Does art cause meaningful social change or stifle it? People will tell you that one of the many purposes of art is to effect social change. They will tell you that it is the role of the artist to see differently and in so doing, propagate new ideas and new ways of considering the situation, among the populace at large. Heck, even I tell you that. But is it entirely true? Does art cause significant, long-lasting, monumental, paradigm-shifting social change? What if it does the opposite? What if it constrains and stifles authentic social change?
Art is frequently a pre-cursor to innovation and there is no doubt at all that innovation (and especially technical innovation), can lead to seismic social changes. We all use mobile phones now (or most of us) and that change is both social and quite profound. It is also becoming long-lived. But is it particularly meaningful? In the big scheme of things, has man’s lot changed significantly for the better, due to their invention? If anything, we’re more nagged, managed, tracked, pecked, intruded upon, checked-up on, obligated and interrupted than ever before, due to their invention. We’ve lost some freedom and peace of mind. Is that a positive social change in reality?
Social change through art has become a somewhat clichéd and hackneyed activity. The stereotypical artist rails and rages against the machine, but his ranting and fulminating is, all too often, largely ineffective and ineffectual, regardless of his chosen medium of expression. If I were somebody quite satisfied with the status quo, because it benefitted me and I didn’t care about anybody else, then dissipating and directing dissent toward a harmless, if noisy and colourful discharge would seem like the perfect way to keep things the way they were. As a member of these elite, I would want people’s frustrations and indignation at the injustice of it all to be converted, through art, into lots of chaos, agitation and turbulence, signifying nothing. Nothing is materially changed. After the tantrum, all is as it was.
If anything, art has been associated with a culture of extreme individualism – the artist against the world. In electing to perpetuate this lone gunslinger model, artists voluntarily surrender the power of collective unity and action. By conforming to the model of the highly individual, unruly, ungovernable artist, social change is effectively emasculated. The power of numbers is sliced into single person sized units and each individual is easily dissuaded from effective action, one by one. Artist by artist.
We grew up, over the last sixty years, thinking that to rebel against the culture meant signing up to the values of the stereotypical counter culture – a culture characterised by inert passivity and drug addled impotence, if not incompetence. Stick it to the man by withdrawing, contemplating your navel, chanting slogans and ensuring that your thinking apparatus is in no fit state to cause anything in the world, outside of your own consciousness, to change. Worry about yourself. Become the centre of your own universe. Be self-centred, self-involved and selfish. Whatever you do, don’t organise. Don’t join together. Don’t awaken. Remain in a state of stupor. Stay separate and stoned. Good doggie. Again, for the global elite, discharging the dissent through the promotion of a vegetative counter culture suited their purposes to a tee. It looked like rebellion, but was little more than slipping the collar around our own necks and rolling over. Artists, I regret to say, were at the vanguard of promoting this “alternative”, which proved to be no alternative at all.
Your revolutions will be permitted, so long as you have no credible plan for post revolution organisation. If you overthrow the “old”, through your revolution, the powers that be simply install whatever “new” suits them best, in the ensuing vacuum. Things initially appear to be different, but they’re really the same. You just exchanged puppet despots. Your revolution was nothing of the sort. Artists, in fomenting revolution, so rarely have provided us with a model of post-revolution society that actually worked, or that people would embrace as whole-heartedly as they rejected what was overthrown. Artists have an exceptionally poor record, in this field.
You might think that none of this matters. You might believe that the inability for artists to change things for the better is of no consequence. They still get to paint and sing, after all. But what happens if (or when) the powers that be turn on us and want us to get the hell off their planet – the planet they claim they own, which they think they have bought and paid for, within the rules of their own twisted thought game: the global economy? Things become serious and grave, at that point.
If such a state of affairs came to pass, what would you do to change things? Protest? Sign a petition? Push the “Like” button on facebook a few more times? Post internet memes? Write to your MP? Organise a sit down demonstration in a public square, while the paid up forces of state violence rain tear gas, truncheons, tasers and live ammunition down upon you? Maybe you’ll paint a big community mural or organise a fund raising concert in a public park, with bands that waive their appearance fee, but see their record sales skyrocket. You might write an acidic, subtly barbed, sarcastic poem. You might even blog about it. I’m sure all of those things are bound to stop the extermination, aren’t they?
If we’re brutally honest, what is the track record of art and artists causing permanent and beneficial social change actually like? Did the previous decades change anything of any significance, or are we as subjugated and serf-like as we always were, but with shinier toys? Was it a blow for the rights of women to merely make it the accepted norm for more women than ever before, in history, to work in dead-end jobs, for less pay than a man doing equivalent work? Is that liberation? When will the perpetual wars we’ve been protesting against since Vietnam actually cease? We are no more a classless society today than we were in the fifties, if you’re honest about it. It’s just that the “classes” are not so grotesquely and cartoonishly caricatured any longer. They’ve morphed into different demographic groups with different names, but the one percent remains the one percent. The same old bad pennies still turn up at the top.
In fact, some artists have colluded with the powers that be to mint the unofficial currency of the elite – art as a store of value. They create art as units of exchange, to be bought and sold for astronomical prices in exclusive auction houses. Their art is purpose-produced to be art as the medium of liquidity for only the very wealthiest. It has become a status symbol. It is a hedge against the vagaries of stocks, bonds and forex. Some artists play right along, producing limited editions and tightly controlling the scarcity of their works – manipulating its value, thereby. The trick is to make it desirable to the wealthiest. It helps, ironically, if the artist died some time ago but the artists that prop up this trade, who are alive today, haven’t quite figured out how to be both alive and dead at the same time, yet.
For art to actually cause meaningful social change, rather than containing, constraining and hindering it, maybe we need to move beyond the bounds of the popular conception of what art is for and of what an artist is. The stereotypes, to which so many conform, are not working. Change isn’t happening. But artists have the power of communication. They have the skills and tools to spread remarkable ideas.
How about actually coming up with and spreading some?