Art can change the world. Art did already change worlds and the lives of many by transforming them into something else, other, new.
Some say it’s “the nature of art to challenge to create openings where one can envision something outside the realm of what already exists for oneself, one’s community, and the world” (Krensky & Steffen, 2009, p.5). Surely we may believe this is not always the case. Art can also be uncritical, detached, accepting, or conventional (Schehner, 2006) but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to find instances where art acts as an important element in bringing about change, intentionally, where social change is part of the artistic process itself.
Activist art, in its various forms, is the most common current example of art seen as a “powerful medium for social and political change” (Dikson, 1995, p.18). Writing in the 1980s, Lucy Lippard (1991) saw activist art as a product of the practices of experimental or avant-garde artists, of artists working with or within political organizations (‘political artists’) and of community artists working with grassroots groups. She also noted already then a tendency for these three camps to increasingly overlap. The blurred lines between these three routes to activist art are maybe even clearer today but their traces are often still present.
Purposefully engaging in criticizing existing structures and participating in structural change (Lippard, 1984), activist art aims at social transformation and addresses social and political issues (Felshin, 1995). This doesn’t mean that artists can, alone, directly or immediately change the world (Lippard, 1991). Instead, it signals a certain awareness, choice and commitment of some artists to take part, with others, in the motions of worlds changing (Lippard, 1991; Felshin, 1995; Schehner, 2006). Activist art therefore often inscribes itself in the public, engages the public in interchange and interaction, and creates a public while challenging the boundaries between artist and non-artist (Krensky & Steffen, 2009). Much artistic activist work is in fact collaborative or participatory, and its meaning often dependent of and bounded by the collective processes it derives from. Artists reach “out as in” as they try “to combine social action, social theory, and the fine arts tradition, in a spirit of multiplicity and integration, rather than one of narrowing choices” (Lippard, 1991, p.187).
The relational, collaborative or participatory element of this art is even more present in community art. In community art artists work with communities to create art that brings their issues and their messages to the public (Krensky & Steffen, 2009). Not all community art is equally politicized – “[s]ome community art reflects its local situation, some stimulates active participation in its situation, some criticizes and mobilizes for change in that situation” (Lippard, 1991, p.194) – even though community artists tend to see participation as a process contributing to the empowerment of those communities involved in the creative process (Dikson, 1995).
Unlike other forms of public art, community art, by virtue of its commitment to participation and democracy, is particularly useful to community development efforts. It will seek to engage with a community, with its issues, in its own terms. It will learn about the community and provide the opportunities for the community to face its realities and find understandings and visions of how it could be different and changed (Mattern & Love, 2013). Art becomes powerful in making appear in public what was not yet visibly, hadn’t yet appeared to be seen or recognized and by acting as a catalyst to transformation. As Dewey pointed out “[t]he first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art. (…) Change in the climate of imagination is the precursor of the changes that affect more than the details of life” (Dewey, 1934, pp.345-346).
In a community art context – when its activist orientation is acknowledged, and transformation becomes entwined with creative processes – artistic practices can become community development practices. In fact, both can be closely woven together as they share important concerns: a concern with democracy and social justice; a concern with participation and empowerment; a concern with (a truly dialogical) process (over product); a concern with valuing communities, their knowledge and interests; and a concern with inclusion and pluralism (which is also a concern with productive conflict).
Community development as a strategy based on the sharing of knowledge and devolution of power which “emphasizes participation by community members themselves in constructing and implementing change processes” (Menezes, 2010, p.104). The concern with participation and empowerment appears immediately here. Participation, and participation with power, is central to any community development process which respects and values community members and does not treat them as objects to be manipulated or forced into some externally imposed change (Orford, 2008). A similar concern is often expressed by artists in community art where emphasis is placed on collaboration – between participating artists, between artists and community members and between community members themselves – in a process that shares knowledge and power in the various phases of the artistic process (Dikson, 1995; Lippard, 1991). Participating with others, and not for others (or even in spite of them), as making art with others and not for others, brings forth the concern with the relational and dialogical process. Authentic dialogue builds trust and the conditions for more legitimate and effective change (Menezes, 2010). Both creating art and creating change in a community requires openness to listening to and learning with each other. Besides, authentic dialogue needs an equalizing and respectful attitude from those involved. Professionals (and artists) accompanying these processes must not act as experts. Instead, they should focus on facilitating and supporting the reflection and conscientization processes through which community members come to understand their situation and define their problems (Montero, 2003; Orford 2008). Efforts should be made to ensure participation is as large and wide as possible, that it integrates diverse groups and different perspectives. Communities are social places where exclusion and power asymmetries are also reproduced. Creating and facilitating change must be an opportunity to include and confront injustice present in the community. This is only possible if the issues of power (and productive conflict) are not ignored and if differences are acknowledged from an inclusive and pluralist point of view (Menezes, 2010; Mattern & Love, 2013). Like the coming together of different voices in a choir, it is not as easy task. Community development and community art are very demanding processes. Their shared emphasis on transformation through participation and their commitment to social justice through an enlarged and deepened democracy make it particularly so. This means community art must go one step further when compared to other forms of activist art. It must be “simultaneously critical, positive, and progressive”, as Aagerstoun and Auther (2007, p.vii) define feminist activist art, and work to expose the structures that create injustice, to express, value and posit alternatives that bring to the public new possibilities of being and to strive for more democratic, egalitarian and inclusive ways of living together. And it must be more than that. It is not enough that the work of the artist becomes concerned with the world in the making and with “how spaces of attention, hope, interest, affiliation, entanglement, commitment, passion, empathy, possibility, and imagination are crafted when people pause to reflect on what it means to be together” (Martin, 2006, p.16), it is necessary that artists themselves (and their art) adopt a different role, the role of citizens working with communities (Mattern & Love, 2013) in liberating their imagination and acting to create new and better futures together.
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