WHAT ART ACTIVISM ISN’T

DISCLAIMER

The contents of this article are for information and educational purposes only. Patriot Propaganda does not officially recommend using any of the tactics, techniques or procedures presented. 

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There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause. MAO TSE-TUNG

ART ACTIVISM ENCOMPASSES many practices, but it is also not many of the things people usually think of when they imagine art and activism combined; for instance, political art.

WHAT IT’S NOT

Political art is a crucial part of the art world, and no global biennale would be complete without it. However, most “political art” shown in museums, sold in galleries, or celebrated in art textbooks is usually art that focuses on political injustice as its subject matter or muse; a way for the artist to express their opinion or feelings about social problems or injustices.

The critic Lucy Lippard explains, “political art tends to be socially concerned and ‘activist’ art tends to be socially involved.”Political art is often created with the intention of provoking social change, but its actual political effect is usually an afterthought. In other words, it is art about politics, not art that has a direct purpose as a political instrument. This can be referred to as “Political expressionism,” which is a form of art that is used to express political ideas and opinions – but it’s not art activism. This is different from art activism, which is when art is used as a tool for activism and change. 

Often, organisations and advocacy groups will ask artists to design posters or banners, or donate their time and skills to raise money or awareness for a shared cause. However, art activism is not simply activism with art added on as a window dressing. Art techniques may make a protest more palatable or attractive, or profit a cause in some way, but without using creativity in the actual design of tactics, strategies, or goals from the beginning, these organisations are wasting a valuable resource. We call this “faux-finish politics,” and it is not art activism.

Art activism is neither purely art nor activism, but exists somewhere in between. Below are a series of scales that can help us think about art activism as a point on a spectrum between arts and activism.

ART ACTIVISM IS NOT ENOUGH

An important thing to note is that art activism should not be seen as a replacement for other forms of activism, such as legal action, voting, or community involvement. Good old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground activism is still necessary. We still need to organise those community meetings. We need to be persistent in badgering politicians and submitting legal challenges. All of that.

Art activism should not be used to replace other forms of art. There is a time and place for all sorts of artistic expression, be it exploring new creative mediums, experimenting with colour, capturing a moment of beauty in a song, or writing a poem about someone you fell in love with.

Traditional forms of activism work. Traditional art practices also work. Art activism can help to amplify the impact of traditional forms of activism and traditional art practices for specific purposes. It is important to have a variety of tools in our toolbox, and art activism is one of them. We all know that having limited ideas limits our possibilities, and a limited tool set limits our ability to act. A good activist or artist, like a good carpenter, has a big toolbox and is able to select the right tool for the right job at the right time.

EXERCISE: ART ACTIVISM IS ALL AROUND US

Time: 15 minutes

Art activism is everywhere. There are many ways to be an art activist. When you look around you can see examples in all sorts of political actions and social movements. These examples can give you inspiration to develop your own practice. This exercise will help you to look and learn.

1.     Think of your favourite social movement. It needn’t be art, just one you admire. It might be one you are part of, one you know a bit about, or one you know very little about but have always respected.

2.     Identify a particularly effective or provocative action used by that movement—one that captured a lot of attention, or simply one that moves you. Study it. You may want to spend a few minutes online doing research. How did it work? Draw an image of that action.

3.     Look at your drawing. What did you choose to include in the image? This might give clues as to how the activists employed what we call the “art of activism.” Were there striking visuals? Was there an element of performance? Music and sound? Did they use story and myth? Did they tap into popular culture? Was there some innovation? Something done for the first time? Other creative concepts? Write down at least three ways this movement used art activism:

Most successful activism uses some element of artistry, whether consciously or not. It’s there for us to learn and draw from, we just have to begin looking for it.

CONCLUSION

Art activism is a dynamic hybrid of art and activism, a shifting point on a line between these two poles. It is this in-between space where the practice resides. This is a space of tension, contradiction, experimentation, and generation. Creativity comes through combination. The new tool that you are using can help you to see your work differently and to imagine new tasks that can be done. Art activism is not just a tactic to help you be a better activist or more effective political artist, but a new way of seeing, working, and thinking that transforms both art and activism.

Next Article: THE CREATIVE PROCESS 

REFERENCES:

This article was adapted from Duncombe, Stephen, and Steve Lambert. The Art of Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible. OR Books, 2021.

Other References:

Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy. Serpent’s Tail, 2022.

Beer, Michael, et al. Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.

Popović, Srđa, and Hardy Merriman. CANVAS Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle: Students Book. Serbia, CANVAS, 2007.

Marovic, Ivan. The Path of Most Resistance: A Step-By-Step Guide to Planning Nonviolent Campaigns, 2nd Edition. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.

Sholette, Gregory. The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art. New York, United States, Macmillan Publishers, 2022.

Clark, Howard; Garate. Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns. Revised edition, War resisters’ International, 2022.

Thompson, Nato. Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century. Melville House, 2015. 

Gavin, Francesca, and Alain Bieber. The Art of Protest: Political Art and Activism. Gestalten, 2022.

Miller, Matthew, and Srđa Popović. Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Random House, 2015.

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage; Reissue edition, 1989.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. Ig Publishing, 2004.

Abbott, Daniel. The Handbook of 5GW: A Fifth Generation of War? Amsterdam, Netherlands, Adfo Books, 2021.

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