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Making Art Work

In sociologist Stephen Duncombe and artist Steve Lambert’s recent ESA-Arts keynote ‘Making Art Work’ they argue that all art is instrumental, but to have impact and be æffective requires clarity.

“Most (successful) activism has been artistic” (Duncombe & Lambert, 2021)

Professor Stephen Duncombe and Associate Professor Steve Lambert are the founders and directors of the Center for Artistic Activism a research and training organisation helping activists, artists, organisations, and foundations bring about social change. In considering how artists can create social change, they focus on ways to use art as a form of activism and activism as a form of art.

The instrumentality of art

In relation to recent CERADA lectures by Gert Biesta, Duncombe and Lambert’s argument that all art is instrumental at first appears contradictory. Biesta warns against building a case for the arts in education on claims of what they can produce, like better academic achievement or social skills. For him, such instrumentalisation of the arts risks their disappearance from education as soon as another potentially faster or cheaper means to such ends are found. 

Duncombe and Lambert, however, examine the role of the arts in society, illustrating how the arts have always been, and continue to be, instrumental. They recognise that instrumentality is currently perceived as a threat or detriment in the art world and counter to contemporary beliefs that art is not something beholden to powerful interests. In reminding conference attendees of the use of the arts to seek favours from deities, to pay homage to the hunt, valorise and undermine authority, and as a form of financial and cultural capital, they share their mission: To help artists make their work more instrumental. 

What is artistic activism?

Before defining artistic activism, Duncombe and Lambert share examples of artistic activism that inspire them. These examples include Candy Chang’s I wish this was in New Orleans, Makhtar ‘Xuman’ Fall and Cheikh ‘Keyti’ Sene’s Journal Rappé in Senegal, War on Smog in China, Traffic Mimes in Bogota, Colombia, HIV Awareness Pride Week in Helsinki, Finland, and Alfredo Jarr’s 24 Hour Museum in Skoghall, Sweden, as well as some examples from the US Civil Rights Movement (see also the database Actipedia).

Leaning on these examples, they define artistic activism as a combination of activism’s effect or outcome orientation and the affect or emotional orientation of art. According to them, it is this combination that can lead to change. Thus, they propose the term ‘æffect’ to indicate how artistic activism is affective effect or effective affect. 

How do we know if it works?

In turning to the questions, ‘Does it even work?’ ‘Is it æffective?’ and ‘How do we know if it works?’, they claim that success is pretty simple. It is the actual æffect compared to the desired æffect, or the intent versus outcome. They then put forth a contextual assessment in the form of a set of questions to help artists reflect on their practice and enable them to evaluate their success:

  • Intent questions
    • What is your artistic aim? (affect)
    • What is your activist goal? (effect)
    • Who is your audience? (Who do you want to impact?)
    • What do you want them to think, feel, and do?
  • Outcome questions
    • How will you know if this happened?
    • What did happen?
    • What surprised you?
    • What would you do differently?

Duncombe and Lambert assert that it is clarity of intent that leads to more impactful projects, and that asking the questions above can help achieve this clarity (see The Center for Artistic Activism’s tool for planning and assessing creative interventions, the Æffect App). As an example, they analyse the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and suggest that had Schutz asked questions like these, her work may have been more æffective.   

The role of higher arts education

Duncombe and Lambert conclude that the art education system—that both Schutz and Lambert are graduates of—has not adequately equipped future artists to be activists. Since all art is instrumental, they argue that art education needs to better prepare artists to consider the impact of their work.

About the writer

Danielle Treacy is a researcher and a lecturer in the MuTri doctoral school at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, and also teaches in the Department of Global Music. Read more about Danielle Treacy.

Art makes a difference

Taidekasvatuksen tutkimusverkosto CERADAn blogista löydät verkoston uutiset, tapahtumat ja puheenvuorot. Verkoston tutkijat kirjoittavat taidekasvatuksen tutkimuksesta sekä taidealan korkea-asteen koulutuksen tutkimusperustaisesta kehittämisestä. Tutkimusverkosto on osa Taideyliopiston Tutkimusinstituuttia.

Research network CERADA’s blog offers news and views about how research into arts education can have an impact on society. CERADA researchers at Uniarts Helsinki blog about their work. The research network is part of Uniarts Helsinki Research Institute.

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