Prompted by Gregg Deal and Kate Nicholson
At a moment when human and environmental rights, freedom of expression and the arts are all under attack, this roundtable conversation will consider the role of artists in social change. Or, as artist Lorna Simpson recently put it, “how can we transmute our pain to power?” Art has a unique capacity to critique and reflect upon its time. Art may bring visibility to an issue, provide a means of human connection, serve as a catalyst for change. Nina Simone famously said that it is the duty of artists to reflect their times. Toni Morrison posited that troubled times are precisely when artists get to work. But Paddy Johnson recently wrote of the pressures placed on artists in times of political turmoil that, “the art professional who believes artists are magical unicorns who will save us all is looking increasingly silly.” http://artfcity.com/2017/05/17/the-venice-biennale-an-orphanage-for-the-terminally-out-of-touch/ If we place too great an emphasis on artists for social change, we risk diluting their effectiveness.
Even art that is not social on its face can be political. Abstract expressionism, for example, stemmed from the unique societal circumstances of the post-war world. And it is important to remember when art meets social engagement that works of art historically have been used by systems of power for their political impact, with examples ranging from constructivism in the maintenance of Soviet power to the use of art in the United States to recruit soldiers before the world wars. Philosophers from Walter Benjamin to Guy Debord to Michel Foucault have considered the potential pitfalls of joining art to social ends, exploring the dangers inherent in the act of aestheticizing the status quo.
On the other hand, Guy Debord’s “society of the spectacle” of the 1950s, in which culture is mediated by images, is even more true in every reach of society today: our cultural and civic lives are joined. Against this context, activist art is a growing arena in the contemporary art field.
What is activist art?
In a sense, all art is socially engaged to the extent that it provides “imaginative engagement with the inner lives of others,” a capacity that philosopher Martha Nusbaum considers the baseline for a just society. Much socially-engaged art proceeds from this impetus as artists mine their lived experience as a resource for social, cultural and political critique. Then there is art which holds a mirror less to the self than to society and reflects back a critique of historical, economic or social conditions. Finally, there is art activism. Not merely content to criticize the political system or social conditions, art activists seek to change these conditions by means of art. Where the modern state fails, art activists step in to alter living conditions in economically underserved areas, provide education and culture where it is lacking, and stimulate environmental growth. Examples of such artists include Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe, and Tanya Brugera, among many others.
How do we evaluate socially-engaged or activist art?
When art is activist questions arise from both the art and the activist communities. Should art be a means of mass resistance? Or should it stay above the fray as it were, preserving artistic quality—that is, does art lose some of its complexity, subtlety, and refinement when targeted to activist ends? How do we measure the effectiveness of activist art—using an aesthetic or a political calculus? As Carolina Miranda notes, “as agents of change social-practice projects can seem wanting: the scale is often small, the works are temporary, and success may depend on the charisma of a single artist. On an esthetic level, they can also be befuddling, perceived as too much like community organizing to feel truly like art.” http://www.artnews.com/2014/04/07/art-of-social-practice-is-changing-the-world-one-row-house-at-a-time/ But Nato Thompson, the director of Creative Time, reminds us that even the criteria that separate aesthetic considerations from social justice ends betray a potential bias. Every artistic institution supports its own idea about what art is and comes with a set of political positions and aesthetic criterion that must be met. Some art forms, such as performance and spoken word art, give greater credence to the ends of social justice and change when making an aesthetic critique. A lot depends upon the intended audience and goals of the work.
What are the possibilities for collaboration?
Given the potential tensions that arise when art and activism overlap, how might artists work with activists, human rights attorneys and community organizers, allowing the potential of each arena to be realized in collaboration? Many of the most successful examples of the art of social practice involve work within community-based centers. What are the other possibilities for collaboration?
Please join prompters Gregg Deal–an artist and activist who explores his indigeneity across many mediums including performance and street art–and Kate Nicholson–a civil rights attorney and activist who is also an art enthusiast–as we discuss the intersection of Art and Activism.
Suggested Reading and Viewing:
Boris Groys, “On Art Activism,” Journal #56, June 2014 e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/56/60343/on-art-activism/ .
Carolina A. Miranda, “How the Art of Social Practice is Changing the World, One Row House at a Time,” ARTnews, http://www.artnews.com/2014/04/07/art-of-social-practice-is-changing-the-world-one-row-house-at-a-time .
Natalie P., “Who Are the Key Figures in Socially-Engaged Art Today,” Widewalls, http://www.widewalls.ch/socially-engaged-art-today/ .
Simone Leigh, “The Free People’s Medical Clinic.” http://creativetime.org/summit/2015/09/01/day-2-simone-leigh/; https://vimeo.com/117195615 .
Gregg Deal is a husband, father, artist and a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. As a provocative contemporary artist-activist much of Deal’s work deals with Indigenous identity and pop culture, touching on issues of race relations, historical consideration and stereotype. With this work—including paintings, mural work, performance art, filmmaking and spoken word—Deal critically examines issues within Indian country such as decolonization, the Native mascot issue, appropriation and the representation of Indigenous people, likeness and voices in the context of Western culture.
Deal, who resides in Colorado, was recently showcased on PBS Arts District and has been Native Arts Artist-in-Residence at the Denver Art Museum in 2015-2016. His art has been exhibited nationally since 2002. Deal has lectured widely at prominent educational institutions and museums, including: Denver Art Museum, Denver, C.O.; Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.; Columbia University, New York City, N.Y., Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.; and University of Colorado Boulder. His television appearances have included PBS, “The Daily Show” and W. Kamau Bell’s “Totally Biased” as well as appearances on Aljazeera, ESPN, FoxNews and ABC News.
Kate Nicholson is a civil rights attorney and activist who served for more than twenty years in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, securing powerful victories including in the US Supreme Court. Her primary area of focus was nationwide enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Kate is also a writer and an arts enthusiast, a Tilt West board member and a member of the Advisory Board of the CU Art Museum, and she formerly served on boards at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Kate is currently writing a book about pain, and you can catch her talk on the subject at TEDx Boulder in September. She was a Senior Fellow at Dartmouth College and is a graduate of Harvard Law School.