I was recently interviewed by Ms. Emily Wilcox, an art student at Western Kentucky University, as part of her undergraduate thesis research project conducted on the subject of “Art as Activism.” The results of our dialogue are a reasonable glimpse into my take on things, so I am publishing the interview here with the kind permission of Ms. Wilcox.
Q: How do you gauge whether an artwork is successful, in terms of social impact?
A: Making such an assessment is easier said than done. Like science, art is concerned with the truths of our existence, but it strives at discovering and making known these facts in a wholly different manner than that of scientific research and analysis. It is easy to quantify the successes and social impact of outstanding scientific work, but the achievements of art are much more difficult to evaluate. I would say that at the very least, a successful artwork reveals something profound about human experience.
Determining an artwork’s social impact is altogether another matter. Art slowly performs its work upon individuals, subtlety boring its way into the psyche, quietly touching the human heart and stirring the intellect. It lays open what can’t be measured or held and makes visible the invisible. The broad social influences of an artwork are usually not immediate, but are felt over time.
If on the other hand we are discussing advertising or propaganda, which are actually quite similar to one another, then calculating the effectiveness of a winning campaign is really quite a simple thing. Did the message reach the chosen demographic and did the target audience respond by behaving in the desired manner? But as I have stated – that is not how the higher arts function.
Q: What, in your view, is the strength of figurative realism when it comes to making a social statement?
A: Figurative realism conveys intent or feeling in an immediate, straightforward manner, communicating directly with the viewer, which is always of paramount importance to artists interested in conveying meaning to a mass audience. However, figurative art does not necessarily go hand in hand with meaningful content; undemanding figuration is not enough.
“Realism,” as I understand the word, is not just a specific aesthetic, but a way of examining, analyzing, and making comment upon certain objective conditions found in our world. For that reason, a non-figurative artwork can in actual fact successfully express profound social ideas – if created by an extremely thoughtful and skilled artist. That aside, I would argue that artists have always been involved, consciously or not, in the making of social statements, simply because art throughout the ages has been on the whole a social expression.
The earliest surviving panel paintings from ancient Greece, the Pitsa panels, were created around 540 BC by an anonymous artist who painted realistic figures in mineral pigments on stucco covered wood tablets. The paintings depicted the religious rituals that were widely practiced throughout Greece at the time. Because the artist painted a vision of a social construct, a representation of society as it was believed it should have been – it is impossible to see these paintings as anything less than social statement. Similarly, the Egyptians were creating incredibly realistic portrait paintings starting in the 1st century BC. The paintings were funerary death masks that were affixed to the mummies of those belonging to the upper class. Therefore, it is hard not to view the paintings as declarations pertaining to the legitimacy and supremacy of the Egyptian ruling class, i.e., art as social statement.
Q: Has anyone ever accused your work of being propaganda? If so, what is/was your response?
A: The English writer George Orwell once said that “All art is propaganda”, but he also clarified his statement by adding “on the other hand, not all propaganda is art.”
The accusation of being a propagandist has not been leveled at me personally, though the dominant view both inside and outside of the elite art world is that artists who deal with social topics are “political” artists, whereas artists who ignore social realities are deemed to have somehow risen above politics. That type of thinking is fallacious. I believe the term “political art” to be a pejorative, not unlike the label “propaganda.” The art of David Hockney or Damien Hirst is every bit as political as my own, but since their works essentially represent the status quo, they are thought of as apolitical artists.
An artwork commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici of Renaissance Florence demonstrated and enhanced his power and authority, making the art part of a political process. The same type of political undertaking is engaged in when the modern day equivalent to a Medici purchases a multi-million dollar artwork or finances a new wing at a museum. When I maintain that all art is political, I am not referring to the content of the art as much as I am the social relationships it is a party to. There are innumerable examples of how art is politicized by social construct, and it is essential to understand this.
Q: Your blog “Art for a Change” is unique because of its focus on socially conscious and transformative art, something that’s often not explicitly covered in news media or academia. What motivated you to start blogging about that topic?
A: I started my web log because I wanted people to think about art and politics in new ways. The catch-phrase “Art for a Change” was a response to an art world scandalously self-absorbed and detached from reality, a rejoinder that declared, “let’s have some art, for a change!” But the name also had an overt political meaning that was compatible with a web log given to examining the intersection between art and politics.
Q: You say that art “points the way to a world at last inhabitable.” At the same time, so much of politically or socially charged art – both your own work and the work of others currently and historically – involves depicting the despairs and tragedies of injustice. How can artists strike a balance between spotlighting the problems and creating a vision of the future?
A: To say that art points the way to a world at last inhabitable, is not to refer to this or that type of art, nor is it sanctioning one set of aesthetics over another. What it means is that the very act of making art, of being an artist, of participating in and appreciating art – can open the door to a very different kind of society. Plainly that is not enough, as history gives ample evidence of art being used to either liberate or dull the mind, so I am obviously referring to art that is unfettered by market demands and unleashed from the dictates of the politically powerful.
Art is intellectual work of the highest order, but it also has much to do with comprehending and moving the human soul, of plumbing those depths and finding what is real and valuable. Art can not only connect us with history, community, the world, ourselves, it gives us the power to dream and to imagine the impossible. In that sense it represents something that cannot have a price tag put upon it – that is the true subversive nature of art.
Concerning an artist’s use of “despairing” imagery in order to make a point about the state of society or of some injustice in the world. Visual representations of the horrific outrages humans have perpetrated against each other have always been part of art’s vocabulary, and I think it is a perfectly acceptable way of trying to appeal to a viewer’s better nature. When art brings attention to something intolerable about society, it could be said that people first react by recognizing their part in that society, then feel shame for their direct or indirect responsibility in the grievance, and finally – are spurred to seek a corrective to the wrongdoing. That is certainly one way of looking at the matter.
However, capitalism in the 21st century has given rise to art where humanity is relentlessly portrayed as base, venal, empty, and ugly in every respect, an aesthetic that is very much in vogue at present. But when such art goes untempered by images that speak of the decency, kindness, and solidarity the human race is capable of; an entirely false picture is painted of humanity, one that actually mirrors the system itself.
Q: Is there any advice you’d like to give to artists who want to make socially relevant and transformative work?
A: If artists want to make socially relevant work, then they need to be socially relevant. It is necessary to forsake the studio in favor of the streets. Parenthetically, I do not mean trying to become the next graffiti or street art star. I am referring to becoming immersed in one’s own community and learning about the lives of real people – as well as the commotion and turbulence of the world at large. Profound social engagement in art is not something to be conjured up on a whim by those privileged with an art school degree, it comes as a result of life experience and a serious understanding of the social forces that make up and drive society.