Can art change the world?
Does a piece of art change anything in the modern world or are we so desensitised to seeing controversial images that it has no effect and we no longer notice it? Historically arts ability to change perceptions and society has always been considered viable as far back as the renaissance and cultural teachings of cave paintings in the neolithic era. The fundamental difference being the limited audience available pre the internet age, has the digital age expanded the distribution of artwork to a point of over saturation to minimise the effectiveness of the works? Controversy generated by artworks is also nothing new, leading to a question as to whether provocative actions are indicative of the artistic mind and even the word controversy indicates the offending of one party, normally the majority. Who in reality have no right to define the make up of social culture any more than the minority. To perhaps, try and answer this I want to look at past and present artists and how they have changed things with their art works. Can a piece of art, no matter what form it takes – be it a photograph, a painting, graffiti, music, performance art or even architecture, really change peoples perception of the world around them, or is it so ineffectual that we turn the page, scroll the screen or walk past without a second thought or even worse completely miss the point of what we are presented with due to over exposure?
Is it a valid medium and should it be censored, controlled, promoted or profited from by non artistically led financially directed corporations or representatives of the state or country in a so called free society? And how does its censorship affect its ability to change? History is littered with examples of art works not only being deemed controversial but also deemed beneficial by certain parties as justifiable weapons of social engineering. Even as far back as the Catholic purges of the spanish inquisition which amongst other things, grew from the fundamental idealogical differences around dissemination of both religious and non religious artworks and their ownership between the Franciscan and Benedictine orders of christianity with one side arguing public ownership and a right to better themselves and the other believing both profit and control of who is worthy to indulge in the consciousness expanding abilities of access to independent thinking based art. This fundamentally proves the power or perceived power of anti establishment artworks.
Did the likes of Don McCullin, Robert Capa, Kevin Carter or Sebastião Salgardo change anything with their war and famine photos? Is it even what they set out to do in the first place, the public were certainly enlightened due to these images, but did it do enough to change the governments standpoint? Especially considering both the subject matter and style of thought provoking image that made both Salgardo and Carter famous, caused the same fundamental change, but did
Kevin Carter, Vulture Watching Starving Child. 1993
so for only a short period of time, if we had learned from Salgardo then we wouldn’t have needed Carter to show us again via his pulitzer prize wining photo and there is no doubt that it was the consequence of trying to effect change through his photography which led to his untimely death just a year after receiving the prize.
I consider that art takes various forms and can not be limited to one genre. For the purposes of this essay I needed to choose a variety of artists to enable a balanced view, for the purposes of this investigation I have chosen artists that use various mediums to make their point. For my current study I have chosen to look at the following artists – Banksy, a anti establishment, politically active graffiti artist who uses concrete as his canvas, he brings art to the masses and makes it available to all. JR, a unidentified large scale photographer who takes his art form to the street and uses it to bring awareness to the causes he feels strongly about. Don Mccullin, one of Britain’s most celebrated conflict photographers who has seen first hand some of the things many artists are trying to bring attention to. Jello Biafra, a anti censorship musician, advocator of absurdist media tactics and writer. Alan Moore, Author of V for Vendetta and many other seminal artworks that have inspired anti establishment groups intent on change.
Banksy. Immigration mural Clacton, 2014.
Banksy, believes that art is not something to be brought down to a commercial level, but does spray painting your ideas on a public wall, or opening a show full of what could be classed as shock factor art, really make anyone think any differently? Although Banksy’s position on commercial art has inevitably moved inline with the value of his works escalating, specifically citing the point when Sotheby’s’ first offered his work for sale at vastly inflated prices forcing him to engage with the economic issues around his work, “all this anti art sentiment comes off as negative, unless you look at it in context. Banksy sees himself as the liberator, the knights errant kicking the pricks to remind you that your ideas about art are just as valid as anybody else’s. He attacks the establishment to remind you of your own power. not just for the sake of it. The point is, art should be truly democratic, truly a part of everybody’s life and not just a gang bang for the over privileged.” leading to a proactive change to begin assisting parties as he deemed fit to profit from his work as a counterpoint to the traditional gallery collectors buying his work as a status symbol. By using his art to help people in this way he can control the way its viewed, its no longer just graffiti, it has a deeper meaning. “Keep your eyes open! Banksy allegedly gave his blessing for the sale of a street piece, which is unusual. But in this case, the vandal with a heart of gold had to make an exception. it is said he even helped the city road hospital to remove the piece and sneaked into the auction to touch it up at the last minute. Sale of the rat raised 30k for people with eyes what have gone wrong. A fitting cause for a visual artist, no? As Banksy himself says on his website ‘I mostly support projects working to restore sight and prevent eye disease. Or as I like to call it “expanding the market”’ Banksy’s statement highlights in a humorous way, his firm belief that street art is not only beneficial to the public, but has inherent power and uses medical analogies to further his point.
However Banksy’s inherent power, granted through notoriety as well as artistic merit can also backfire and undermine the point it is trying to make, this is perfectly illustrated by the accusations of him being racist levelled at him for his work Clacton Pigeons. BBC news reports – “A stencil showing a group of pigeons holding anti-immigration banners towards an exotic-looking bird appeared in Clacton-on-Sea in October. But it was quickly removed by Tendring District Council, which said someone had complained it was ‘racist’.The council received about 40 messages from the public about the mural, with just one in favour of its actions. Street artist Banksy, who chooses to remain anonymous, created the mural in the build-up to last month’s by-election, which was won, as expected, by UKIP.”
Clacton is a deeply impoverished failed seaside town crippling under the pressure of hard drug use and London rehousing overflow generated by the regeneration of Stratford for the London Olympics. Despite the accusations levelled at the artist the local election not only lead to the legitimisation of the UK independence party, otherwise known as UKIP. Which exhibited the extremity of their position due to the successful candidate moving from the centre right conservative party to the far right UKIP party for the election leaving absolutely no argument as to the public perception of immigration in the borough. Despite a strong backlash on social media to the local authorities actions towards the painting, with people demanding whoever responsible for destroying this piece of work loose their job, the minority clearly seeing what Banksy was trying to achieve, it is clear that this could be seen as a failure if the artists intention was to provoke reasoned debate and raises the question as to wether the the potentially temporary nature of street art can limit its scope of effectiveness unless embraced in the way Banksy’s month long residency in New York was, in creating a month long treasure hunt for those committed to his work.
He tried again in a similarly socially deprived coastal landscape with very different results, the Dismaland exhibition in Weston-Super-Mare used his notoriety to bring attention to commercialism, corruption, immigrations and expectations of a art gallery. Making clear his public ownership ideology by utilising the former public lido. The anti capitalist, and political nature of many of the exhibits shared a very great deal in common with not only the Anonymous movement but also the political and artistic climate of the late 1980s, covering issues such as police brutality, government corruption, censorship and human rights breaches to name a few. The very same artistic and political climate, widely expressed by Alan Moore to be the basis of his many socially and politically minded works of fiction that have been iconically accepted by counter cultures around the world. Despite the commercialisation of not only Banksy but other graffiti artists such as Space Invader and Blek le Rat, very little has changed regarding the wider publics attitude to graffiti. Again a product of the early 1980s and the rise of hip hop culture out of the most impoverish and segregated areas of America’s inner cities. You could argue that Dismaland did change the world, for some at least. It boosted the local economy in Weston-Super-Mare by a additional £20 million “Everyone has noted the irony of the anti-capitalist art show boosting business. But, Banksy said he chose Weston because ‘I went there every summer until I was 17’, so perhaps he would feel a little less animosity to small local traders than multi-nationals.” it certainly did more for small local trader than the same amount would for a larger company. It shows that independent money that comes without corporate ties can be more useful and less destructive to the local economy, whereas big companies have to make lots of money and take out of the local economy and are more often that not a blight on the landscape, Banksy has managed to boost the economy with a large sum of money whilst utilising resources that were otherwise wasted, left empty and dormant. Not only did the exhibition raise awareness for immigrants, the remnants of this exhibition and some of the workers have now gone on to make a real difference to the migrants that are in Calais trying to get safe passage into the UK, some of the structures have been used by the Dismaland
workers to create shelter, communal space and a play area for the people living there. It raised international awareness of Banksy and his causes, which ordinarily you would question, has he done this for the infamy? However his anonymity denies him any direct consequence of his work. He can only but sit back and watch, taking no real credit for his actions.
Banksy, by being anonymous plays into the V for vendetta idea of “Theres no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. Theres only a idea. Ideas are bulletproof.” as does JR, who says Speaking of his inside out project – “I wish for you to stand up for that you care about, by participating int a global art project and together we will turn the world inside out. And this starts right now, what we see changes who we are, when we act together the whole thing is much more than the sum of all parts.”
JR, 28 Millimeters, Portrait of a Generation Amad, Paris, Bastille, 2004
JR is a pseudonym for the artist whose identity has yet to be confirmed, began as a graffiti artist in Paris, interested in using the city as his canvas to reach those who do not go to museums he set about taking photos of his friends. The Paris fires of 2005 which were set by out of control, misunderstood kids being portrayed as criminals, thugs, rioting and destroying their own environment. “JR nevertheless wanted to challenge the term racaille or, ‘scum’ the then minister of the interior had used to described the rioters. using a 28mm lens he shot full frame portraits of young people pulling scary faces to caricature themselves and pasted the enlarged posters onto the walls of both
Les Bosquets and ‘bobo’ (bourgeois bohemian) district of the city. Portrait of a generation invited us to look into the eyes of men playing bad boys with a certain ‘in your face’ rudeness, the portraits provoked passers by to question the media representation of them. Were they promising students of thugs? Frances future or a threat to national identity? What were their dreams and their nightmares? Should they be punished or motivated? Were the riots a eruption of violence or the beginning of a revolution? Most importantly, should we close our doors to them or open our arms?” He took photographs of these kids making caricatures of themselves within the images, while the press was making them out to be cartoonised, rebellious figures, but by making faces in the photos they were mocking the press. By taking the caricatures of these kids they are taking control of their own image, which was completely distorted by the media. He then posted them up around the city with their names, ages, building number etc. This illegal art project became official when the authorities started pasting the photos themselves culminating in full scale projections being allowed to be projected on some of Paris’ most iconic buildings, ironically, including the Louvre. Forcing the general public to take ownership of these people as part of their own society rather than the dehumanised, devalued troublemakers the media had portrayed them as.
Banksy and Alan Moore both advocated the mask as a form of anonymity being utilised to allow the wider public to feel an ownership of the concepts, however despite being unidentified himself JR’s Face 2 Face project involving black and white portraiture, juxtaposing Palestinians and Israelis of the same profession and displaying them side by side in the opposing areas of the cities revealed that in this case the mask was the outstanding conflict between the two parties and when any direct allegiance to either side was removed many were unable to identify which were which. This itself must have changed the perceptions for many people, and in some small way changed their world making them question what they were fighting for or the long held historical nature of the conflict directly affecting many born too late to even be aware, first hand of of the issues surrounding the birth of the conflict. “it doesn’t matter in some ways if it is your photo or not, what is important is what you do with the images, the statement it makes where its pasted” and this seems to be true, so much difference and so many perceptions have been changed simply by pasting the right image in the right place at the right time. It can only work if you are showing people something new, making it unavoidable, or else why should they take notice? “In some ways art can change the world, but art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change the perceptions, art can change the way we see the world, art can create a energy. Actually the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussion and then enables you to change the world” This quote highlights fundamental difference between JR and many other socially aware artists who make no attempts to hide their own wishes to change the world. However, I believe he is contradicting himself, in one sentence he is saying art has no way of changing the world and then admits that it does provide the landscape for discussion and action that may effect change. Indeed its clear from the inside out project and from the interactions with over 111000 people that JR using the finance he received by winning the Ted prize, enabled him to spread his project across the entire globe including active members in places as remote as Papua New Guinea and Timor neither country has any cultural or historical record of graffiti art or high end galleries this allowed him to reproduce images the public sent him and send them back large copies for pasting, he truly has taken art to the streets indeed the inside out project covered the entire globe and had active members in nearly all countries with free uncensored access to the internet. “I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project and together we’ll turn the world inside out” “what we see, changes who we are and when we act together, who whole thing is much more than the sum of the parts.” How is this any different to the Anonymous movements slogan, we are legion, we are many? Both encourage people to stand together to achieve something more than they could alone.
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, a infamous british writer and his graphic novel illustrator, changed the entire political landscape in the last ten years with their work V for Vendetta, which was first published in 1983 although more recently its iconography has been providing the aesthetic and ideology that is the fundamental basis of the highly political and controversial Anonymous movement, In fact beginning and starting where his book directly ends. The group needed a image to hide their identity, by removing a single identity you remove the states ability to obstruct. With the main protagonist in the book passing his identity on to thousands and coining the groups motto – we are legion, we are many. Also connecting them to historical biblical literature. Here is a example where the imagery transcends its original form and has been re appropriated by the public, which also retains the views expressed in the original text. Indeed art is a subject dealt with directly in the book “artists use lies to tell the truth, yes I created a lie, but because you believed it you found something true about yourself” V for Vendettas primary themes can almost be identified easily and repeatedly as a blueprint for Banksy’s socially conscious, politically edged but highly satirical and humorous subject matters, David Lloyd the artist originally behind the now famous mask openly discussed immigration as a issue as much at the heart of their work as Banksy’s Clacton Pigeons “V for Vendetta was initially a response to the rise of support for a national front in England 1977-1979 was a high unemployment period and thats when the anti immigration bunch get stronger – in line with the same crew in the conservative party. As time progressed and Margaret Thatcher became more radical she was a spur to our endeavour, of course. Now? Yes, the rise of the influence of the tea party reflects the rise of radical conservatism in the late 70s in the uk.” Art can only truly flourish in a non censored environment, which is what Anonymous are trying to achieve as well the policies of direct action advocated wholeheartedly within the pages of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
“How many knew then, or know now, what it represents from the book or the movie is an unknown number; but as the key motivation of V in both is to free people from tyranny, the mask is being used appropriately by protesters, whether they know about the story or not.” I think this quote clearly shows that no matter who is using the artwork, as long as it is being used for good in the manner in which the book was written then the artist is more than happy to have been a part of that. The background is irrelevant, its the ideology that is important and that goes all the way back to Guy Fawkes, who the mask is based on. Fitting that he, like V in the book and the Anonymous movement was trying to overthrow parliament for what they believe to be right and for the greater good and freedoms of the masses. Its also worth noting the book also deals directly with restricting of media content and message and V’s taking over of the airwaves has also been directly mirrored within videos released and distributed alongside Anonymous’s many direct action campaigns, branded by them as Hackattacks.
Alan Moore’s attitude to art, its place in the world and its power in effecting change is a little more unusual than most going to far as to connect modern artworks to sorcery and alchemy. “magic in its earliest form is often refereed to as ‘the art’ I believe this is completely literal, I believe that magic is art and that art, wether it be writing, music, sculpture or any other form is literally magic. Art is like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness” It is clear if judged on his own terms Alan Moore’s fundamental belief that art is a weapon of change and has been proven right even by utilising a medium that at the time was considered of low rent or non artistic value. V for Vendetta is widely credited with elevating the comic book genre to that of serious literature and the generation of the term graphic novel. The importance of which on modern culture also being highlighted in him being the only writer to have more than one work credited in the greatest 50 books of the 20th century, as voted for by the public and indeed changing the entire landscape surrounding comic and geek art now to the point where it is a staple of modern youth culture, where both film and computer game arts have overtaken music in the last ten years to be the most profitable of all art forms marketed. Both the Marvel and DC publishing houses now have revenues that greatly outweigh any available to the traditional art market.
Jello Biafra is a American born punk singer and staunch believer in free society, who utilises shock values and publicly advocates direct action in the name of political causes. He is known to use absurdist tactics to highlight social injustice and civil rights. He is best known for his work with the band The Dead Kennedys, their lyrics referencing a lot of classic 20th century counter culture literature which is unashamedly political and unavoidably provocative, he is widely considered to be the first true punk intellectualist. Protest art isn’t necessarily in the visual form, the Dead Kennedy’s are well know for their politically provocative and socially conscious lyrics and also his controversial album art with their vocalist running for the Green party’s presidential nomination in 2000. The main reason I wanted to include Biafra is because of his involvement in the trial dubbed the people vs the Dead Kennedy’s, Biafra wanted to use a HR Giger painting titled Penis Landscape on a album cover, Frankenchrist, which was later considered public obscenity, finding that making the album retail friendly with the artwork on the front would be too costly, Biafra decided to include the artwork as a poster inside. Claiming that “some people may find the poster shocking or even repulsive, or offensive. Life can sometimes be that way” despite Giger being highly regarded as a legitimate artist, police officers raided his house after complaints from the parents music resource centre, which unsurprisingly was cofounded by the wife of a then US senator and is the reason we now have the explicit warning labels on albums. He was later charged with distributing harmful material to minors. “The singer’s defence was that the poster was both a literal and a figurative illustration of ‘people screwing each other over’ and therefore an integral element of the entire LP’s concept, which featured songs about political corruption, unemployment, racism and poverty.” The trial may have resulted in a $2000 fine or a year in prison, but ended in a hung jury. After the verdict was read, Biafra signed copies of the poster for the jurors – perhaps telling them to go screw themselves was the meaning behind that? This lead to the birth of the no more censorship defence fund which became a campaigning organisation for the freedom of expression, free of censorship within America. Which became funded and fully supported by many high profile artists and musicians much more famous than he was and who use music as a creative outlet to raise awareness for own personal ideologies.
David Hall, Jello Biafra at Fun Fun Fun Fest,2014
Don McCullin, Vietnam 1968
Don McCulllin is one of Britain’s most highly regarded conflict photographers and also one of the most cynical men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. “You can’t go around kidding yourself that your photographs in a few papers will change the world. They can not and they have not. I despair about the human race. The papers
only shows the bums, the killers and the arms dealers and people like that. Good news never sold a newspaper.” I disagree with McCullin here, I believe that photographs can change the world, perhaps not immediately, but they force us to look at the horrors of war making it impossible to ignore and if it can not be ignored then something must be done? Speaking of his war photos, he said: “I don’t want people to come away feeling negative because some are tough to look at. I want people to go away and change all these horrible things that are going on in the world, I want it to change. We want to hand down to our grandchildren a better world and a better future.” But change can not happen if something is easy to look at, that simply means its acceptable, to effect any change then artists need to show things that are awful to look at, completely unacceptable, forcing the general public to stand up for people less fortunate than themselves.
“Of course, it is the photographer’s job to show some of that horror, to say: this is the real war, this is what it’s like on the ground, this is what war does to you. That job that has been becoming increasingly difficult ever since the US decided that the media had lost the war in Vietnam for them. In 1982 came the Falklands war, and Margaret Thatcher’s government decided not to make the mistake the Americans had of giving reporters and photographers free access to the hostilities. Instead, they set up the “pool” system, in which a small number of journalists and photographers, supposedly picked at random, supplied copy and images to be transmitted back home by the military. The movements of the pool members were controlled by armed forces personnel.” This is a example of art changing the world, but not for the better, because of the powerful images that emerged from the Vietnam war photographers began to be censored in a way they were not previously, previously they only had their editors to get the images past, but now there was soldiers and governments to circumnavigate. This caused the public to be denied the chance to know what was really happening. “McCullin was also banned from covering the Falklands war in 1982, due to the intervention of a senior army officer who feared McCullin would give it the same treatment he gave the Vietnam war and record the truth on the frontline. No doubt, the photographs would not have been quite what Thatcher had in mind either.” Photographs, art, images or writing can not change anything nor be trusted if what we actually see is regulated by the state who have no inherent connection to the subject. “Digital photography is a lie, it cannot be trusted it is too easily manipulated.” It is not just digital art that can not be trusted, its obvious that any controlled form of art can not be trusted, the state will not hesitate to twist and edit any information we are allowed to see, using art to only portray the world as they wish it to be seen, twisting the truth to meet their own agendas. There might be photos of atrocities, but that same photographer can just as well take a photo of a girl in the next street oblivious and playing because the events have become so normalised to her, what we actually get shown depends on the need of the authorities, the editors and the state.
Banksy and Joseph Remnant both started off in a similar way, in the sense that they both use the streets as their gallery, bringing art to those who would not think about visiting a gallery, often bringing attention to causes that most would shy away from or would not fit in a regular gallery, by doing this they can reach out to people who would ordinary be unaware of issues, or not understand them, by putting them on the streets in a less complex way you gain the understanding and trust of people, unlike politicians who address their issues in a much more convoluted way creating fear and distrust through lack of understanding. The only places art has failed to change anything in this way has been where there is censorship, official involvement or interference, left to their own devices or with the safety net of anonymity artists are able to create pieces which not only shock, but educate. True art can only exist where there is no agenda for deception. only education, it is a fact that the only way we can effect any form of change is by raising awareness of the causes. if art was truly unable to change anything, truly useless then would the Nazi’s have put so much effort into hiding it? Placing restrictions on the style of painting, sculpture, music, literature, design and photography that the public was allowed to make? Would they have still seen it as such a threat if art posed no threat? These are all things that in many ways we are still fighting for the right to be uncensored today, as illustrated by Anonymous and Jello Biafra’s don’t hate the media, become the media campaigns, not to the same extent, but we fight for the right to be seen, unrestricted. We fight for the right to have our work seen by the public instead of hidden away. In many ways I believe the internet has assisted this, it has given us free reign to show as many as possible who we are and what we stand for, however placing something on the internet is not the same and has less of a effect than something you are met with on the street, in your own neighbourhood, something completely unavoidable that is happening in your world, not some digital imaginary one. I believe that art should be made public, and big, unavoidably big, so it meets you in the eye, it is of no use being hidden away in galleries and private collections if the intention of creating the piece was to change and enlighten people, for many years art has been used to create fear and control, as in the church doom paintings which were made as a threat to the congregation, telling them that if they were rebellious and did not follow the bible they would descend into the hellish place shown before them.
I believe that the temporary nature of street art provokes a air of speed, desperation to do something before its gone, forgotten or the next issue has taken precedence, I think the fact that it is not there for long evokes a feeling of urgency and desperation. It gives the feeling that the issue its showing you could also be temporary, if only you did something about it. In the words of Dr Seuss “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Not many people believe that Dr Seuss had a message, but this one is very clear, nothing is going to change unless people like you or I stand up for what they care about.
It is my opinion that art itself can not change the world, not if it is censored and regulated by the authorities, but left to the likes of renegade artists it can change peoples perceptions if it is centred in the public domain, has no air of pretentiousness like most galleries have and is out there in the streets to be seen, not hidden away, it has be be raw and unedited, untainted by preconceptions, trusted and clear of any agenda, only then can it change peoples views of each other, art can break barriers by showing, proving things that otherwise would not be believed, and they, by standing together against the issues raised in the artworks, then art can change the world. Art can change people and they can change the world.
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