Art is as old as human presence on earth and predates all other cultural expressions in its enduring presence and impact, as cave art from our distant past can testify. In the hands of a skilful and imaginative artist, art is a powerful medium that evokes a multitude of emotions, sometimes involuntary in its expression. John Berger, author of the seminal piece Ways of Seeing, in his essay on Caravaggio, talks of complicity between the artist and the viewer. It seems we connect most, not with art that depicts the world, but where it is a vision shared by the artist.
The Art and Social Cause Forum, held as part of the two-week Cause and Effect exhibition at 107 Redfern St, takes this concept of shared vision and connection one step further by exploring the notion of art being an instigator of social change.
Is art more than creative expression in its highest form? Can it draw attention to the socio-political, human rights, and environmental issues we are facing on a global scale? thereby increase mass awareness, and in doing so, inspire and incite the public to challenge the status quo to address these issues? Certainly the six speakers at the forum, Grace Partridge (ARTillery), Jiva Parthipan (STARTTS), Lena Nahlous (Diversity Arts Australia), Mia Zahra (NSW Family and Community Services), Paula Abood (Cultural and Community Development practitioner) and Priscilla Brice-Weller (All Together Now), thought so. There is consensus in the view that not only is art capable of being a tool, medium, and muse for social change, but now, more than ever, is the time for this potential to be realised. The practitioners shared their experiences and provided examples of the positive outcomes that result when artistic endeavours intersect with collective action.
Grace spoke about art having the power to move people and influence outcomes through reflection and action. The stories told that deeply and profoundly touch our hearts and connect us to our authentic selves are illustrated through some powerful collective projects in recent years: #LetThemStay protest with crib installations protesting the Federal deportation of refugees to Nauru; Constance on Edge, a social impact project that raised crowd funding of half a million dollars through its documentation of the South Sudanese refugee experience in Wagga; Vox Pop during Refugee Week 2016 surveying impressions and feedback from the public, received positive press on radio and TV from the personal stories that were heard; and the growing success of Arab women speaking circles in fostering connections and sharing stories. With so much of history being revisionist, art allows authentic voices to be heard and situates current issues holistically.
However, even in the realm of social activism, there are contentious questions: Who gets to be the artist? And who are the viewers? The loudest voices are usually the most heard, and this has never been truer than in this context. One can witness the far-reaching effects of inflammatory policies in today’s mainstream news, especially via media sound bites. There is also the notion of art being elitist along with the old model of viewers being passive recipients. This and other pitfalls, which Jiva alludes to, such as bias and delusions of grandeur in the artist, result in art for art’s sake, or even art talking to itself, casting doubts on the meaningfulness and higher purpose of art. The politics of art also means that the artists who do not conform to mainstream ideas are vulnerable to suppression and discrimination. Oppressive structures and systems will not change unless the voices and experiences of vulnerable and marginalised groups are heard. Hence, there is a compelling case for art projects to provide safe spaces for people to share their stories as advocated by Paula. MLC Gallery, run by artist-activist Miriam Cabello, addresses some of these needs through call-outs, making spaces for emerging artists through providing training, mentorships and exhibition opportunities – thereby adding education to the heady mix of art and activism.
The forum shared further strategies to extend the influence of art, while addressing some of the challenges highlighted. The de-sensitisation and saturation – resulting from the overload of issues in the media – can lead to feelings of hopelessness and disengagement in the community. ARTillery’s antidote to this is to combat apathy “one artwork at a time”. Lena, a community and cultural development (CACD) artist-activist with twenty odd years of experience, believes in the power of interactive art involving communities and audiences. Multi modal, visual, and sensory approaches synergising theatre, music, technology, digital media, and art can deepen audience engagement in social issues and move stakeholders to change social policies. Priscilla advocates “preaching to the choir”, targeting those who are open to change as well as using dominant media and techniques to challenge thinking and nudging people beyond their comfort zones, with the Comedy v Racism event and I’m Not Racist But…forum forming examples of this approach.
However, as Lena points out, there are potential landmines around challenging established structures and systems involving gatekeepers, constraints and censorships related to government as well as private funding. There are anecdotes of projects being canned for criticising government policies. Clearly, it is not enough being provocateurs; the artist-activist needs to negotiate and balance objectives and outcomes so that the integrity of their work is achieved. A number of speakers, including Mia, also emphasised the importance of networking and forming collaborations between artists, businesses, and community groups, and leveraging on advocates and unlikely alliances, to reach out to a wider audiences, while procuring the underlying funding and resources required to support these efforts.
It is truly an interesting coincidence, a felix culpa of sorts, that the laws of physics unintentionally invoked in the Cause and Effect exhibition, through reference to Newton’s third law of motion “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”, provides an unusual juxtaposition between the fields of art and science. This writer would like to think of it as an art of living meeting the science of action, paving the way for creative means of addressing social issues and opening up new frontiers in social engagement, which this forum has excelled in highlighting through the keynote contributions of practitioners immersed in both worlds.
It is hoped that the seeds of change continues to be propagated through the tireless efforts of artists, social activists and communities joining forces innovatively.