In what ways do the arts precede activism? In what ways does activism provoke the arts? And how do the comings together of the arts and activism enable people to re-experience the potentials of the world? Writer, activist, cultural advocate, and Chicago native Jane M. Saks has been probing such questions for decades. Furthermore, the commonality of art and activism is Saks’ belief that “human dignity” is the core for any form of social justice within artistic practices.
One such example of Saks’ pursuit for human dignity through the lens of art making is her work as Artistic Director of Project&. As the mission of Project& states:
According to artist Paula Crown, the #iamFOR exhibition on display at the For Freedoms headquarters incorporates, examines, and explores themes of environmentalism, racial awareness, and identity politics.
Located in the heart of the Meatpacking District in NYC, onlookers are provocatively greeted by and confronted with Crown’s environmentally probing piece, Humble Hubris: Don’t know what you got (till its gone) bench (2018), outside Fort Gansevoort, at 51 Gansevoort Street, NYC: “If you think you’re hot now, just wait.”
This statement, especially given its location—which is surrounded by all kinds of NYC construction—makes obvious the tangled mess of urbanization, commercialization, and industrialization. Notice, too, how Crown’s piece is juxtaposed with the seemingly dead vines clinging to the lattice work outside the edifice and the winding coils of cables adjoined to the outlet in back of the artwork. What does all this mean?
Additionally, situated in the window just around the corner from Humble Hurbis are Not banners (2018). As stated by the exhibit:
In the 18thcentury, anthropologists and cartographers created hierarchies and vocabularies that continue to haunt us, labeling the world with colonial perceptions of human difference. Classification of human beings by color is a social construct dismantled by scientific truth. Artist Paula Crown’s NOT paintings prompt viewers to compare themselves with the subjective taxonomies of the past, to invalidate prior modes of categorization and to demand nuance and agency.
Moreover, it is worth noting that one of the construction signs posted next to Fort Gansevoort, and catty-corner to the Not banners, is a call for vehicles to “use alternate” means of maneuvering through the area. Of course, neither the For Freedoms group, nor Crown, would have expected this kind of coincidence. That is, it is provocative that NYC is asking motorists for “caution” and to take alternative traffic routes when Crown invites her artwork visitors to reconsider the routes they use to move through the world!
There’s much more to the #iamFOR exhibition. If you happen to be in NYC, be sure to experience it for yourself.
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, stated: “One of the reasons we should be so proud is this piece of art is from an Iraqi American of Jewish faith to be displayed in the greatest city in the world … And the creation and installation of this piece of art is an act of resistance against the tyranny of religious fanaticism. It is an act of resistance against the acts of philistinism. But it is also a celebration of who we are as a city: confident in who we are, pluralistic, welcoming and diverse.”
In doing so, the conference asked the essential and age-old question: What do artists do? Undoubtedly, artists view the world in unique ways. And, through their artwork, help us confront our realities—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thus, at the heart of this kind of work is the concept of “artistic citizenship” and being an “artist-as-citizen.”
Meet one artistic citizen: Helen Marriage. Director of “Artichoke,” Marriage stays clear of traditional “artistic spaces”— the gallery, concert hall, theater or dance studio—and instead transforms the streets, squares, gardens and coastlines of the public spaces around the UK.
At the heart of Marriage’s projects is accessibility and equity, and the notion that all people have the right to experience artwork for free.
One such project was Great Fire 350, dedicated to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the London fire of 1666.
While this project, one among many, speaks for itself, a few aspects deserve special mentioning. Throughout 2016, London marked a season of exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and tours. A festival, really, of the power of the arts to provoke the imagination, Great Fire 350 included an underwater performance art-work, a domino-esque sculpture that snaked throughout London’s streets, which outlined the various roadways of the 1666 fire, and ended with a live re-burning of a model of 1666 London on the Thames River. This grandiose festival implied numerous aspects about social life. Primarily, though, Great Fire 350 highlighted a beautiful and powerful resilience of a city and its peoples to be re-born.
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible.” – bell hooks
What is “artivism” and why should it matter? In Chapter 10, Rodney Diverlus helps our readers better understand the concept of “artivism,” or art + activism; or “activism through art.”
An independent, Canada-based dancer, choreographer, and community organizer, Diverlus introduces, deconstructs, and dissects the concept of “artivism” and explains its manifestations, purposes, and social values. While recognizing the need for abstract, personal, form-driven, and curiosity-driven art making, Diverlus argues for the universal application of artivism, for a symbiotic relationship between art and activism. Diverlus investigates art makers as agents of social change, explains the juxtapositions of personal and political art, and argues for the importance of dance as a tool of communal engagement. Additionally, he proposes that arts educators radicalize arts-based education as a way of introducing artivism to students and emerging artists.
For Diverlus, artivism is both a vision and a call to action. It is a continuation of the age-old question: Why create?
Here, see Diverlus’ collaborative work excerpted from The Spectrum Project’s “(de)liberate”; A queer- themed dance theatre show on negotiating space, our bodies, and communal existence.
willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other.
Domestic violence is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. It is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior that is only a fraction of a systematic pattern of dominance and control. Domestic violence can result in physical injury, psychological trauma, and in severe cases, even death. The devastating physical, emotional, and psychological consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and last a lifetime.
In response to domestic violence, one letter to the editor of The New York Times asks: “Do we endorse this cruelty in silence? Or do we stand together to protect the most vulnerable among us?”
Artist Cat Del Buono is standing up and outwardly doing something about this. In one such project, Voices, funded by a grant from Baang + Burne Contemporary, Del Buono spent two years
interviewing domestic violence survivors at shelters in Miami, Hartford, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. After filming only their mouths to keep the women anonymous, Del Buono created an installation of 20 small monitors with the lips of the survivors speaking of their personal experience. When viewers walk into the exhibit, the multiple voices create a symphony of unrecognizable words. Only when you approach an individual monitor do you hear their personal and traumatic stories and how they have gotten out of their situations. The necessity of this movement on the part of viewers acts as a metaphor: only when one gets close do they learn of the individual’s traumatic experiences. As a society, we must not allow the epidemic of domestic violence and those who are affected by it to remain an invisible, inaudible crowd of statistics.
Here is a sample of one of the video installations
Voices has travelled across the United States, and was recently exhibited at Blue Sky Gallery, Bronx Museum, Winthrop University, Art Palm Beach, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami where it was accompanied by a panel discussion open to the public. Local NPR radio host Bonnie Berman moderated the panel consisting of domestic abuse survivor, a local advocate, teen violence advocate, the museum’s director of international programs, and Del Buono.
Del Buono received a BA from Boston College, an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and attended the graduate film program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Trained as a photographer and filmmaker, Del Buono creates video installations and public happenings. She incorporates performance, interactive video, and humor as ways to engage and impact her viewers.
The heart of Artistic Citizenship asks artists of all kinds, whether amateur or professional and across all arts domains, to ask critically important questions, such as:
What responsibilities do artists have to engage in art work for social transformation?
One organization—or, “super PAC” as they call themselves—aptly named “For Freedoms,” not only interrogates this question, but also activates this question for those whom engage with their artistry. As Celia McGee writes:
Founded by Hank Willis Thomas, a photographer and conceptual artist, and Eric Gottesman, a video artist and activist, the super PAC is named after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” wartime address in 1941 — a call to safeguard the freedoms of speech and worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.
As the first artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms uses art to inspire deeper political engagement for citizens who want to have a greater impact on the American political landscape.
We believe that artists, and art, play an important role in galvanizing our society to do better. We are frustrated with a system in which money, divisiveness, and a general lack of truth-telling have stifled complex conversation. We created the first artist-run super Pac because we believe it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process.
What can we learn about the role of art in politics from For Freedoms? We leave this up to you to decide. For now, we urge you to think-through today through the lens of the actions and activism of For Freedoms.
“Artistic citizenship” is a concept with which we hope to encapsulate our belief that artistry involves civic-social-humanistic-emancipatory responsibilities, obligations to engage in art making that advances social “goods.” The terms artist, artistry, and artistic as we use them are not elitist. By “artists” we mean to include people of all ages (from youth to adults) and levels of technical accomplishment (from amateur to professional practitioners) who make and partake of art(s) of all kinds, in contexts ranging from informal to formal, with the primary intent ofmaking positive differences in people’s lives. Whereas artistic proficiency entails myriad skills and understandings, artistic citizenship implicates additional commitments to act in ways that move people—both emotionally and in the sense of mobilizing them as agents of positive change. Artistic citizens are committed to engaging in artistic actions in ways that can bring people together, enhance communal wellbeing, and contribute substantially to human thriving.
In framing this book’s project we invited contributors across art disciplines to share their research, their practical projects and strategies, their experiences, and their insights as artistic citizens. We deliberately left open the meaning of “artistic citizenship,” however, in order to allow a range of interpretations and perspectives to emerge. The result is, we think, an imaginative and inspiring collection of essays, richly suggestive in their range and scope. They address and explore quite a number of interlocking and provocative questions, including these:
What does “citizenship” mean and how might these meanings relate to our understandings of the privileges and obligations that attend artistic practices?
How might “artistic citizenship” differ from (or resemble) citizenship in general?
In what ways and to what extent do art-makers and art-takers have responsibilities (or obligations) to deploy the potentials of the arts to advance social justice, human rights, and the like?
What personal, social, cultural, educational, political, therapeutic, economic, and health-giving “goods” can artistic engagements (amateur or professional) facilitate?
What ethical issues and responsibilities attend the concept of art making as force for advancing positive social and political change?
How might artistic citizens engage the “general public” in artistic projects designed to serve diverse public, social, cultural, political interests?
How can ethically-oriented artistry contribute to the mitigation of racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and ethnocentricism, and other forms of social injustice?
What abilities and dispositions of body-mind and heart do amateur and professional artists require if they are to engage in, develop, and expand the possibilities and potentials of artistic citizenship?
What historical precedents can inform and refine our understandings of the “why, what, how, who, where, and when” of artistic citizenship?
What are the most effective strategies and tactics that artist-activists (or “artivists”[i]) to confront problems like racial violence, poverty, disease, discrimination, and the like?
What are the specific or distinctive potentials of particular artistic endeavors for fulfilling the commitments and responsibilities of artistic citizenship?
How can school and community arts education programs develop young people’s habits of heart and mind in and through socially responsible art making?
Additional questions and issues emerge from the chapters in the book, questions too numerous to list here. But the questions, discussions, and actions to which the book’s essays lead will be the ultimate measure of this project’s significance. We leave it to our readers, then, to carry these conversations forward—to follow the leads offered by contributors to this volume. Although we cannot know precisely the form those ideas may eventually assume, it is our hope that they will involve continuous critical dialogue across artistic disciplines about the ethical potentials of artistry, the nature of artistic responsibility, and the remarkable capacities of art to improve our neighborhoods, our societies, and our world.
[i] The concept of “artivism” and therefore “artivist” can be found in Rodney Diverlus’ chapter (in this volume) and also Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre (2007). Chicana/o Artivism: Judy Baca’s Digital Work with Youth of Color, in Anna Everett (Ed.) Learning Race and Ethnicity, (pp. 81-108), MIT Press.
Sometime during the day of Friday, November 19, 2016, the cast and crew of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s prize-winning Broadway musical, were informed that U.S. Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence and his family would be in the audience that night. And so it was that the stage was set for “a play within a play.” As Pence entered the Richard Rogers Theatre with hundreds of others, he was greeted with a mix of boos and applause.
As the musical progressed, and specific lines and songs were performed, it was as if Miranda had written them explicitly for this post-election, political-moment-in-time. Not surprisingly, then, after King George III (played by Rory O’Malley) sang “When your people say they hate you / Don’t come crawling back to me,” the cheering and shouting was so intense that he had to ask for quiet so the play could resume.
Instead of the usual curtain call, and as Pence began exiting the theater, lead-actor, Brandon Victor Dixon—who plays third Vice-President Aaron Burr—implored Pence and his family to remain a little longer because Dixon had more to say. As Pence waited, Dixon read a statement written by Miranda, director Thomas Kail, and producer Jeffrey Seller:
We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents . . . We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.
Newspapers, online media, and critics have dubbed this “the Hamilton episode” because this performance-and-post-performance event not only marked a significant moment in American political discourse, it went beyond “another day in the life” of American musical theater: the Hamilton episode “troubled”—literally and figuratively—many ways in which art-making, politics, race, gender, history, and other aspects of life are always inseparable, and the ways in which art-making and “art-taking” can perform peaceful and effective social protest.
The Hamilton episode touched on LGBTQ issues, which were shamefully under-discussed during the [recent U.S. election] campaign and remain so now. It touched on immigration; on race; on the impact and value of protest speech; on the president-elect’s temperament; on his demands for opponents to capitulate; on his disdain for First Amendment freedoms (his quartet of Hamilton tweets was consistent with his post-election attacks on public protestors and on the New York Times); and on the worries of several large populations that the Trump administration will demonize them and make them less safe.
This episode also raises questions about the old 19th-century notion of “art for art’s sake” and the actuality of “art for people’s sake”—i.e., art making for the positive transformation of one’s own and others’ personhood and social communities. When a person creates a piece of music, or writes a poem, s/he is not doing it for the benefit of another piece of music, or another poem—i.e., art for art’s sake—but for the benefit of people.
Restated as a question: What are the roles and responsibilities of art-makers and art-takers? Are we only producers and consumers, or something else? Is the Hamilton episode an act of socially positive, participatory art-making, where actors and spect-actors (see Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed) are not part of a normal music theater experience, but are equal participants in a multidimensional political and educational journey of artistic-social responsibility and ethical praxis? If so, then they are involved in a socially transformative, “ethical spectacle.”
People like President-Elect Donald Trump—who demanded an apology from the cast of Hamilton (so much for “free speech” in Trump’s America)—and those who consider social-participatory and applied art-making, or artivism, a threat to their comfortable beliefs, probably do not understand the potency of the arts. The arts can unsettle us, move us to reconsider our beliefs and motivations, and question our worlds. The arts are not “safe places” and likely should not be, especially now.
The real work of a “work of art” is not simply to show, but to tell. It’s essential that we (amateurs and professionals) put our artistic endeavors to work for the safety and well-being of people who are under attack. It’s essential that we engage actively in Artistic Citizenship.
When thinking of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s typical to reflect on the world’s great writers and past winners: Alice Munro, Harold Pinter, Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Octavio Paz, to name only a few. This year, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has won because, as the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said, Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Granting this award to Bob Dylan signifies important things. First, songs and their lyrics are as much poetic devices as “pure” poetry. This thinking dates back to ancient Greek poets, who recited their poetry to music. In fact, and because of this, ancient Greek poetry is not so much thought of as collections of “poems,” but as “songs.” In Greek times, the culture of poetry was the culture of song. Bob Dylan is being recognized for carrying forward this ancient tradition.
Also, and while the Academy recognizes Dylan’s contribution to the fields of folk, rock, pop music, and popular culture, this Nobel Prize signifies something important for artistic citizenship. Dylan’s songwriting oftentimes took an activist stance. Indeed, Dylan felt that songs could and would change the world. As David Yaffe notes, once Dylan got involved with CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), “he began writing songs about Emmett Till, Hattie Carroll, and James Meredith.” He created “words that would be belted out at the March on Washington by Peter, Paul, and Mary ‘How many years can some people exist until they’re allowed to be free.’” And while Dylan’s musical “art-ivism” ebbed and flowed throughout his career, his songs remain and continue to powerfully engage and transform the world.
Equally important, the Academy’s move shows that distinctions between so-called “high art” and “low art” are arbitrary categories that are no longer useful. Indeed, Dylan’s poetic songs engage in/with the world and do worldly work. “The times they are a changing,” sang Dylan. Yes, they have. Congratulations to Bob Dylan, poet of America for the world!