“Facing Up to What's Killing You”
Urban Art and the New Social Movements
It is axiomatic that no social movement is as incoherent
as it appears from within, nor as coherent as it appears
—Troy Duster, in Beyond a Dream Deferred
In Toni Cade Bambara's story “The Organizer's Wife,” members of a radical commune compress their beliefs into a simple slogan emblazoned across the front of a mural —“Face Up to What's Killing You.”1 The indecent social order of our own day renders the urgent anxiety encapsulated in that slogan relevant to grassroots cultural creation all across the globe. Performance artists and poets, graffiti writers and rappers, photographers and filmmakers, car customizers and computer artists create sights and sounds, poetry, prose, and performance art that turns talking back into an art form and enables their audiences to confront the new conditions that are killing them.
Since the start of the industrial era, the “old social movements” (exemplified by trade unions, urban-reform coalitions, ethnic radicalism, and socialist political movements) have based their strategies for social change on struggles over space, on efforts to control the neighborhood or the nation by trapping capital in one place in order to force those with power to make concessions to them. But the present-day mobility of capital has rendered those strategies ineffective. Today, municipalities, trade unions, and even nation-states compete to offer ever increasing subsidies to capital in the false hope that benefits will trickle down to the majority of the population. These arrangements inevitably fail, producing only