The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. The topography on which the activist fights may no longer be the mountains of the Sierra Maestra or the jungles of Vietnam, but the lesson still applies. Today, the political landscape is one of signs and symbols, story and spectacle. Responding to this new terrain, there has been an upsurge in the use of creative, artistic, and cultural strategies as a tool for social change. This practice goes by many names: political art, activist art, interventionist art, socially engaged art, and social practice art. No matter the description, artists are using their aesthetic training and skill to wage battles for social change. Yet as practitioners and trainers in these forms of artistic activism, we are haunted by the question: Does it work?
So we started asking artists whose work we respect this very question:
SD&SL: As a political artist, how do you know when what you’ve done works?
Hans Haacke: I’ve been asked that question many times, and that question requires one to go around it before one really avoids it.
The above is just one example, and Haacke’s response is meant to be humorous, but in asking scores of talented and sophisticated activist artists this seemingly simple question, and in surveying hundreds of examples of activist art, we were struck by the inadequacy of the conceptualisation of the relationship between arts and demonstrable social change. Unfortunately, much of what passes for activist art seems to be aimed at four hazy targets:
The Whole World is Watching. The artist determines the success of a particular practice by the amount of media coverage it generates. If the work is covered by the mainstream news media, or the art press, or is noticed by the activist and arts communities at all, then the artist can count this as a success. This is not merely self-aggrandisement: the function of the media coverage is often thought of as a means to “raising awareness” and bringing the political or social issue to the attention of a wider audience.