Art for social change – or social justice?

In 1990s Britain the term community art began to be replaced by participatory arts, which many people hoped didn’t carry ‘the baggage of the past’. On one level that was just part of the generational renewal through which artists try to escape the weight of their history, but it also had specific theoretical, political and artistic reasons and consequences about which I’ve written elsewhere. Another semantic change has been observable in recent years and participatory has been joined, if not replaced, by the word social – as in the formulation social arts or art for social change. This seems to me even less satisfactory than the shift from community art to participatory art. 

Art is inherently social. That’s most obviously when people experience or create it together, typically in performing arts. But even such seemingly solitary activities as reading are enmeshed in the social fabric, inseparable from markets and public discourse. A novel without a social context may not be unimaginable, but it would certainly be unreadable. 

When I first wrote about the ‘social impact of participation in the arts’ in 1997, some people accused me of instrumentalising art. That always seemed a spurious argument, partly because all art is instrumental in the sense of serving human needs. Our museums are filled with art that serves the power of kings, faiths or merely patriarchy: even that which does not, serves the needs of those who challenge that power. As I often argued at the time, anyone who doesn’t think the Royal Opera House, with its patrons, business sponsorship  schemes and powerful social dress codes, is not exercising a social impact is naïve or dishonest. 

So one problem with ‘social’ is that art – culture itself – is inescapably social. Another is that using the adjective to qualify a certain type of work does little more than signal vague good intentions, because, on its own, it doesn’t mean very much. What is art for social change? As I’ve just said, all art is enmeshes in social change, not all of it good. There is an assumption that social change is desirable, but why? And by whom?. We are now living through momentous of social change as the result of Covid-19: it was not intended and its results are as unforeseeable as they will be complex. 

A third problem is that it implies that artists can identify desirable social change better than  other people, that they have the resources and capacity to bring it about, and that they have the right to do so as an outsider. Even identifying those assumptions should make it clear how questionable they are. And because social change is such a vague ambition, it is easy to deceive oneself into believing that it has been achieved. If you don’t specify the goal of your work, there’s little difficulty in finding reasons to think you have met it as you drive away. 

In a conversation about some of these things yesterday, I wondered whether it might be better to speak about art for social justice. That, at least, is a clear statement of intent. As such, it empowers others to challenge it, to ask ‘what do you mean by social justice?’ or ‘how will this 10 week youth music project advance social justice?’. I think there are good answers to both of those questions, but they are real, tough answers that need thinking through and acting upon. The results of that action can be seen and assessed. It’s no  longer a matter of condescension or good intentions: it’s about the clear and coherent work. It’s the challenge of the Black Lives Matters movement. Good intentions are not enough: social justice depends on people being will to act to combat racism wherever it appears. 

Maybe it’s time for another semantic shift, time that community artists began speaking about art for social justice. To be truthful though, I’m not yet sure that I’m willing to make such a claim for my own work. I’ve stuck with the term community artist for several reasons, one of which is that the people I work with mostly understand and accept it (even if their interpretation of it is not always the same as mine). Human rights and empowerment have been the theoretical core of my thinking, and I need to understand better how social justice connects with that. I also need to think about whether I have the courage to say – and back up – any claim that the work I do advances social justice. 


The image at the top of this post is by Pamela Raith and shows a scene from Cathy, by Cardboard Citizens, who use Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed methodology in the field of homelessness. They say that they ‘make theatre that activates change’, which is certainly true. I also believe that they have been working for social justice for almost 30 years.

3 comments

  1. You bring wonderful clarity to an imprecise use of language! I also stick to ‘community dance’ for a number of reasons as my work is small, local and very much community based. What we do is negotiated with decision making shared. Words such as ‘delivery’ and ‘participatory’ suggest to me a lack of agency amongst community members and a clear hierarchy which places the person who ‘delivers’ at the top of the tree. I make no claim to bring about ‘social justice’ or ‘social change’, responses to these challenging concepts surely lie in the experiences of those who choose to engage (and have done for many years). ‘Social’ is perhaps the primary driver of why we continue to meet and dance together. What is more important than a sense of belonging?

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    1. Thanks – the words are important, I think. Like you, I dislike the idea of ‘delivery’ but I have become reconciled to the term ‘participatory’ as a descriptive label for certain types of work, if only because it is now so widespread. I like the concept of social art making – as in friendly, for itself and enjoyable – but It’s hard to keep that sense in mind when it’s so wrapped up in social as a form of remedial action, which brings us back to the underlying assumptions.

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