Can art change the world?

Sam Durant, We Are All Outlaws in the Eyes of Amerika
The current issue of Adbusters continues a long-running investigation on the role of art in social movements. If art can bring change for the common good, how does it work—as a slow burn or an explosive agent? As art editor of the issue, I asked curators and artists from around the world some deceptively simple questions about the social function of art and its potential for catalyzing change. My favorite interview was with Chinese-born, Paris-based curator Hou Hanru, who suggested that directly oppositional art—the in-your-face anti-Bush poster, for instance—may have less lasting power than works that engage the events of the day from a greater distance. Of-the-moment language only lasts as long as it's relevant, he seemed to be saying, but the more metaphysical works of, say, Joseph Beuys or David Hammons continue to intrigue and spin off meaning beyond their immediate context. (Which is not to suggest Hou meant that the art of resistance can't be just as powerful as any other kind of art. Just different roles in terms of immediacy and effect.)

In the spirit of resource-sharing, here are a few of the quotations, some of which don't appear in the print issue:

Robert Storr, critic, curator, artist, Rosalie Solow Professorship of Modern Art at NYU:
I don't think art can change the world. There are moments in history—in the 1930s and the 1920s and since—where very direct address of general social problems by artists has had something of an effect. It's hard to say what it was or how to quantify it, but it's undeniable they spoke for the times and people knew it. There are other times when merely the presence of a voice of dissent or a kind of questioning in public for which art is also a vehicle can do a lot.

I'm also of the view that sometimes people who should be socially active take refuge in art and make art as an alternative to being involved in the sort of nuts and bolts (and oftentimes boring) business of organizing and voting and demonstrating. I think we've been through a period where a lot of people have very sophisticated political ideas based on a whole series of postmodern thinkers but actually they do almost nothing, and they have avoided the full implications of having a political understanding of the world by having such a good rap. I don't know how many students I've spoken to, taught, and dealt with who can tell you all about the crisis of late capitalism but in fact have never done anything political in their lives, or very little, and who can tell you all about what's wrong with other people's political practice but haven't made any mistakes yet… There's a dimension in which a lot of political postmodernism is a kind of shadowboxing, and I think that that is something really to be questioned.
Jennifer Gonz├ílez, Assistant Professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture, University of California–Santa Cruz:
I think we desperately need the term art, because it's incredibly useful. Art is a conceptual category that allows for something that's not already defined. So, unlike the notion of the commodity, art allows people to do a lot of different kinds of things that in other parts of culture they wouldn’t be allowed to do: experiments, investigations, formal innovations, mixings of materials, etc. I would say the category art has an incredibly important social function to play...

...Art is about as dangerous as literature. But you could also say: it's about as dangerous as philosophy, which means it’s about as dangerous as Marxism… It’s dangerous in the way literature is dangerous: it raises ideas, it changes minds. ...You can never predict in what ways it will change minds or change culture, which is one of its strengths. Neither can you predict whether a political philosophy will change cultures. What did Adam Smith know when he was writing? Did Marx know what would happen with his writings?
Tim Griffin, Editor-in-chief, Artforum:
For the past 10 years or more, the experience economy—the idea that there is an intangible source of wealth that rotates on notions of branding, of appealing to emotions, of actually making the consumer your product and thereby obtaining some purchase on consciousness itself—creates a situation where art, since emotion and thoughtful interaction have comprised its traditional terrain, is ever more enmeshed in commerce. That means commerce has moved toward art and art has moved toward commerce, or they're overlapping in a fashion that perhaps is still not so familiar to us. Certainly this is one of the reasons why branding becomes a subject of art: that is, one more way the commercial sphere in inscripted in art, which is a trope of the historic avant-garde. But whereas at one point you could have, as an avant-garde position, an outsider status, now the question that is so often hitting artists and writers is: what happens when there is no longer an outside? How do you end up creating some meaningful antagonisms or distances or modes of self-consciousness within this sphere where it no longer makes sense to say that there's an exterior alternative?
Artist Thomas Hirschhorn:
The trap for an artist is not the market, not the business and not commerce, the danger is to lose the mission!

Art does matter today because: with art I can fight resentment, hate, and cynicism, as an artist I am a WARRIOR! I have no time to cultivate doubts. I do not want be self-critical. I do know I will be injured, I will be killed, but I want to work. I want to give! I want to do this in a rush. I do not want complain! What is more important then my doubts is my EMERGENCY, my URGENCY and my NECESSITY and my WILL to give form to them!
Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija:
I say, yes, art can change the world, but I don't know how. [Laughs] It used to be much more clear, what impact the statements and visions and images that artists have made have some impact on the world around it. But I also think it's always working at a different speed than other things. It's a different speed than politics. Even Beuys' Frei University and things like that, they have an impact, and still do, but in a very different speed. The idea that the Green Party is a coalition in the German government has a lot to do with that. I think it does, but I think you have to see it in the long term. We're actually in the space of possibility, so in that sense we have to try to work hard at using it and making it so that it's possible, whether it happens now or not, so it's possible to always have a way to use it.

...I've always thought art was kind of a space for possibilities. With that condition, I see it more as a place for making models, or modeling the possibilities… Art for me is the kind of space where differences can exist. It's a place where we can discuss and show and deal with our ideas. This is a place where it can happen where we can put it up, look at it, discuss it, and have our views on it."
Tiravanija on art activism:
I think I take direct response in relationship to myself. I'm always active alone. I have to do it myself, and if people want to do it, that's good. It’s not like I would say, let's go together and then do it. There are certain things that I would have to do directly myself, and there are certain things that are more of a group thing. But I think I understand that they have different speeds. The one that you directly act on is faster, and ones where you have to work with other people are slower. But I think that they are the kinds of modulations that one needs to have in response to what's going on around you.
Curator-critic Hou Hanru:
Take an example like Joseph Beuys. Of course he was very crazy claiming that he's going to change the world through his art, but I think his way of trying to change things is more metaphysical somehow. It’s not only through manipulating some popular find. In today's context, very often people who are interested in real change somehow have more distance from the popular signs of social communication. Sometimes there are some very strong artists who use a very simple, very abstract kind of gesture to evoke this kind of agenda of social change, rather than simply appropriating the existing signs.

...It always comes back to me that one very strong image is David Hammons. He did this very beautiful action which is very simple: he was selling snowballs. He was selling snowballs in Brooklyn on the street in the winter. He made different snowballs of different sizes, and he was selling them at different prices. This was such a strong critique about the logic of consumption society, and behind it, of course, was the whole notion between white and black and all these social issues. A simple gesture like this can, because the complexity being expressed through a very simple action, the tension between this simplicity and complexity, make a very strong social statement.


Brian said...

I have been thinking about this question a bit as of late in response to photographs and their ability to incite social change. Lately it has been argued that photography has 'lost' it's power to induce change and the images from Abu Gharib are evidence of this. The abuses continue, little changes...
But I have come to understand photography and art can only affect change when there is a corresponding movement that will use the art to further its cause.
For instance Lewis Hine at the turn of the century made his images documenting child labor in the many factories across the US. The difference is Hine was working for the National Child Labor Committee who used Hines pictures as propaganda for their movement to change labor practices.
In this sense all art has it's roots in propaganda, (or offers itself up for) from early byzantine roots to the US sending exhibits of abstract expressionism to Russia during the 1960's.
Where the power is, is in the creator's awareness to make images that are clear in an agenda, whether that agenda be political, abstract, meditative, etc...

Paul Schmelzer said...

That's an interesting point: without a corresponding movement, do the Abu Ghaib images just add to our sadness and the sense of powerlessness we feel in the face of cruelty? If there aren't any structures in place to direct our disgust or agitation....

I did a piece awhile back on Abu Ghraib and Susan Sontag's book Regarding the Pain of Others. As a photographer, you should definitely read it, Brian, if you haven't (here's what I wrote). She acknowledged the photograph's ripeness for co-optation by propagandists (or maybe she admitted that photos ARE propaganda) when she wrote that images of war’s victims are "a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus."

I was really struck by this: "Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand... Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us."

Unrelated: Hey, I wonder what it'd be like to have an online book club/blog. A friend in SF suggested it once, with the first book being Lakoff's, but it never happened. Any ideas, Brian or others? I'm starting Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated, if anyone's interested...

Unknown said...

I agree with Jennifer Gonzalez because she believes we need to have art in the world and that it could help our society. Photography could express how we feel about life depending on what objects are focused on in the picture. I will try to make my photos that I take more meaningful, so they have a purpose.
Koobs, period 3

Unknown said...

I agree with Jennifer Gonzalez in the sense that you dont know how art will change lives, how much effect it will have, or how lasting that is. It all comes down to this: Art CAN help society but its ultimately up to us on how we perceive it and what we do about it.

Unknown said...

I agree with @saraflores. We never know if it could change the world and we may never know