Art and the redemption of society
By Ben Hodson
MA Art & Design
This is a discussion about the role of art in positive social change and the importance of the artists intervention. We will investigate the role of art in social change, especially change which appears to have a positive and tangible human impact. This will include discussing the role of the artist in both drawing attention to issues and problems as well as providing solutions, especially through direct intervention and activism. It will look at politics and art, art theory and try to build understanding from a range of case studies. I will draw upon a number of texts to help inform our discussion including The principle of Hope by Ernst Bloch and Art and social regeneration by Miles Malcolm.
I run the risk of this being read as a cliché or perhaps naivety or even youthful arrogance. Part of the reason for choosing this topic is to understand if there is some validity in the claim that art can and does play a part in redeeming society. Through the process of exploring these concepts, I am seeking to either justify this statement or prove it to be wrong. However, often in exploring these kinds of concepts we find that more questions than answers surface or bombard us. This discussion is no different and questions such as: ‘does society need redeeming?’ and ‘if so from what?’ ‘and who defines it?’ all arise but perhaps we can try to give some ideas to a way forward.
For clarity I would like to define what I mean in my use of a couple of terms; redemption and peacemaking. The word redemption is often used in the context of religious language but I am using it here in its original root word meaning ‘to be brought back’ and in the context of society, it is referring to the positive transformation and betterment of humanity. This is a subjective notion, but I am looking at change which appears to bring positive social, economic, relational and emotional benefits, such as bringing peace to a region. When talking about peace we normally use the term “peace keeping”. This is usually a reference to establishing a context where the peace keepers bring an absence of war, conflict or violence. The UN “peacekeepers” are an example of this idea of peacekeeping. However, it seems that the reality is that the peace is only upheld in as far as these soldiers have the capacity to enforce it and it often resurfaces when the peacekeepers leave. It seems history shows us that violence rarely stops violence or deals with the root of the problem but it seems we are reluctant to believe the evidence or that there maybe a better way. Perhaps a better concept in this redemptive context would be the concept of being ‘peacemakers’. In Hebrew culture they have the concept of Shalom which goes some way to describing the idea of peacemaking. We translate Shalom in English as peace, however, Shalom goes much deeper than “the absence of violence”. It describes a complete well being, welfare and safety for an individual or group of people. So when I am using the term or concept of peacemaking it is more than stopping violence or removing conflict, it is to bring a sense of wellbeing, of wholeness in terms of safety and security. It’s to deal with the deeper issues of why the conflict or violence is there. Art maybe a blunt tool to try and stop violence but it has a unique ‘sharpness’ in its ability to expose and deal with the roots of an issue and has wonderful healing and nurturing properties to help bring wholeness, hope and a sense of wellbeing.
The German philosopher Ernst Bloch describes in his book The principle of hope how art can inspire hope and help move the world towards a better future. As a Marxist and defender of expressionism, Bloch looks at the utopian content found in art. He also discusses the close relationship between art’s aesthetic and social capacities. The text puts forward a strong case for the importance of art in changing the course of human history for good. A British cultural theorist Malcolm Miles, suggests that Bloch’s “theory of hope lends art to a positive agency in transformation” (Miles, Malcolm, 2000). Bloch wrote this text in the context of the rise of Fascism and the Nazi party in Germany. Bloch later defected from Germany and the worldwide events that were unfolding clearly drew some of these ideas to the forefront of his mind.
“I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic.” (JG Ballard, 2004) argued the British novelist James Ballard. This essay started with the assumption that this statement is true, namely that art is an important forerunner to social and political change. It is an agent to change by being a catalyst in informing and shaping public opinion.
Documentary and photojournalism seems to me, to be one of the most obvious agitators in the change of popular opinion. The debate over the consideration of photography and film as valid art forms has long been forgotten. Therefore the inclusion of lens based work seems an obvious and essential decision. Documentary photography came out of the public's desire to view the “reality” of situations. There are a number of examples of documentary photographers who managed to draw attention to issues that they felt needed to be changed. Dorothy Lange's image “Migrant Mother”(1936) was dubbed the image that changed US policy towards the incredible poverty during the great depression in America. Her image of a mother and her children both affected the left political resolve and forced new aid to the people directly affected by crisis. Lange intentionally composed the shot to give maximum impact. Through some research we see that this individual family actually had a car and had just returned from their work place. These facts were not made clear for a number of years and her image certainly doesn't relay this information. This removing of the context made her image incredibly powerful and subsequently has become one of the most reproduced images in the USA. It certainly is one of the most famous images associated with the great depression in America.
The artist Martha Rosler states in her important essay; In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography): “Documentary photography has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery” (Martha Rosler 1981). This direct connection between documentary photography and the public “conscience” seems most evident in war photography. As war is one of the most devastating and media consuming of news events, it is therefore one of the best genres of photography to see what impact it has. For the purpose of this essay I will consider war photography as art, as this is in keeping with the intentions of most of the photographers. This view seems increasingly valid with contemporary photojournalists such as Luc Delahaye exhibiting large format war zone images in galleries around the world.
As we examine war photography, it is hard to ignore the images surrounding the Vietnam conflict. This was the first war when colour photography and video were becoming more widely available. This transformed the documentation of the events and how the public could receive updates in real time. War actually dominated over 30 years of Vietnam's history in the last century. The period of time which the Americans call the “Vietnam War” and the Vietnamese call the “American War” was the United States military intervention from 1965 - 1975. There were a few images which have become known as the most important images from the conflict. However, the shocking “Children Fleeing an American Napalm Strike” by the associated press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut on June 8th 1972 and “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon” by the associated press photographer Eddie Adams, Feb 1st 1968 are some of the most powerful and have been published in numerous newspapers, magazines and other media around the world.
Nick Ut's photo of the young girl suffering from the effects of a napalm strike by the South Vietnamese air attack, may have done more than any other photo to prevent the US Congress from allowing further assistance to the South Vietnamese government when North Vietnam launched the full scale invasion of that country towards the end of the conflict in 1975. Martin Woolacott argued in 2000 that: “The psychological history of the war seems inconceivable without this image. Along with half a dozen other photographs, it helped at some deep level to shape the popular feelings which in turn influenced policy and affected change. It deepened the scepticism with which, by mid-1972, the war was being viewed.” (Martin Woolacott, 2000). This would suggest that the image helped to harden public opinion; however, the facts would seem to suggest that the policy to leave Vietnam, Richard Nixon's “Vietnamization,” was already well underway. After spending time researching the events surrounding this photo, it appears hard to prove that the image really affected public opinion on its own. The war in Vietnam looks like it may have ended without Ut's image; however, I would suggest that the image did help to speed the end of the war. Without the image maybe the US may have continued to support the South Vietnamese for longer and therefore we can say that the image did play a vital role in accelerating the move towards the American withdrawal.
When looking at the effect of the two images; Eddie Adams' photo may have been more influential in starting the move towards a public majority set against the involvement in Vietnam. The image depicts the exact moment a bullet entered the skull of the Vietcong prisoner, what it didn't show was the fact that the man had just killed a number of American soldiers. An individual still image is incredibly powerful, especially as it freezes a brief moment, which can easily be taken out of context. In Time magazine July 1998, Eddie Adams wrote, “Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths...” (Eddie Adams, 1998). Adams believed that although the general was the one who had killed the Vietcong soldier, he said that he had killed the general with his camera. The image certainly rallied support for the anti-war movement, but the evidence is not conclusive that the image solely accomplished anything.
The Soviet Union dictator Stalin argued that, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”(Joseph Stalin) Although I do not agree with the ‘spirit’ of the statement, in reality there is truth in the statement as we find we need to identify with the individual in their suffering before the reality of the suffering of large numbers hits home. There had already been hundreds of images of the death and destruction come back from the Vietnam conflict, why were these images so powerful, so unique? I believe it is because the individual suffering of the Vietcong soldier and the young children from Trang Bang village is something any human or parent could identify with. These images show the personal nature of war, that it affects individuals we can idenitify with, it reveals the worst aspects of war and awaken us to the unbelievable corrupt nature of mankind.
War photography is clearly something that draws the public’s attention to the reality of the world around them. The writer Susan Sontag suggests that there is now “...no war without photography” (Susan Sontag 1977). As Sontag compared photography to previous forms of art, she suggested that along with the invention of photography came a greater level of “sanctity” to the imagery. The images were suddenly connected closely to truth. In terms of documenting war it was now no longer created by the imagination of the artist such as in Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). My initial assumption was that we could see in a direct and quantifiable way the dramatic effect of a single photograph on the course of a war. After exploring two of the most likely images to fit this description from the Vietnam War, this assumption appears not to be totally correct. I found that there are too many other factors which contributed to these changes. I would therefore suggest that an image can contribute to a change in the course of human history. However, it cannot solely cause a dramatic permutation without other major factors influencing this change. The problem with this research is that it mainly comes from secondary sources and it remains impossible to find recorded text which is objective. War, (especially where the USA or the UK are involved), has the tendency to produce strong opinions. Not being alive at the time of the Vietnam War has made it hard to know how well the history books had recorded all the information that would be relevant for my line of enquiry.
In Malcolm Miles’ PHD thesis Art & Social transformation he argues that art practice should work within the crevices of the dominant society “...insert[ing] its realisations and images like the strains of a virus into the wider society, allowing them to grow as they will. In this incremental approach power becomes de-centred” (Miles, Malcolm. 2000). This idea of infecting society like a virus appears to be one of the conclusions he draws from his research as one of the ways art practice and theory can change society for the better. Miles who is the professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Plymouth, writes books and papers linking society to contemporary art and urban change. Miles suggests that “artists, like all citizens, have three choices: to be complicit in the dominant society (as artists serving the art market's needs for commodities, or providing embellishment for urban development); to resist, as through direct action; or to work within the crevices of the dominant society” (Miles, Malcolm. 2000) His research deconstructed a number of non-gallery based arts initiatives which directly tried to have positive influence on social and environmental issues. The conclusions he drew from these examples showed how art (in its widest context) has given way to direct positive influence on society even in the last three decades.
One area that is worth considering is into whether an artist needs to actually go to a place, event, country etc. and/or be directly affected by the event, situation. While looking at artists intervening a contemporary and relevant issue became apparent. International Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been detained in China without charge. Ai Weiwei has recently had a number of shows in London including his world famous ‘Sunflower Seeds’ installation in the turbine hall of the Tate Modern. As an artist he is quite out spoken against the communist government in China. World renowned British sculptor Anish Kapoor has come out to condemn this apparent abuse of his human rights. The authorities appear to be cracking down on all out spoken activists with in its borders. The unrest and gradual move towards democracy in the Middle East seems to be causing some people to suggest that Chinese people should start similar protests. The Chinese government appears to be trying to stop this from happening. Kapoor has organised worldwide closures of major art institutions and galleries. He has also dedicated his recent Leviathan installation to Ai Weiwei’s cause. On the surface you may question what this would do to the Chinese government, however, this single act has caused Weiwei’s situation to become a worldwide news story. It shows how artists can intervene without actually knowing or directly experiencing a situation or problem.
The concept of using photography to help bring understanding between communities is not a new one, however, in recent years there has been a growing interest in direct “Visual Peacemaking”. The International Guild of Visual Peacemakers aims to: build bridges of peace across ethnic, cultural, and religious lines through visual communication that is both accountable to an ethical standard and created by those who authentically care about people.” (IGVP 2011). This worldwide collective of photographers and creatives is directly trying to use the skills they have to positively influence the world. They largely work with photo narratives and documentaries to tell stories and build understanding across different cultural and social barriers.
This investigation has primarily been focused on artists who have tried to influence policy, public opinion or the government. To bring some balance, it is worth looking at the opposite side of this. There are numerous times when the “state” commissions artists to create work to support, promote and even carry out its intentions and purposes. This is most evident in intentional propaganda but can be seen in other ways. The British government commissions an artist for every war where there is British involvement. For the recent war in Iraq the official war artist was Steve McQueen. He is currently one of Britain’s foremost artists, including recently representing Britain in the 2009 Venice Bienale. For the Iraq commission McQueen decided to move away from film as a medium. He decided to make stamps using the faces of the soldiers who have been lost in the war. He managed to gain full support from the soldiers' families and created the stamps with the aim to have them on sale for the public to use as legal stamps. The government and Royal Mail have so far refused to make this happen. It appears to be slightly ironic; the state commissioned an artist to give an official creative response to the war and then censored the artist's intentions to protect their own interests.
When considering art's reaction to events, you cannot avoid movements such as Dadaism. The movement was really born out of a reaction to the First World War, its art focused on throwing away the established preconceptions. Similarly the seeds for the cultural shift towards post-modernism were sown in the aftermath of the Second World War and accelerated by the war in Vietnam. The artists began to feel that art had to be more than the modernist view of it being a purely aesthetic, rational or documentary experience, it needed to comment on the world to show people the truth and engage them emotionally.
The way people respond to art and imagery is complex. Images will not necessarily provoke the same response from different people who view it, as the study of semiotics tells us that what is signified (denoted or connoted) from a signifier (the image) depends on a number of factors including the experience of the viewer. To deal with my main question directly I have been attempting to bring positive change through my own work and projects. To find answers to a question such as this, it is impossible to merely theorise. To find out if Art can change things, I have realised that I need to see for myself. There are no short-cuts.
As part of my on going investigation into these ideas, I have been working on some practice led research. One of the projects was called, High town art for all, which was a series of community arts “pop-up” galleries and events. The purpose of the project was three fold; Firstly, to help promote artists that were mainly local and included some people from further a field. Secondly, to help bring more cultural benefit to the town (Luton) and help develop the growing arts scene. Finally, to directly help in the social regeneration of a run down area (High Town Road). The project appears to have succeeded at all of these levels. It has received direct positive feedback from the council, landlords, letting agents, the public and the artists themselves. Over 40 artists were involved, with around 20 events, workshops and private views being held. Two out of the three shops that were used have now been let out as a direct result of the project. The third shop is currently in discussion with buyers. The project shows a direct and tangible positive change in the lives the local residents and shop keepers who felt that the area was being ‘improved’ and highlighted. The artists involved gained exposure for their work, found others to collaborate with and some even sold some of their work. Whereas the landlords and local council saw a direct commercial benefit as a result of their involvement in the project. It may not be as dramatic as a change in human history such as bringing peace to a region, but it certainly started to have a redemptive affect on that part of town.
To measure just the effect art has had on the world, there is a need to remove the surrounding forces, events, political, social and religious contexts. Once all these variables have been removed, what is left is purely theory. It is becoming apparent that it is impossible to separate art from its context. It forces you to no longer look at art as a separate entity, but rather the herald, signaling the need for change. Or perhaps the cheer leader supporting and even leading the movement of the social and political spheres. An example of this would be the group of activist students and artists who took up residence in Ecole de Beux Arts in Paris 1968. The Atelier Populaire (Popular Workshop) was formed and became famous for producing numerous posters which were intended as “weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it.” (Atelier Populaire, 1968) Their mandate was to support the large ground swell of social change in France. Their free posters became “the battle standard” for the masses. Their art did not cause the civil unrest, although they did help to rally support.
It is clear to see the importance of art in society. Bloch, Rosler, Ballard and Miles all seem to agree with the way in which it can have a redemptive affect on society. Although it could be argued that on its own art has been seen to affect social change, it is normally in collaboration with other factors whether that be a social or political movement, cultural or technological change. It has become increasingly difficult to separate art from the surrounding contexts. I don’t see this as a particular problem as I believe art should not be viewed as a detached entity. Art comes from and belongs to the culture and context it is birthed in. It seems that it is the context which surrounds the work that defines the scale of impact.
The simple posters that the Atelier Populaire created had widespread circulation and appeal due to the social climate. Eddie Adam's street execution image confirmed the western public's suspicions that they didn't really believe in the war in Vietnam. Susan Sontag when writing about the photograph argues “.....[It] can't coerce, It won't do the moral work for us. But it can start us on the way.” (Susan Sontag, 2003). This research has partly supported this statement; however, I do not feel that I completely agree. I would suggest that photography, in particular, has the ability to suggest a moral response, due to the controlled nature of the process. However, Art as a whole has a responsibility to not just point out injustice; it needs to be bound up in the social, political and environmental context it finds itself. Through this research I realize it will never really be possible to fully measure or quantify the effects of art, however the very fact that the images discussed adorn many walls, whether of homes, universities or public buildings around the globe show they undoubtedly have effected the consciousness of society at all levels and thereby produced change. Looking at the wars, disease, the move away from family values, social issues, the percentage of the worlds population below the poverty line you can see that the world is surely in need of redemptive influence. Art can never be the whole answer but it can be part of the answer. Artists have an important and unique role to play in raising questions and awareness, as well as helping bring about positive change in society. We should creatively look to bring a redemptive purpose to this broken world.
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