This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post.
As the seismic repercussions of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump start to reveal themselves, a new imperative for the art world emerges. The referendum and US presidential election reduced a set of complex, interlocking problems into a simple binary decision – the status quo or change. It is now clear that there are many among us who feel disenfranchised and forgotten and for whom the status quo could not be worse. Change, regardless of how potentially damaging, was their only choice. It is exactly in this narrowing of options where arts can and should play a bigger role in society. Are we limited to the options presented to us through the political process, or can we use our creativity to empower ourselves to find new options when the political process fails us?
German artist Josef Beuys (1921–1986) famously said ‘everyone is an artist.’ He believed that human beings are by their very nature creative and, therefore, the world around us is simply a collective product of our creativity. He used the term ‘social sculpture’ to describe the process through which we mold and shape society through our actions. Beuys was also one of the founders of the Green Party in Germany. He deployed his theory of social sculpture to address environmental sustainability in his 1982 work 7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration. The project started with 7000 stone slabs being brought to an exhibition site in the German city of Kassel. These slabs would act as markers indicating where trees were planted. Beuys started the project by planting the first tree and marker. However, the project continued through the work of local residents, councils and community groups who submitted site proposals for the planting of trees in and around Kassel based on their vision for their homes and neighborhoods. As trees were planted, the stockpile of stone slabs at the exhibition site diminished, showing the progress that had been made. The project finished 5 years later with Beuys’ son planting the final tree. According to Beuys, the project was intended to raise the ecological consciousness of the local community. The project was replicated in cities around the world, including Oslo and New York and had a significant influence on establishing the green movement. It was Bueys’ form of creative engagement that empowered the public to make the change they wanted to see. Not the political system.
Fast forward 35 years. There is a palpable sense of uncertainty about the future and the hopes and dreams of many are tied up in a ‘good’ Brexit deal and Trump’s seemingly unique ability to ‘make America great again.’ What can the art world do? Many arts organisations and artists are mounting different forms of protest: The Whitney Museum offered a programme called Speak Out on Inauguration Day as a platform for “[a]rtists, writers, and activists [to] affirm their values to resist and reimagine the current political climate” and MOMA has rehung artworks of artists from the seven muslim countries banned from US entry by Trump’s executive order. In its first exhibition since re-opening, the Design Museum in London features a living room comprised of furniture from the 28 member states of the EU with a window blind made from slats with each country’s national colours. Behind the blind is a picture of the 1940 Rotterdam Blitz, a symbol of what could happen if the EU breaks apart. On the other hand, there are artists and arts organisations that have decided to strike. Last week, the world famous installation artist Christo decided not to move forward with the Colorado project, which would suspend a silver canopy over 43 miles over the Arkansas River as a rejection of US National Park Service which is now under the leadership of Trump.
While arts can be a powerful tool of resistance, can it go one step further to produce change in its own right? Like Bueys’ 7000 Oaks, can artists empower people through creativity to find solutions to problems that the political system has not successfully addressed? I think so. I’ll give one more example: In 2008, artist Pedro Reyes developed a participatory art project aimed at reducing gun violence in Mexico. Through a series of television ads, he asked people to give up their guns in return for a coupon for free household appliances. A total of 1527 guns were collected, including semi automatic rifles. The guns were melted down and sent to a hardware manufacturing company and turned into shovels. The shovels were distributed to schools to enable children to plant new trees. According to Reyes, the project showed “how an agent of death can become an agent of life.” The Mexican government took note and in 2013, it gave Reyes 6,700 confiscated firearms to turn into musical instruments. Arts-led change – could this be the way forward?