Art and creative legal interpretation

An engaging aspect of some of these projects is that they often push on the edge of the law. A good example is “Women on Waves”: “…what is interesting about a law, I think it’s not really black and white. It’s about how we interpret the law often and lawyers are usually very conservative in the way they interpret law”, https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/i4ghJ/rebecca-gomperts.  Or for the Gulf Labour project: “We took the gamble, the museum would not want to see artists being arrested in it’s premises and that was correct. Police came out, they told us that they were just waiting for the wagon to come to take us away.”, https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/qc7jD/gulf-labor

Raising consciousness with Art

The idea of raising consciousness and pointing out the pain of an aspect of society seems to be an important opportunity for art in social change. Part of this is creating a spectacle so as to draw attention to a subject area, or to try to activate an institution’s staff so as to try to create change from within. (“…we’re trying to activate the entire museum sector. And recognizing that while there are privatizing forces that are trying to direct these institutions to their ends, we can as well”, https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/QA3Ns/beka-economopoulos) It also provides a mechanism for people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to have a agenda for action to get involved. (“…gave us this way to invite all of these other different voices into Gulf Labor and into the way that we were talking about and thinking about Gulf Labor.”, https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/qc7jD/gulf-labor)

Art context and meaning

The following quote is illustrative of the importance of context in considering the meaning and interpretation of art:

“…in a way, all of these objects that are in these collections today are really emblems of that desperation. Because people don’t sell their most precious thing unless they have to. And so, that’s what that wall represented. And what’s interesting is that a number of those pieces were then melted down, and they became objects that were part of this, sort of, what you would call the gilded age of the Reniassance. And so, scholars that focus on the Renaissance have argued that the largess extracted from the Americas actually fuelled the revival of Europe created the Renaissance. So, there’s this 500 year long relationship….”, from https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/UEV3q/jolene-rickard

Using this lens might significantly change your consideration and interpretation of European Renaissance art, especially when combined with the concept of slavery and Africa. The power of Europe was derived from the suffering of other peoples, it this that much of the art of Europe was created to celebrate.

Example: Hans Hacke

Bringing some of these threads together is the work of Hans Hacke. In the video which is part of the “Art of the MOOC” he discusses the motivation behind a German project whereby the German politics provided earth from their constituencies as part of a dedication to all the people of Germany:

“…And this is what I hope to put into perspective, not by picking off the dedication itself, but to introduce the notion that everyone who happens to live in Germany, irrespective of that has were accepted Germans in terms of blood, as Hitler defined it. Whether there are immigrants recent, or whatever their background is, whoever lives in Germany, this is a tribute to them and, in fact, it’s a reminder to the members of Parliament that they are responsible and have to think for everyone who happens to be…”, From https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/uq80o/hans-haacke

The main pressure point of the work seems to be focussed on the connotations of the precise wording of the dedication, and the fact that it parallels activities leading up to Nazi Germany, as a mechanism to comment of some of the similarities between politic then and now. In the end the project had to be debated within the full German parliament and was passed, meaning the initiation of the work had succeeded in raising social consciousness far more than it would have had the work not been contested.

gift-horse-by-hans-haacke-009
Gift Horse by Hans Haacke, on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/05/gift-horse-hans-haackes-subversive-fourth-plinth-sculpture

In contrast, Boris Johnson not only did not veto the “Gift Horse” on the fourth plinth. In doing so he probably reduced this aspect of publicity. He did, however, provide a somewhat creative interpretation (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/05/gift-horse-hans-haackes-subversive-fourth-plinth-sculpture) of its meaning at the unveiling. In both cases Hans Hacke has succeeded in providing social commentary and provocative artwork within the power context of the establishment. An fascinating success for a fine artist.

So, what have I learnt?

Strangely, one of the most significant learnings from this research is the importance of context within the construction of socially engaged artworks. The Hans Hacke example is a pointed example of this, whereby the references within the work to the history of Nazi Germany proves a much deeper meaning than might be considered on first sight. The context of the work is critical to its meaning and interpretation.

The next major learning is the importance of referencing and pulling together within an art work different threads of meaning and symbolic references. This came through previously in the interpretation of the work by Grayson Perry (Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences), and is present in many of the artworks that provide social commentary and change.

In Conclusion, however, through all of this I found the following quote potentially the most interesting of all: “Art is an excuse, the goal is to change people’s life. “, https://www.coursera.org/learn/activism-social-movements/lecture/ToiWc/leonidas-martin. The key is not the mechanics and techniques applied in the approach, it is in the change that is being pursued that it important. This may be a subtle change, such as the way people think about immigrants, or a more direct change such as better pay for disadvantaged workers.


A note about the Featured Image: Picasso’s Guernica, drawn from here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guernica_(Picasso) : “…The painting, which uses a palette of gray, black, and white, is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history….”

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