We Make the Road By Walking
The Arts and Social Change: A Brief Overview
“Art has the power to mold and shape the world in which we live.”
--Joseph Beuys, artist
Arts and Activism
Art as a form of social commentary has existed since Greek civilization. Since that time, the arts have been employed as tools for shedding light on social injustice and the human condition.
Historically, this type of art has existed in both museum and gallery settings, as well as in the public domain. However, before the 1960s in the United States, much of the social and political commentary artwork was found almost exclusively in museums and galleries. The conceptual and earth art movements of the 1960s moved art out of museums and into the streets and land. Although the content of this work was often not political, the act of moving art from high art world venues into the “real” world impacted the political art movement of the 1970s. The feminist art movement from this period turned “the personal is political” into visual images that broke the silence around issues facing women and fueled the fires of political art in general. The 1980s ushered in the ecological and activist art movements. These movements represented a major paradigm shift from the Modernist social disconnection and alienation of the artist to a connection between the artist and community (Gablik, 1991). They offered a new possibility for art and the artist—a supportive and collaborative effort between artist and society which was thought to ultimately lead to social change (Becker, 1994). The ecological art movement inextricably links art to the context within which it is created—the community and environment. The ecological aesthetic redirects the focus onto issues of context and social responsibility, as does the aesthetic of the activist art movement.
Activist art has three guiding characteristics. It must have political content, it must be created or displayed in public (not in museums or galleries), and it must create some interchange or interaction with the public (Felshin, 1995). This new role of art is based on interaction, is context-dependent, and is anti-hegemonic in that it allows for a broader definition of who may be an artist and what constitutes art. There are numerous artists (e.g.: Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Suzanne Lacy, James Luna, and Adrian Piper), artist groups (e.g.: ACTUP, the Guerrilla Girls, and the Artnauts), and youth arts programs (e.g.: Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo, Tim Rollins + KOS, and YaYa) are all engaged in activist art.
Art as Possibility
The arts offer the possibility of transformation on both an individual and societal level. According to Gloria Anzaldua, individuals and society are inextricably linked such that transformation on an individual level alters the larger context. She believes that the arts hold the power to transform the individual creator of the work as well as the larger social context within which the art exists (Anzaldua, 1987). Educational philosopher Maxine Greene asserts that “the arts offer opportunities for perspective, for perceiving alternative ways of transcending and of being in the world” (Greene, 1991, p. 8). She believes that art creates a free space where anything is possible (1995). It is this free space or possible world that breaks down social barriers and allows people to name themselves, envision a different reality, and engage in the re-making of their world (Freire, 1970/1993).
This capacity is at once empowering and revolutionary. “[T]he radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image (schoner Schein) of liberation are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates itself from the given universe of discourse and behavior while preserving its overwhelming presence” (Marcuse, 1977, p. 522). It is not surprising that artists are often the first people to be exiled or tortured when oppressive regimes come to power. Artists have both the capacity to indict society and the ability to offer the possibility of change.
John Dewey asserted that change in the imagination is the precursor to changes in society. He believed that “[o]nly imaginative vision elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual…The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art” (Dewey, 1934, pp. 345-346). For this reason, he believed that art as experience needed to be a central component of education. Its ability to touch imagination, desire, emotion, and possibility made it the “incomparable organ of instruction” (Dewey, 1934, p. 347).
The arts have the ability to create a free space where one can envision something outside the realm of what already exists for oneself, one’s community, or the world (Dewey, 1934; Greene, 1995; Holloway and LeCompte, 2001; Krensky, 2001). Within this so-called free space, young people can try on new identities. “The arts provide ways for individuals to give voice to or depict their experiences, to try on new identities or perspectives, and even to visualize, articulate, or act out the impossible” (Holloway and LeCompte, 2001, p. 394).
Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Becker, C. (1994). The subversive imagination: Artists, society, & social responsibility. New York: Routledge.
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York: Minton, Balch & Company.
Felshin, N. (Ed.) (1995). But is it art?: The spirit of art as activism. Seattle: Bay Press.
Freire, P. (1970, 1993). Pedagogoy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Gablik, S. (1991). The reenchantment of art. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Greene, M. (1991). Texts and margins, Harvard Educational Review, 61(1), 1-18.
Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Holloway, D. L. and LeCompte, M. D. (2001). Becoming somebody!: How arts programs support positive identity for middle school girls. Education and Urban Society, 33 (4), 388-408.
Krensky, B. (2001). Going beyond zebra: A middle school and community-based arts organization collaborate for change. Education and Urban Society. 33 (4), 427-444.Marcuse, H. (1977). The aesthetic dimension. Boston: Beacon Press.