Using art to advocate creatively is rich with potential, and riddled with challenges. Not least among these is grappling with what we mean by “art”; regardless of how one may feel about feminism, globalism, or multiculturalism, there is no avoiding these phenomena have contributed to eviscerating shared understandings of art as a concept.
I believe the notion of art is itself a construct; a cultural invention to imply certain shared understandings on value, meaning, and status. Objects of any kind are never inherently art or not, but rather objects are understood to be art because we make decisions to anoint them as such. Art is (indeed) in the eye of the beholder.
For me, a key criterion on whether or not something ought to be thought of as art is its standing as an emblem of cultural or personal identity: if notions, qualities, and/or meanings of identity are embodied or conveyed or elucidated for the attentive observer by an object, that object most likely qualifies as art (at least to my eyes).
I accept that something may be art for me but not for someone else. In this regard, I stand in agreement with Arthur C. Danto, who wrote about art as an object plus a context—the context being to my mind the subjective perspective of a viewer.
Given an “art” world of ambiguity and uncertainty, I believe using art to advocate creatively begins with persuading others that what you put in front of them is not only art, but also art worth paying attention to. My presumption here is art carries an aura of authority and authenticity, so if a targeted audience can be convinced on the art-hood of what they perceive, then one is well on the way to achieving advocacy goals.
I have been involved in numerous art projects intended to challenge predominant (and predominantly negative) stereotypes of one social group or another. In project after project, engaging artists and non-artist community members alike, we sought to build and promote inventories of positive identity image.
These art projects have been nothing less than campaigns to change perceptions, only often with divergent value systems in tension with one another: one privileged a more esoteric and elite attitude toward art (i.e. art is the domain of practiced experts), while the other favors a more democratic, vernacular notion on art and imagery (i.e. art works by the unpracticed ought to be considered on equal footing with that of well-established artists).
The solution these projects sought to strike became not so much “this” or “that” kind of art to emphasize but rather “this” and “that”—project leaders spent time cultivating the involvement of well-established artists and including traditionally art-centric exhibitions and events, and also organizing widespread community participation via art workshops and partnerships with non-art, social-minded organizations.
The range of activities was inevitably rich—but at times divided. That is, from time to time, works by the art folks appealed to the art folks, and works by the community folks appealed to the community folks, with little bridging betwixt the two. In such instances, projects fell short of intended goals because the “art” successfully spoke only to the already converted, perhaps fortifying attitudes but carrying little sway in changing them.
Ironically, this proves true most often not with community-made art, but rather with the art made by so-called professionals—art by highly practiced artists frequently does not appear relevant to non-art-centric audiences. In such instances, there is a gap—and need for translation—between art that subtly expressed meaningful content, and a lay audience ill-equipped to find merit on their own.
Such art’s worth is too often thought to be implicit, leaving the art-centrically inclined feeling little need to put energy into convincing the public that their art matters. The art’s efficacy as an advocacy tool is then limited.
(A similar shortcoming could be said to be true for the efforts around the community-made art: if it fails to speak to the art-centric, whose notions on “quality” often inhibit accepting such work’s “art” status, then it too suffers from diminished efficacy.)
I suspect one’s biases on what art matters always informs assumptions about audience response: if one is convinced of the inherent value of the art one favors, one does not take pains to render that value transparent to others. Put plainly, art neither persuasively explained nor adequately presented leaves it under-appreciated as art among those it could have reached, and therefore less effective as creative advocacy than ought to have been the case.
Advocating creatively sounds good, but to do it well is hard and humbling work, demanding of practitioners a combination of self-confidence and reserve, diffidence and insistence, and attention to what speaks to those around you as well as those you want to reach with your message.