What can art do to change the world? This question has resurfaced in every discussion of new art movements since the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century. As discussed in a recent publication in the Latin American Research Review, the question has become increasingly significant in recent years with the advancement of neo-liberalism, the radical socio-political and economic changes at a global scale and the rising climate of fear and uncertainty propagated by multilateral warfare, media propaganda and escalating conflict.
In this context, the concept of change is a difficult one. This is not only with reference to the relation between the local and the global in political, cultural or economic terms. It is also because new technologies expose us to new temporalities and new (virtual) localities and affect the ways in which news, images and ideas are mediated and experienced by wider audiences.
So where does art come into this and what can it do? The short answer: a lot.
For a more elaborated answer, one must take a step back – back in time but also back in the sense of looking at the bigger picture. Nothing appears out of thin air and out of its place and time in history. If the globalization of our cultures has taught us anything it is that one cannot view an incident in isolation. One of the central premises of this article therefore is: when, where and how.
Cultural production is not freestanding and irrelevant of the socio-political conditions and economic activity of the society in which it is produced and disseminated. It is a social and human activity produced in a certain place, shaped by certain conditions and pre-history of ideas and with some goal in mind. One such goal is social change. We will call these socially engaged art practices.
How can this social change be achieved? Any Marxist will tell you that unless the modes of production and people’s relation them change no real change can be achieved (cf. the base-superstructure dialectic). Modes or conditions of production in this case refer to material production but also other types of production to which this is intrinsically related such as the production of consciousness and social relations and the production of knowledge and ideas.
Let us make a pause here. According to its abstract, this article examines art’s social function and its understanding as transformative social praxis —an activity that reflects upon the world and seeks to change it and that at the same time critically reflects upon its own condition and relation to that world.
With this is mind, we can understand socially engaged art practices as art practices that are interested in the conditions of production – material production and the production of consciousness, social relations, knowledge and ideas. As such they engage, for instance, issues such as exploitation, marginalization, consumption, prejudice and social antagonism. But they are also interested in changing the conditions of production of art. Art has been historically deemed to be a distinct, privileged and autonomous activity and functions as the placeholder and means of reproduction of the dominant ideologies that are responsible for the aforementioned conditions of production and that shape our social reality.
Since these two are directly related, socially engaged art practices are also interested in the conditions of socialization, communication and interaction. They seek to raise awareness about societal and political concerns and put forward new ways of thinking and acting differently – of coming together and co-creating and of sharing and shaping a vision for a better society. This is a most important and necessary step towards changing the world.
This article discusses three different examples of artistic production from the seventies, eighties and the turn of the millennium that have a positive social outlook. These activities from Latin America give emphasis on collaboration and dialogue and advance different modes of artistic production and social engagement across old and new media. They reconceptualize art’s role, nature and social function and help us understand the complex, but nonetheless potent, relation between art and politics. As such they become points of reference for any socially engaged artistic-political practice.
Image Credit: MACBA Collection/MACBA Foundation
Kalyva, Eve. 2016. “The Rhetoric of Disobedience: Art and Power in Latin America.” Latin American Research Review 51(2): 46-66. DOI: 10.1353/lar.2016.0009