Editors' Introduction: Art, Power, and Social Change

By David, Emmanuel A.; McCaughan, Edward J. | Social Justice, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Editors' Introduction: Art, Power, and Social Change


David, Emmanuel A., McCaughan, Edward J., Social Justice


THE FOLLOWING ESSAYS EXPLORE MANY DIMENSIONS OF THE ROLE OF ART IN PROCESSES of social change. Some address the power of art as a voice of dissent, as a tool for advancing social justice and democracy, as the core of a revolutionary strategy, and as a source of memory and future ways of knowing. Other essays warn about the art of power, such as government and art world censorship, the co-optive ability of capitalism, and the blinding force of Western rationalization.

We begin with a fascinating exchange between Mikkel Rasmussen and Simeon Hunter about the legacy of the Situationists, a mid-20th century art movement committed to total revolution. According to Rasmussen, "the Situationist International tried to create a territory where art and politics were merged and transformed from specialized activities into a kind of holistic mega-text in which historical rationality expressed itself." The Situationists were extremely ambitious, impossibly ambitious in Rasmussen's view. "Unable to free themselves from history," he argues, the movement ultimately succumbed to capitalism's "counter-revolution." Hunter regards Rasmussen's assessment as overly pessimistic, arguing that "the legacy of this movement is still active, still providing a highly useable model for a transformative analysis of and through the visual world from which it is derived." The power of the Situationists, suggests Hunter, must be understood "at the level of the semantic instead of the programmatic." He asserts that the contributions of the Situationists and the art practices they inspired have been overlooked by those who "deny the poetic voice that may connote [social] change through form."

Yet, ironically, the focus on "form alone," according to Deniz Tekiner, permitted formalist art criticism--which dominated the U.S. art world from the 1940s through the late 1960s--to "obscure the relationships of art to social contexts and the socially critical implications of art." Tekiner's essay explains how the formalist art criticism associated with Clement Greenberg" functioned symbiotically with art marketers" to "uphold conservative agendas" and to mask the progressive content intended by "many modern artists [who] construed their transcendental subjects as signifiers of freedom, and their art works as expressions of liberated imagination" during the stultifying conformism of postwar North America. Tekiner acknowledges that significant transformation of the art world since the 1960s has resulted in a greater "diffusion of power" and "freer expressions of the ideational contents of art works." Still, significant obstacles continue to confront dissident artistic voices.

According to contributors Connie McNeely and Gordon Shockley, "in recent years, conservative politics and market approaches have dominated arts policymaking in the U.S., with the arts viewed and assessed through the lens of reactionary values and commercial dynamics that treat them as just one of a list of goods and services." McNeely and Shockley examine the impact of the "excellence versus access debate" on arts policy--such as funding decisions by the National Endowment for the Arts--and ask, "What are the cultural and political implications of approaching the arts in terms of access, as opposed to excellence, and vice versa?" The authors contend that "although political rhetoric might posit goals of diversity and democratization, access to the arts is held moot without attendant 'cultural capital' for meaningful participation and consumption."

While McNeely and Shockley demonstrate the power of the state (or capital) and the triumph of market forces in regulating arts policy at the institutional level in the United States, two essays in this volume explore the ways in which critical expressions and artistic displays of dissent have been used as democratizing tools in parts of Asia. William Farge's essay, "The Politics of Culture and the Art of Dissent in Early Modern Japan," explores the legacy of an important critic of the Japanese military government, Baba Bunko, who confronted the centralized power of the state apparatus by strategically maneuvering between censorship laws through the public presentations of satirical literature.

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