“Participatory singing as a political act is becoming an outmoded relic of former movements.” –Leondar-Wright (on Mobilizing Ideas 2012)
“Artistic quality varied considerably, but was not the central point.” –Nancy Whittier (2009: 179)
“Dialogical projects often leave little or no physical trace due to their ephemeral nature.” –Kester (2004: 190)
I have my Intro American Studies students write an essay on the use of songs in labor movements. It’s a popular assignment, and the musicians in the class usually take great care in picking “their song” to present to the rest of the students. So I was floored when, during the Writer’s Strike in 2007, I pulled up a YouTube video of the TV stars from “The Office” lustily belting union ballads on the picket lines. “See, class? Union songs are still relevant and cool today!” The look of sheer teenaged horror on their faces was unforgettable—a collective cringe on the order of the American public’s reaction to Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “We just cured racism with music!” bravado (see here). Can art demobilize or disempower when it doesn’t work, or even when it does? The very question may seem silly, especially for a blog discussion about the use of art and music in activism.
But in the course of my work on public participation, I have been unexpectedly drawn into a deeper engagement with the underexplored demobilization potential of visual art, music, and performance. Those interested in the instrumental value of art often assume that art itself is symbolically useful (“look at us, singing/drumming/painting together!”), but this often requires DISengagement with the actual context, content, or durability of artistic messages, as Leondar-Wright, Whittier, and Kester argue (see above quotes). Movements may disregard the aesthetic and physical properties of art at their peril, lest art-making in movements become a pantomime of empowerment. Art may be perceived as “old and white,” ugly, childish, and disposable. I argue that this matters for audiences accustomed to organized art-making, who may read such efforts in very different ways than activists intend. The following discussion sketches three cases in which art may be problematic, and concludes with my thoughts on fruitful areas for investigation of the uses of art in activism—not least, what such questions might mean for movements that want to use art effectively while understanding its risks.
A. Cultural Assumptions about Art and Mobilization Can Conflict
In my work with Elizabeth Long Lingo (2011) on the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC), in an article titled, “The ‘got art?’ paradox: Questioning the value of art in collective action,” we studied a mobilization process for nonprofit professionals in the performing arts. Despite a lot of emphasis at the convention on “taking action together” and art “changing the world,” we found complex assumptions about which arts disciplines and sectoral categories should be included in such a process, and which kinds of art count for what. Key disagreements centered on questions regarding the purposes and potential audiences for art. Among this group intimately engaged in producing art, there was a shared belief that participants would have to stop making art to mobilize—that organizing and art-making were mutually exclusive.
B. Art Can Be Used to Reinforce Power Inequalities
There is plenty of social science research on the fine arts (and fine arts philanthropy) as a locus of social exclusion and the reproduction of inequality. There is less work on the role of the arts in social control in the new economy, but see Healy (2002), Boltanski and Chiapello (2007), Thrift (2005), and Fleming (2009) for interesting takes on ways in which post-industrial capitalism has cannibalized the “fun” domains of artistic culture and expressive creativity. Readers of this blog may be familiar with the “Creative Campus Innovations,” a higher-ed focused philanthropic effort to use the arts to catalyze innovation and “entrepreneurship.” Burning Man is now a model for participatory management and “Creative Cities” hoping to outcompete their peers. It stands to reason that market actors may find art just as useful as movements do. What does this newfound love affair with creativity have to do with creative expression in movements? Audiences experienced with the use of art in such contexts may carry similar expectations into the consumption and production of art in movements. As discussed in C, this may be a problem because of the implicit messages embedded in today’s public art-making processes.
C. Art Can Serve as Therapeutic Outlet, Social Service, and Profit Center
In my own work on the public participation industry (2013), I found art being used to bring about goals that were more disciplinary than liberatory. Collective art projects often emphasized the individualization and equalization of claims by, for example, having each person decorate a small square to contribute to a larger mosaic. Art was often used for therapeutic ends and pervasively feminized. It rendered dissent visible in public dialogue, but usually in small scale, disposable ways. Art was not about aesthetics, and it was rarely about documentation. As Kester notes, dialogic art is ephemeral. It was often used to indicate that we were getting out of our stuffy corporate boxes or polarized positions and using our “right brains” to connect to the whole. Of course, as described in B above, corporations have long understood the power of art to symbolize “non-instrumental” creativity and the harmonious alignment of values.
Art is clearly useful in movements. Art has framing power. Art may unleash the expressive possibilities of subaltern groups. Art may make movement activity visible to more and broader audiences and publics. Art may speak truth to power, or enable the unspeakable to be voiced. Art may be particularly effective at transformational cultural change. But does art always equal empowerment? There are a number of ways in which 1. art itself, and 2. cultural assumptions about art, and 3. both, may inhibit mobilization. From my own standpoint, the cultural turn in movement studies has been accompanied by fantastic research on the role of art in movements, and the combination of these trends represents a tremendous opportunity to understand the role of art in movements today. Art is a complex cultural product, and a product of its own cultural context. At the micro-level, there are meaning-making processes within arts production, and meaning-making processes about arts production. Scholars have also investigated the role of cultural production in the political economy at the macro-level, and—importantly—the role of claims about the role of cultural production in the political economy.
What is missing as art is being more readily deployed in all kinds of political, social, and economic contexts for empowerment? Rarely is art seen as labor. Potential sources of mobilization such as artists’ employment issues disappeared at the 2008 NPAC. Rarely is art seen as individual property. The role of creativity in the new economy emphasizes “peer” production and appropriation by the private sector—see, for example, “Doodle for Google” and any number of art and video contests in which the “prize” is your art being used in commercial advertisements. Rarely is art seen as self-management. Collective art-making projects, as described in my own research, regularly entail the consumption of messages about personal potential and sponsor intentions. In all of these cases, it is possible to celebrate the empowerment potential of art, while delegitimizing or obscuring other, less pretty elements that can make art an effective medium of protest.
Opportunities for deepening the study of the role of art in movements include unpacking the complex cultural assumptions about art in a “creative” economy, attending to the (non)role of aesthetics, audiences, and production politics in activist art, and finally, an openness to the possibility of art as a problem for movements. The tremendous potential art may have in bringing about cultural change also means that art-making is a ripe source of demobilization and cooptation.