Skip to Content

Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice – Part I

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

December 14, 2009

This article is the first in a series looking at systemic, structural problems in the arts community.  It explores the very real problems of undervaluing artists and their labor, privatization of the arts, and the structural problem of shifting social justice work from the state to artists. Part II is forthcoming.

Change, Change, Change

Art has never been too far away from social justice.  Artists have, accurately or not, been considered the radical visionaries of society.  In recent years, the concept of art as social justice has become prominent in the non-profit and organizing worlds.  Everywhere you turn, it seems, there is a mural about community or a hip hop performance about racial harmony.  Art is no longer merely to be seen and consumed; it has now become a conscious mechanism in the resistance to neoliberalism, the intense privatization of everyday life which has brought us to this current economic disaster.

I am a writer and activist.  My projects focus on issues like comprehensive immigration reform, which I support, and the privatization of the public school system, which I oppose.  A significant part of my writing appears in left/progressive publications devoted to social justice.  A life like mine, which combines my art with social justice, might well be considered the best response to the injustice that pervades the world.

That is one way of looking at it.  The truth is the opposite.  I am, in fact, neoliberalism’s wet dream come true.

I contend that our current obsession with the amalgamation of art and social justice is no resistance to neoliberalism but a key component of it.

How could this be, you might ask? Surely, you might wonder, there is nothing like the blending of art and social justice to prove that the artist is working consciously to alleviate current conditions of economic and cultural inequality.

Well.

In “Against Diversity,” the critic Walter Benn Michaels outlines the crucial distinction between a neoliberalism of the left and a neoliberalism of the right.  Michaels illuminates this in the context of the relentless emphasis on racial and cultural diversity, long considered a panacea for all social ills in the United States, but his distinction is immensely useful in taking apart the notion of art as social justice.  As he puts it, we might imagine that the desire to prioritize diversity in the workplace is an important step towards eradicating inequality but it in fact contributes to it by making diversity rather than the eradication of economic inequality the solution for our troubles.  Left neoliberals “think that fighting against racial and sexual inequality is at least a step in the direction of real equality” while right neoliberals think “inequality is fine as long as it is not a function of discrimination.” In other words, both sides are neoliberal to the core, but our blindness towards inequality persuades us that only those who oppose diversity outright are the neoliberals we need to worry about.

That distinction between left and right neoliberals is key when it comes to the world of the arts in the United States, where the culture wars have given us easy distinctions between the left and the right.  Here, neoliberals who would crush the freedom of self-expression are seen as poised on the right against freethinking and brave artistic souls constructing radical political work, whom we perceive as positioned on the left.  In this milieu, private or foundation funders of art projects with a social justice emphasis are seen as coming to the rescue of “the arts” and helping to create conditions that foster a better society.

The idea that art is part of a larger cultural project of social justice is not entirely new to the United States, which has a history of deeming art as worthless if it is not Good for You.  A sequel to this piece will go into detail about key moments in the intertwining of art and social justice.  For now, it will suffice to note that much of this relatively recent heightened attention is a result of the infamous NEA battles of the 1980s and 1990s, most famously around the works of artists like Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andres Serrano.  The attempts to censor these artists were rightly recognized and criticized as such by the arts community, but one unfortunate result has been that the production and evaluation of “Art” has since then been firmly entrenched within the struggle between two sides.  As a result, our conception of art’s place in the public sphere - and whether or not we identify on the left or the right - has, inevitably, to do with how we respond to the controversies.

In this context, the neoliberals of the left are those who would press artists to continue to work for “social justice” and, perhaps, to fight against censorship.  The neoliberals on the right are those who think that social justice is not a function of art.  Both kinds of neoliberals want control over the production of art, and neither cares much about paying artists for their labor, and in that they are neoliberal to the core.  In the new and exploitative world of art as social justice, we are all neoliberals now.

The notion that art and social justice are intertwined has spread to all levels of the art and funding world, but it manifests itself most clearly in various “public art” projects that take upon themselves the responsibility to not only make art but also heal entire communities.  Recently, the Artivist Coalition of San Francisco launched 16 days of events on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence toward Women and Girls.  The day’s events included a speech by Mayor Gavin Newsom, who had declared the 25th the day of commemoration in 2008.  According to a piece in the San Francisco Examiner, the 16 days would include performances by artists like “Judy Grahn, choreographer Anne Bluethenthal, musician Diana Gameros, and Aztec Dancers Mixcoatl, among other community artists.” In the same article, songwriter Mamacoatl, who organized the events, is praised for her contributions to the project:

She remains clear about the integrity of the art.  All artists volunteer their time.  By relying on the passion that is the driving force, and not on the commercial benefits, Mamacoatl is “confident that something positive can happen.” There is no space here for the “plastic art” which can potentially taint work dependent on grants.  Instead, what arises is “a harnessing of creativity,” a gift, through art, to the community.  To incite, to inspire, to provoke awareness.

Here, “harnessing of creativity” becomes un-plastic and ethereal, born of wishes and hopes, adding to the pretense that what the artists produce – their grueling routines, their meticulously choreographed dances, their hours of work put into poetry making, their writing V – is worth nothing in material terms.

Therein lies another problem: the notion that the production of art is separate from the nitty-gritty of art as labor.  While I would never blame artists for their woes in terms of getting paid, the truth is that many of us have a hard time seeing ourselves as laborers who ought to be fairly compensated.  Most of us have been trained to think our work is sacrosanct, that our work is not labor, that it is above petty commerce, and that we must make art only for nobler causes.  When you add on the patina of social justice, many of us are reluctant unable to negotiate with those who are supposed to pay us, in part because we do care about the issues and the people affected by them.  And, in part, because, frankly, too many of us have assimilated a deeply privatized notion that our art is so profound that it can and should directly effect social change – monetary value be damned.  The result, as Andrew Ross puts it in a seminal essay, “The Mental Labor Problem,” is that “…the new profile of the artist as a social-service worker is coming to supplant the autonomous avant-garde innovator as a fundable type, increasingly sponsored through local arts agencies.” In the case of the Artivist Coalition events, artists were deployed as semi-mystical healers, responsible for shining a light on matters that should be the purview of social workers and politicians.

My Life in Art

What do funders have to gain from this peculiar commingling of art and social justice? I once found myself in conversation with a woman who was keen to begin financing social justice art projects.  I asked her if the emphasis on private funding would not end up taking pressure off the state to fund the arts.  Foolishly, I had assumed that people like her, who talked endlessly about the role of art in the public sphere, actually thought that at least some of the onus for arts funding needed to shift back to the state.  After all, if we in the arts are to insist that our work is part of a larger cultural and political framework, we ought also to ask the state to take responsibility for it, and to do so without getting bogged down in the right-wing Jesse Helms-dictated fear mongering of the 1980s.  To my surprise, she snipped that the responsibility lay entirely with private funders like her and that there was really no need for the state to play a role.

That was when it occurred to me that the woman was a perfect neoliberal of the left, concerned only with perpetuating the very model of privatized funding that has caused our economic crisis in the first place.  For the most part, arts and social justice funding is infused with the aura of nobility, combining the portrait of the penniless but determined artist with the desire and drive to change the world.  Alongside this figure stands the benign (neo)liberal funder, supposedly concerned only with making the world a better place.  But the emphasis on social justice and arts funding does not simply come out of a new urge on the part of people to change the world; it is symptomatic of a shortage in arts funding where only art based on a “social justice” model can and – the logic goes – should be funded.  This is largely a measure of economic stringency.  Fund Arts! Change the world! Cut costs!

No one seems to have asked artists what it means to provide art for social justice.  Looking in from the outside, it might appear that artists are naturally drawn to social justice because it is part of their DNA.  But is it, really? Who ultimately benefits from this blending of art and social justice? Looking at the lives of writers, it becomes clear that art as social justice is simply part of the neoliberal model of exploitation.

Writing is the probably the most devalued form of artistic creation in the United States.  A graphic artist can produce something suitable for framing, a dancer’s motions make dexterity and craft amply clear, a singer has a song.  All these arts are presented in settings that highlight the end product.  Writing is largely a solitary act, no matter what the proliferation of blogs tells you.  At the end of the day, your writing is between you and the flicker of the computer screen, and if you are fortunate to have a community of fellow writers, it is between you and them as well.  But the primary work, the hard work of producing and creating a coherent piece with an argument and an arc (as opposed to a blog that can be shot off without a backward glance) is yours alone.  What emerges at the end of the hours of work is sometimes printed on the page, often, these days, digitized for public viewing on the web.  There is no way for me to convey to you the hours of writing, research, and rewriting (as well as the hours put in by other writers who took the time to provide input) that this piece alone took.  Yet, writing is profoundly devalued to the point where it is seen as work without labor – anyone can write, the argument goes.  Just build a website, and pound away.

To be clear, I think it is always a good thing if people want to write more.  The problem is that the apparent democratization of writing today comes along with a profound devaluing of its worth as labor that ought to be fairly compensated.  Take, for example, the notion of the “citizen journalist.” Someone once had the bright idea that all it takes for a robust and civil society is to turn a group of citizens, armed with little more than basic web access, digital cameras, and the ability to pound keys, to make society accountable for its ills.  In return, they usually get little more than a free byline.  So, really, the term “citizen journalist” refers to “an unpaid schmuck who will work for free in hopes of a byline.” I also happen to be a professional journalist.  I once covered an event at City Hall and even managed to take some exclusive photos.  When I returned home to file the story, I found that a local website had already “reported” on it.  The “citizen journalist” for the site had simply cut and pasted a press release from one of the organizing groups, without even acknowledging that the words were taken verbatim from that document.  A reader would assume that the reporter had actually talked to people at the event, and would be unlikely to see the inherent bias in the article.  As as activist who has written a fair number of press releases, I know they are always written ahead of time, regardless of what might actually transpire at an event; they are carefully crafted messages that paint events as spectacular successes.  Without important information about the source of the material being divulged to the reader, the “citizen journalist” was able to pass off a cut-and-paste job as journalism.  In the end, this is the sort of shoddy work that brings down the quality of journalism  in general and it makes the work of journalists look like something that requires no effort and, hence, something that can be done for free or very little.

Let me be fair: I am also a blogger, and that work is entirely for free (a fact that escapes the notice of irate readers who summarily call for my “firing” by editors who are themselves making barely enough to keep the sites up and running).  I understand the value of producing work that might entice and create a reader base for my writing.  But all of this goes on in a social and political environment where people assume that it is not only okay to underpay writers, but that writers should, if worth their salt, be willing to be exploited.  A number of my friends work as staff journalists for print magazines and newspapers, and you would think that they would at least have the comfort of a regular job that pays them for the hard work that goes into reporting and reviewing.  Yet, increasingly, journalists and reviewers are being asked to blog in addition to their day jobs, and that work can turn into hours of uncompensated labor.  The question: “What do you think?” addressed to anyone who alights upon a publication’s website, has become ubiquitous.  Writers are asked to go above and beyond the labor they’ve already put into their pieces and “agree” to endless engagement with readers/trolls.  Some members of the public might have intelligent questions but the majority of them appear to simply be delighted with the prospect of treating a writer the way they might treat outsourced workers working on their consumer complaints: badly.  Piffle to the travel, the interviews, the photographs, the analysis, the writing, and the filing by deadlines.  All of the necessary work that actually goes into writing a piece becomes secondary to this specious form of “engagement” with people who might not even read the original article in its entirety.

The situation is hardly helped by the fact that artists like me are expected to function without the basics like health care and that, as a freelance writer, I cannot seek unemployment.  I have sprained the same knee twice in two years, leading to a drastic reduction in my earnings.  Intrepid journalism is hard or impossible if you have to ask a fast-trotting subject at a political rally to please slow down so that you can keep up with them.  I live with the knowledge that a slightly more serious accident could wipe me out.  I do various gigs around town to make what I can and I try to carve out chunks of that most precious commodity, the drug of choice for writers: time.

I do this because I would not be doing anything else.  But the fact that I, and the millions of professional writers like me, would rather not do anything else does not mean that we are pleased with a system that so completely devalues our work.  People wonder why my fellow writers and I will not just “get regular or part-time jobs” to pay the bills, but they forget that the current crisis means that even a part-time job is really full-time, and a full-time job automatically means unpaid overtime – if you want to actually keep the job.  I taught as an adjunct for three years.  I had a teaching schedule that tenure-track faculty would never endure, at about a quarter or less of their salary, without any time afforded for research or “professional development,” and without time for my own writing.  Most people unacquainted with the reality of a writing life cannot grasp the fact that while writing is not taxing in the same way as hard physical labor, it is draining, and not something you do on the fly.  People tend to assume that writing is like having a word processor in your head.  They imagine that you get on the train, you do your adjunct gig, you write in your head all the while, and you come home and hit print – because somehow, somewhere, it has all been typing itself.

Ironically, it may well be the world of unpaid blog writing that begins to shed some light on the conditions in which writers work, as more of them lose day jobs and publishing opportunities become scarce.  The New York-based journalist Stephanie Schroeder recently began a blog to document her experiences in New York City’s Back to Work program.  Schroeder had a day job at a public relations firm and also worked as a freelance journalist.  She was phased out from the public relations firm in June 2009, after seeing her hours reduced in February.  Finally, unable to find rent for December and without enough freelance assignments to fill in the gap, Schroeder found herself applying for Medicaid and temporary cash assistance and filling out forms for a case worker who could not understand how Schroeder came to be a “middle class white gerl [sic] with a graduate degree who says she’s working as a freelance journalist yet making less than $400 a month.” Schroeder’s point is not to privilege herself as someone who should not be in this position as a middle class white person with a graduate degree, but to point out that what outsiders to the world of writing fail to understand is the inherently unstable nature of writing as a livelihood, and the fact that one’s race and educational background do little to guarantee a steady income.  As a freelance writer, Schroeder, like many writers, writes for hire and is paid only after the piece is published.  The very idea that we produce work that does not even garner a small portion of the fee before the final product is delivered, is itself strange to most professionals.

Schroeder, in conversation with me, emphasized that the exploitation of writers begins even at the point of applying for writing jobs.  For instance, job applications often require a writer to turn in 500-word essays on a topic related to the blog/magazine, with the possibility of a byline if the potential employer decides to use it, but without actually paying the writer for her work.  Schroeder has responded to these advertisements by sending job posters her résumé and clips, along with an explanation of her fee rates.

The kind of arrogance that allows firms to assume that they can simply demand lengthy pieces from writers even before the point of entry and use their work to generate money is endemic in a culture where writing is considered a hobby and something that one is just born being good at – as opposed to the reality which every writer understands, that it is a craft steadily honed over a lifetime.

For writers, our work is not our reward; the amount paid for our work is the just reward.  But getting people to understand or acknowledge that is uphill work, and my precarious position as a freelance writer also means that people have felt free to exploit me.  When I first began my life as a writer, I was shocked to find that the most exploitative people are those embedded in the non-profit/social justice world.  I once had the six-figure salary earning head of a domestic violence organization try to get me to write a grant proposal for nothing.  I have had people change their minds about what they owed me after I turned in the work, which is a delicate way of saying that I have been cheated out of my wages (and yes, that did drive home an important lesson about contracts).  At a meeting of activists and organizers, I listened to a high-minded discussion about how the role of progressive media would be to engage more fully with the public on vital issues, and that everybody would be required to make sacrifices for this noble goal.  When I asked who would be paying the writers, all eyes turned to me as if I had dared to ask the cost of the china.  Independently wealthy people, some with staggeringly large fortunes, dominate the publishing and foundation world, and they have no idea what it means to try to produce work while worrying about rent or food.  Nevertheless, my question seemed, and still seems, a reasonable one. Writers provide the content that garners the advertising that keeps publishing alive.  Why, then, are they the last and least to be paid? Why are writers made to feel like their work is only ancillary to the carpet and automobile advertisements in a newspaper, magazine, or website? Much of this exploitation has come at the hands of people who are deeply embedded in the arts/social justice world, who assume that their devotion to their causes justifies treating their workers like crap.

So, whose great idea was it to combine art with social justice?

Our Left Art?

Even putting aside the exploitation of the writer/artist: we have still not reached a point where we critically analyze whether or not an art/social justice project is actually left/radical/progressive; we simply assume it to be so.  Art/ social justice projects are well intentioned and some are insightful, but the politics of these works rarely does much to challenge the status quo.  Instead, the overwhelming message is usually that certain systems of oppression, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, are bad.  There is little consideration given to a more nuanced and more devastating analysis of the ideological forces and the economic inequality that keeps those systems alive.  Furthermore, some of these projects are implicated in the very problematic power dynamics they claim to dismantle.  Over the course of my reporting and activism, I have interviewed or otherwise engaged with activist-artists whose work involve the incarcerated – remember the heyday of “prison art?”  In this field, it is painfully obvious that that too many of those seeking recognition for their generosity towards prisoners are clueless or simply unconcerned about their relative privilege vis-à-vis the inmates whose work they want to highlight.  One such artist conceptualized a project about women in prison.  When I interviewed her, it became painfully clear that she had no idea who these women were (she could not even remember their names) beyond their roles as participants in her grandly envisioned project of self-expression.  Making matters worse, she was oblivious to her relative privilege as someone who could afford to come and go as she pleased while her subjects were stuck inside.  Talking about the interview afterwards, she complained to a mutual acquaintance that I had not asked her about her art; she could only see the end product as her “art,” a piece that would highlight her role as the spokesperson for the women.  It never occurred to her that she would be questioned about the relations between her and the imprisoned women whose lives provided the material for the project.  In another instance, a man who presented on his artistic work in a prison in the southwest spoke glowingly about the good relations he had established with the guards and authorities and was defensive when asked if such work, which involved increased monitoring of the prisoners, was not further enabling the surveillance mechanisms of the prison industrial complex.

Prison art has waned somewhat in popularity, but it has been supplanted by a surge in interest in hip hop and spoken word.  In Chicago, where I live, the arts/social justice calendar is filled with events highlighting the talents of (usually) black youth, whose refashioning of the genre is part of a larger conversation about the perceived misogynistic and homophobic lyrics of major artists.  Much of this kind of work is worthwhile, given that the genre itself has been delegitimized and scrutinized by a wider culture that still sees black performers as threatening and violent figures.

But the current fetishization of hip hop amongst mostly white funders comes with the fetishization and commodification of black youth as authentic poets of their generation.  There are few things as uncomfortable as sitting amongst white social justice activists nodding to themselves in a self-congratulatory fashion as a black teenager stands on a stage and speaks to the troubles of his or her neighborhood.  What is ignored is the fact that the youth are being locked into a performativity that requires them to speak about their experiences but does not take them anywhere near the apparatus that could dismantle systemic oppression.  You can speak out loud about the problems in the ’hood, but don’t you dare ever think you can become part of the structure that addresses them.  In these conditions, hip hop has become the vernacular of authentic inequality.

What’s Left?

Is there a place for social justice in art? In the current state of things, where artists are exploited by left neoliberals and where the politics of most arts/social justice projects are suspect, the answer would have to be: no.  Those of us in the art world who also care about social justice need to begin to critically analyze the exploitative and reductive model of funding that we have enabled.  We need to stop asking ourselves only: Are these projects going to change the world? Instead, we ought to ask: Are these projects fair and equitable and just in the way they treat artists as workers? Do they really advance an understanding of how we might dismantle fundamental forms of inequality? Perhaps more importantly: Do they need to? Works of art have historically been linked to social change by exposing cultural and political problems, whether in the novels of Dickens or Picasso’s Guernica.  But such messages about the need for social change come about when the artist is left unburdened with the specific and onerous task of changing the world.  A culture that so self-consciously and overtlys assign the role of social change to art is a culture that has exhausted its ability to effect truly radical and visionary social change.  It is hypocritical to place the burden of change on artists who are expected to perform change for little or nothing, while we allow for the defunding of the apparatus that should keep them alive.

If the genres of “artivism” have waxed and waned, so have the actual structures of funding.  The general cuts in funding of the arts across the board have resulted in new and supposedly more flexible mechanisms via which to gather and disburse money.  In other words, not only is the work of art seen as a way to bring about social justice or change, the very nature of funding itself is being refashioned to look like a form of social justice.  On the face of it, some of these funding strategies look more egalitarian, like the cheerily named “umbrella organizations.” Part II of this article will consider the realities of such supposedly more flexible and liberatory funding structures but, for now, it is worth remembering that a system that cannot see the exploitative nature of the arts and social justice framework is unlikely to be any less exploitative and neoliberal just because it claims to be a new and progressive form of funding.

I am aware of the reality of arts funding in the U.S.  I know that without even the façade of these art/social justice funding projects, a lot of artists and creative workers like me will struggle to have their work funded.  And let me be clear: I do not see “art” of any kind as a purer or nobler ideal divorced from funding or from community ties.  But the solution is not to seek forms of funding which simply amplify the exploitation already inherent in the concept of art as social justice.  Our time would be better spent in devising ways to wrest back the public debate about funding of the arts.  Over the last few decades, we have ceded control of the debate to an intense and organized right wing that now methodically scrutinizes work for the smallest sign of moral degeneration.  In the process of reviling the right as a set of conservatives, we have huffed about our own liberal/progressive impulses, and engendered arts projects that do little more than detail tokenistic and liberal solutions for the social problems that ail us.

We, on the left, may not have the billionaires of the right to fund our projects but no one who is part of the arts/social framework can any longer refuse to see that we have slowly built up an exploitative and reductive funding structure and a pedantic genre of art.  The only way out is to end the pretence and ask ourselves: Does art serve no purpose if it cannot serve an explicit agenda like “social justice?” In recent years, we have seen public service announcements by celebrities touting the benefits of arts education in elementary schools because it supposedly helps make better mathematicians or physicists out of children.  Perhaps the point ought to be that arts education makes for better artists.  Perhaps we ought to stop being so apologetic about art and not keep trying to wrap its trembling shoulders with that raggedy shawl of self-righteousness, and instead advocate for public school funding that incorporates all aspects of education.  Perhaps we ought to accept the fact that artists may produce work that is disinterested in social change, and put some of the burden back on the state to effect the kind of social change we want.  Without buying too much into the neoliberal mantra of choice (often a code word for “choose this, or else”), we need to acknowledge that artists should have the power to choose when or if and how they will speak to social justice issues.  Without that choice, they are only being exploited in the name of art or, worse, in the name of art disguised as social justice.  The privatization of the arts now mostly requires artists to speak explicitly to social justice, and that robs artists of any autonomy over their creative processes.

Perhaps, horrors, that actually means that we lose the practice of bargain basement hunting for the arts.  That we stop expecting writers and dancers to perform for free or almost nothing in the vain hope of “exposure” or “healing.” Perhaps, with the example of the privatized health care system having produced 50 million uninsured, we might now also realize that privatizing the arts leads to similarly devastating consequences for the state of art, and that we stand to lose vibrancy and imagination into the sinkhole formed by vapid social justice projects.  In a country where we expect to get a rock bottom price on anything, including the work of writers and dancers, the arts and social justice complex has become the Wal Mart-like purveyor of the fiction of Change, that great and now utterly meaningless word that seems to mean “more of the same”.  If we really want to see social justice come alive, let us once and for all stop creating more methods of exploiting the arts and stop putting the burden on the artist to carry out our politics of change.

If you like this essay, please consider making a donation by using the Paypal option, which is on every page on this website - or contact me if you'd like to send one by any other means.

SOURCES
Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Diversity.” New Left Review, 52, July-August 2008
Andrew Ross, “The Mental Labor Problem.” Social Text (Volume 18, Number 2), Summer 2000, pp. 1-31
Stephanie Schroeder’s blog
Image of mug from zazzle.com
Originally published in Dakshina, Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company Newsletter, Winter 2009
© 2010 Yasmin Nair


book | about seo