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Art And Social Change Essay

SAN FRANCISCO — Just as design is often seen as an afterthought for new technologies, art is often seen as superfluous to the more quantifiable work behind social change and the rhetorical and charismatic qualities of change leaders. But anyone who has studied the history of social movements knows that art and media have always played a role, from political posters to buttons to films and music.

A recent essay by Favianna Rodriguez at Creative Time Reports caught my eye. Rodriguez, who co-founded the immigrant rights organization and magazine CultureStrike with Jeff Chang, Ken Chen, and Andrew Hsiao, argued for the need for “cultural strategy” or “cultural organizing” as a key, deliberate component of social movements:

As artists, we need to communicate more than what we stand against or why particular policies affect us negatively, because limiting our commentary to such reactions would confine the social imaginary to existing political frameworks and systems that we do not control. We should also present our vision for who we are, and show why that vision is a positive one. Working in the realm of ideas does not take energy away from the action space. Cultural strategies are as necessary as political strategies.

She makes a distinction between cultural strategy and communications strategies. And this is where artists have a unique opportunity contribute. Artists can imagine and visualize a message that’s not necessarily about action but more about shifting narratives and imagery: “The idea space presents more complex messages. It allows us to deal with contradictions and gray areas.” Art, she argues, is central to social and political change, not peripheral.

It got me thinking about another essay I read recently in Design Observer that looks at political posters in recent history (I wrote last year about posters of protest from the 1960s and 70s). While collection and organizing these posters is a beautiful study in political art and the power of visual rhetoric, the author, Rick Poynor, highlights a major hurdle for anyone trying to present them:

The curatorial challenge is to convey to the viewer, who may know nothing about the original context of any of these posters, and may have only the vaguest impression of the causes and passions behind them, that they represent moments of refusal, resistance and hope for necessary change.

He’s right — behind these posters is a lot of risk, a lot of change. Far from abstract images, they are a living part of history. Both essays are a good reminder of art’s centrality to social change, to the upheavals and shifts of society. Art is not just a mirror; it’s also part of the driving force.

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Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader

Will Bradley and Charles Esche

Critical Readers Series

The desire to change the world has often led artists to align themselves with wider social movements and to break with established institutions of art. This reader gathers together an international selection of artists’ proposals, manifestos, theoretical texts and public declarations that focus on the question of political engagement and the possibility of social change. The approaches represented are many and diverse, from Gustave Courbet’s involvement in the Paris Commune and the socialist art theory of William Morris to the hybrid activist practice associated with the twenty-first century ‘movement of movements’; from the political commitments of the Modernist avant-gardes to the rejections of Modernism in favour of protest, critique, utopian social experiment or revolutionary propaganda. Six specially commissioned essays - by Geeta Kapur, Lucy Lippard, John Milner, Gerald Raunig, Marina Vishmidt and Tirdad Zolghadr - further explore both the historical context and the contemporary situation.

Published by Tate Publishing in association with Afterall.

This title is no longer available.

  • Paper 9 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches, 480 pp., 85 illus., 20 colour - £19.99

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