Caitlin Magda Shepherd

"Art belongs not to the active life but to the contemplative life—not to the vita activa but to the vita contemplativa." Nicholas Wolterstorff

Month: December, 2014

Art and Social Justice

Stephen Powers - Change the Game

Stephen Powers – Change the Game

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”

Raymond Williams

“‘Art’ Bernstein says, ‘never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed…because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events…by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.” 1

This is an essay that aims to explore the basic concepts of social justice, and to explore the role of arts producers, artists and arts organisations in working to bring around social change. To begin with I shall give a brief overview of historical concepts of justice. I will then explore the work of artists who I feel are involved with creating work to affect positive social change. I will then explore the links between these arts producers and see what questions and thoughts emerge from the process. To begin with I will give two starting points, two definitions of social justice.

Everyone has the right to work, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection for himself and his family (and) an existence worthy of human dignity. . .. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.”2

Social justice is a basic value and desired goal in democratic societies and includes equitable and fair access to societal institutions, laws, resources [and] opportunities, without arbitrary limitations based on observed, or interpretation of, differences in age, colour, culture, physical or mental disability, education, gender, income, language, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.”3

Back in the day (348/347 BCE), there were also strong thoughts on social justice. In Plato’s most well-known dialogue, Republic, Book II 4 (which sets out to answer two questions. What is justice? Why should we be just?) Glaucon, one of Socrates’s young companions offers an answer to the question “what is justice?” by representing a social contract explanation for the nature of justice. S/he explains what people would most want is to be able to commit injustices against others without the fear of reprisal, and what they most want to avoid is being treated unjustly by others without being able to do injustice in return. Justice then, s/he says, is the conventional result of the laws and covenants that people make in order to avoid these extremes. Being unable to commit injustice with impunity and fearing becoming victims themselves, people decide that it is in their interests to submit themselves to the convention (or social contract) of justice. However, Socrates rejects this view, and most of the rest of the dialogue centres on showing that justice is worth having for its own sake, and that the just person is the happy person. So, from Socrates’ point of view, justice has a value that greatly exceeds the prudential value that Glaucon assigns to it.

In contemporary thought, the concept of social justice frequently refers to a just society and expands beyond the legal interpretation of justice and the law. At the heart of the concept, is the idea that society gives individuals and groups fair treatment and an equal share of benefits, resources, and opportunities. However, striving for justice remains a continuing struggle, since not all individuals or groups receive the same justice, opportunities, or rights in similar situations. 5

The concept of social justice has an interesting relationship with power. At times, people in positions of power and privilege may disregard those who are less powerful. This may be due to ignorance, lack of awareness, or simply not being concerned about the lives of people who are powerless. These types of actions frequently contribute to a continuation of unfair treatment and inequity in services, resulting in continued oppression and personal behaviours and decisions that support and cultivate discrimination and unequal institutional policies and practices. The perpetuation of the power differential is underscored by the fact that many of those in power have the information, knowledge, and skills to access resources and peers who have the ability to influence policies and funding priorities that could promote greater equity, equal opportunities, and fairness.

A good example of this is the inequity in wealth and power in the United States (where I write this essay). The top 1% of income earners received approximately 23% of the pre-tax income in 2012, versus approximately 10% from 1950 to 1980.6 The same type of power inequality can be seen when we examine representation in positions of power; in modern-day America, people of colour and women are still grossly underrepresented in Congress and as CEOs. In the United States, women are a majority of the electorate but hold only a quarter of upper-level state governmental positions and 15 per cent of congressional seats7. In the UK, a recent Oxfam report, outlines that almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one per cent of the population, and seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years. 8 The World Economic Forum has identified economic inequality as a major risk to human progress, impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale. 9 So basically social injustice is rife, and on the increase. Which leads me to the question what can be done, and equally pressing, what role does the arts and artists have in facilitating a more just society.

 John Rawl’s seminal book, Theory of Justice (TJ) published in 1971 was an influential work that sought to organize society in a way that keeps problems of injustice, resentment and alienation in relation to unfair socio economic institutions within liveable limits.10 Ultimately Rawls’s was asking can society be organized around fair principles of cooperation in a way the people would stably accept? Rawls’s original thought is that equality, also described as a fair distribution of advantages, should be addressed as a background matter by constitutional and legal provisions that structure social institutions. While fair institutions will influence the life chances of everyone in society, they will leave individuals free to exercise their basic liberties as they see fit within this fair set of rules. To carry out this central idea, Rawls takes as the subject matter of TJ “the basic structure of society,” defined (as he later put it) as “the way in which the major social institutions fit together into one system, and how they allocate fundamental rights and duties, and shape the division of advantages that arises through social cooperation.”  Rawls’s suggestion is, simply put, that we should put all our effort into seeing to it that “the rules of the game” are fair. Once society has been organized around a set of fair rules, people can set about freely “playing” the game, without interference. 11

So, the big question is; how can artists help keep the focus on the design and introduction of ‘fair rules’ to contribute to the creation of a just society? I will explore the work of three British artists / arts organisations that are working to challenge unfair power distributions and a range of social, economic and environmental injustices. Before I do that, I want to touch on the work of Chrissie Tiller, who recently published The Spectrum of Participation,12 Tiller recently worked up the spectrum, ‘Beyond the Audience’, for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. She states wanting to produce something that might begin to facilitate honest conversations between artists, arts organisations and funders about participatory practice: a means of speaking about the work within the wider framework of art, culture and social change. She states

There are inevitable dangers in trying to capture something as dynamic as participatory arts within a diagram or table; even if suggesting it is part of a continuum. At the same time I feel it is important we are able to articulate our practice. I wanted to distinguish between work that draws on notions of co-creation, collaboration, or interaction as part of its aesthetic, while having little or no social purpose, and that which is committed to the genuine democratisation of the creative process.” 13

 I will now give an overview of three arts practitioners who work within the broad area of art as social practice, with a focus on addressing a variety social injustices.

 Platform is an organisation that uses art to reconnect audiences with issues of global concern, using creative and emotive mediums. Platform performs and exhibits in whatever spaces serve the needs of the project; a field, the street, along a river or an office block. Platform’s work has also taken place in cultural venues including the South Bank Centre, Glastonbury Festival, ArtsAdmin, Tate, Brixton Jamm, Climate Camp, Serpentine Gallery, Free University of Liverpool Spacex, Live Art Development Agency, New Art Exchange, FACT, Arnolfini, carneige Mellon, Kunsterness Hus and many more. Platform is currently focussed on on the social, economic and environmental impacts of the global oil industry. By pioneering education courses, exhibitions, art events and book projects, they are working to promote radical new ideas to change how the global oil industry is organised. Justice isn’t just what they do, it’s how the do it. They operate through collective decision-making and work to wage parity. The team includes campaigners, artists and researchers who work together, committed to core values of social justice, solidarity, creativity and democracy.

My next example of a contemporary British artist working to affect positive social change, and address a wider social injustice is artist Bob and Roberta smith; a one man show who likes to confuse and trick his audiences. Bob and Roberta see art as a vital aspect in democratic life, and he often steps directly into the political system, not content to simply comment on it. His medium is usually large politically themed signs, and he is of the idea that campaigns are extended works of art, which include a variety of consciousness raising artefacts. In 2013 Bob and Roberta launched the Art party with Crescent Arts, Scarborough. The Art Part seeks to better advocate the arts to the Government. The Art Party is not a formal political party, but is a loose grouping of artists and organisations that are deeply concerned about the Government diminishing the role of all the arts and design schools. It was recently announced on Bob and Roberta’s website that he will be running against Mr Gove in his Surrey Health constituency under the pseudonym of Patrick Brill, who specialises in painted placards.

The final example I will refer to, is an organisation of artists, working under the name Fourthland. They are a group that works in an inter disciplinary way, across a range of research led mediums including documents, interruptions, built environments, spaces and thinking. I’m particularly interested in their built environment works. In their own words

Built Environments are the projects that are here to stay. They are on-going. They are long term. They are with, in and for the community. They are public, collective and organised. They celebrate the architecture that believes in the gathering, in sharing, in warmth, in working through difference, conflict, in coming together, in groups, in people making their own power. Built Environments are the projects made by the people for the people. They run themselves. Our projects exist on the Wenlock Barn Estate in London.”14

What I really like about Fourthland is the clear commitment to a participatory approach, and their use of objects as conversational prompts to engage diverse community groups. Their work exists as social research as well as social and built architectural practice, and they work with people to enrich public space. As I write this I am reminded of Richard Sennett’s notion of ‘a place where strangers meet’.15

Listed above is a tiny example of a larger movement of artists and arts organisations who work to overcome social injustice in a variety of ways, using a range of art forms. Are they effective, do they work? Well of course, that depends on the impact indicators use, and primary definitions of success. It is my view that every socially orientated art project must work with it’s participants or wider groups to agree a set of success indicators before the projects takes shape, so success is not a myopic and one dimensional view bolted on at the end. Well that is for another essay. What I think unites these three examples is a clarity of purpose, a clear political position, autonomy and independence and an ability to work in an inter disciplinary and collaborative manner. A recent report published by Emergence entitled Culture Shift. In this report there is a section dedicated to exploring the relationship between arts and sustainability and systems thinking. Systems thinking is theory advocated by Fritjof Capra and described in the report as a

“Shift of perspective from parts to whole: Living systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. These properties are destroyed when a system is dissected, either physically or conceptually, into isolated properties.” 16

All of the above arts practitioners use a holistic approach, and thus see the political problems they work to challenge and overcome as part of a bigger picture. Platform and Bob and Roberta Smith in particular see that their work is contextualised by the pursuit of social justice, while Fourthland seem to recognise the value of their work in terms of social access and inclusion in a much more subtle and inherent way. The clarity of purpose runs through example of arts producers that effect political change in a pragmatic way; I mean systemically and socially. Platform seems to focus in on set projects, presently it is using arts to campaign against the oil industry, while Bob and Roberta is working to protect investment and valuing of arts education. Fourthland work as a social research / arts organisation, interested in transforming, challenging and opening conversation about the use of public space, and how that relates to art.

A remaining question is that of “when has art effectively changed policy to put a stop to social injustice?”. I will leave that to my next and final essay of my time spent as artist in residency at Santa Fe Arts Institute. However the role of art is to extend accepted territories of thought, debate and subsequently action. As Noam Chomsky acknowledges below;

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s freethinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” 17

I believe that one of the main functions of art is to carve out thought and practice space for radical and pragmatic ideas to emerge, be heard and ultimately to be implemented. The unique aspect of public art, is that as yet it is not instilled in the same elitism that has enshrouded a range of academic subjects, and the jet set elite of the international contemporary art crew. Public art is the thing that walk out of the studio and onto the street, and talks with anyone it meets, expanding the limits of conventional thought. I will end on the same quote I started with.

‘Art’ Bernstein says, ‘never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed…because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events…by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.’1


  1. Christine Tiller, The Spectrum of Participation , Dublin, Create-Ireland, 2014 Pg 3
  2. Rita Chi-Ying Chung&Frederic P. Bemak, Social Justice counselling; next steps beyond multiculturalism, Sage Publications, California, 2012
  3. Rebecca L. Toporek, Lawrence (Larry) H. Gerstein, Nadya A. Fouad, Gargi Roysircar-Sodowsky,Tania Israel, Handbook for Social Justice in Counseling Psychology: Leadership, Vision, and Action, Sage Publishing, California, 1996, pg 190
  4. (2014). The Republic.Available: Last accessed 15 December 2014.
  5. Rita Chi-Ying Chung&Frederic P. Bemak, Social Justice counselling; next steps beyond multiculturalism, Sage Publications, California, 2012, pg 26
  6. John Cassidy. (2013). American Inequality in Six Charts.Available: Last accessed 15 December 2014.
  7. Deborah L. Rhode and Barbara Kellerman. (2006). WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP: THE STATE OF PLAY.Available: Last accessed 15 December 2014.
  8. Working for the Few; Political capture and economic inequality, Oxfam, Oxford 2014, pg 2
  9. Ibid.
  10. HS Richardson. (2006). John Rawls, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.Available: Last accessed 15 December 2014
  11. Ibid.
  1. Christine Tiller, The Spectrum of Participation , Dublin, Create-Ireland, 2014 Pg
  2. Ibid.
  3. Louise Sayarer and Eva Vikstrom.. (2008). Built Environments.Available: Last accessed 15 December 2014.
  4. Richard Sennett. (2014). About .Available: Last accessed 15 December 2014.
  5. Culture Shift; how artists are responding to sustainability in Wales, Emergence, Swansea, 2014, pg 21
  6. Last accessed 15 December 2014.




Some photos of where I’m working as Artist in Residence. Beautiful light, high altitude. It snowed today.


Last night an artist saved my life

Here are a Five artists who are of interest to me at the moment. All of the encompass a degree of social realism, surrealism and striking imagery that explores human relationship with place and people. Specifically my work is concerned with exploring how best to document the stories and experiences of other people. Particularly marginalised social groups, and explore how to give voice to socio – economic inequity, while critiquing the art wold fixation with ‘making it’. Which basically translates to wanting to be rich and famous. Social realism is the term most generally I would use to describe the way my work is developing at the moment, realised through the medium of sound documentary. I’m particularly interested in bearing awkward social and individual truths, stories that are uncomfortable, and that perhaps a more prividlidged audience might find ‘tiresome’ to endure. At the moment, I’m toying more and more with using my own body and voice as a medium to communicate my ideas; but in an anonymous / alter ego type way. I’m not interested in becoming any sort of art celebrity and infact, quite enjoy the prospect of ridiculing such eternally repatitous fixations with fame and power.

jane and Louise Wilson

Stasi City (Pater Noster) 1997

Jane and Louise Wilson
Stasi City (Pater Noster)
C-print on aluminum
71 x 71 inches

Richard Billingham


Working Class Life; parents

Kai Kaljo

Ragnar Kjartansson

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques


Open the door

The history of melancholy belongs to all of us

Some Old Skool Inspiration: Nan Goldin








Visiting the Santo Domingo Tribe

“What you need to understand about Pueblo people, is that unlike western religions and people, they do not order things”



Santo Domingo Pueblo


Big sky, dessert, soft earth, no concrete, telephone poles, why do you need a new wall when you can build into mine. My lasting impression was of a very community orientated, protective and proud people. As I asked if I could marry into the culture, it was made clear that non Peublo marriage is forbidden, and individuals can only marry between Peublo people. If there is a mixed race marriage, the member of the community must leave the Peublo. In a way, I found this quite extreme, but on the other hand saw it as a basic rule that united people in a clear and ongoing understanding of their bloodlines, identity and sense of people and place.

I arrived at the Santo Domingo Pueblo, which is about half an hours drive from Santa Fe. There are about 5,000 people living here, and the chief of the Pueblo told us that 3 – 4 families live in each house, which seems particularly overcrowded. Santo Domingo Pueeblo is the largest of the eastern Keresan-speaking pueblos. Visitors are not allowed to take photos of the Pueblo, but I have found a few images online.

What was really striking about the place, was the earthiness (and poverty) of the place, but it felt very rich in community. I was reminded of old high streets from cowboy films, when all the roads were dirt roads. As we walked around it was amazing to be on residential streets with such a soft earth feeling underfoot. People were out and about, waving from windows coming out to say hi to the chief who was showing us around his town. There was an abundance of large wooden ladders leading up to flat adobe rooftops, which is a traditional way to enter a pueblo. There were lots of earthen ovens outside homes, where it was still traditional to bake bread. There was a central plaza, where denizens of the Pueblo performed traditional dances throughout the year. The next one was going to be on Christmas day, and families were preparing for the event. In Santo Domingo, it is common for families to practice dance at home, and dance together. I found this particularly moving, and wondered how I could emulate such a practice in the UK. Our cultural dances are more rooted in hedonistic rituals, rather than relating the body to the seasons, to materials to build with, to health of individuals and the community; it makes so much sense to me to communicate using the body, as it is the body that is supported by many of the resources we yearn to source and create / consume.

The Santo Domingo Church - the wooden beams are called 'vegas' or 'wood'.

The Santo Domingo Church – the wooden beams are called ‘vegas’ or ‘wood’.

There are 19 Pueblo’s in the USA, and they are actually not part of America, but their own countries. There are not many flags, or signs of grand territories; rather these are demarcated by endless metal fences. The Pueblo’s are settlements of Pueblo people, who are are descendants of an indigenous Native American culture that has established itself over many centuries. The Pueblo Indians received their name from the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. “Pueblo” is the Spanish name for “town”. When Coronado discovered the Native Americans in the mid 1500’s in the area that is now New Mexico and Arizona, he named them “Pueblo Indians” because they were a settled tribe, and not nomadic like some of the other local tribes. The Pueblo America Indian people are believed to be the descendants of three major cultures including the Mogollon,Hohokam, and Ancient Puebloans, with their history tracing back for some 7,000 years.


Traditional dance in the plaza


The Indian tribespeople conduct their own means of governance, based on traditions of their people, and separate from the US governments. Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, many Pueblos refused to allow their traditional form of government to be replaced by a foreign system. The tribal council system is modeled somewhat after the U.S. government, but also has much in common with the way corporations are governed. Each tribe within the United States was given the option of reorganizing under the act, and many Pueblos refused to do so. Traditional Pueblo government features leadership from different sources of strength within each community. Clans are an important force in providing leadership, and among some Pueblos specific clans have traditional obligations to provide leaders. This is true of the Bear Clan among the Hopi, the Antelope Clan at Acoma, and the Bow Clan at Zuñi. The Tewa pueblos have dual village leaders, where the heads of the winter and summer moieties each exercise responsibility for half the year. In matters of traditional religion, which encompasses much of what white people associate with government, a cacique among the Pueblos and a kikmongwi among the Hopi have serious responsibilities to the people. Along with their assistants they not only perform ceremonies but also organize hunts and the planting of crops.

It’s pretty amazing to think of the 19 separate countries preserving the culture of native american indians scattered across four states of the US. The Pueblo people are now located primarily in New Mexico, however, at one time the Pueblo’s homeland reached into the states of Colorado and Arizona.



South West Big Sky






Breaking Bad: Art as an agent of socio economic change


“Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance”

Shirin Neshat – Art in Exile

 For a long time, I’ve been aware that my creative practice is interlinked with advocating ideas and practices that further social justice. As part of my residency at Santa Fe Arts Institute, I’m keen to take the time to clarify my own thinking in terms of how art can influence social change, and in particular often hidden, but increasingly explicit economic structures of power and control; specifically the philosophy and economic principle of capitalism. There are many terms relating to this theme that I will take a moment to define, in order to make explicit the ideas and processes I refer to when I explore the role of art as an agent for positive social change.

Social Justice: The term ‘social justice’ implies fairness and mutual obligation in society: that we are responsible for one another, and that we should ensure that all have equal chances to succeed in life. In societies where life chances are not distributed equally, this implies redistribution of opportunities, although the shape that such redistribution should take remains contested. The most influential thinker on social justice has been John Rawls (1971): Rawls argues for a balance between social equality and individual freedom. However, social equality and individual freedom are frequently seen as in tension, and debate continues as to how, and to what extent, they can be balanced. 1

Art: An agreed definition of art?! What a pleasurable invitation to practice Keat’s idea of “negative capability’. Looking back to the fore-thinkers of modern philosophy and art theory, I err closer to the Aristotelian theory of art then Plato’s and I think Sir Francis Bacon sums it up quite nicely. Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) follows Aristotle rather than Plato in insisting that art does not present an inferior imitation of the real world, but rather it presents a world that is better than the one we live in. In The Advancement of Learning Bacon argues that history, fact and reason are necessarily tied to human experience, and the world as we know it is governed by our senses. Rather than seeing our sensory perceptions as organized by reason, as a higher form of truth, Bacon argues that imagination, unchained by the limitations of sensory perception or actual experience, can create realities not yet manifested. In a nutshell, art is a space where we can utilise the imagination to think up and make tangible alternatives to the limitations of reason and it’s reality.

Art as Social Practice: Art as Social Practice celebrates a degree of cross – disciplinarily in art making, paralleling the kind of cross media collaboration across image, sound, movement, space, and text that we find in performance. It also gestures to the realm of socio-political, recalling the activist and community – building ethic of socially engaged performance research. It is also a resolutely imprecise term. 2

Capitalism: Capitalism is the economic and social system (and also the mode of production) in which the means of production are predominantly privately owned and operated for profit, and distribution and exchange is in a mainly market economy. It is usually considered to involve the right of individuals and corporations to trade (using money) in goods, services, labour and land. Some form of Capitalism has been dominant in the Western world since the end of feudalism in the middle Ages, and has provided the main, although not exclusive, means of industrialization throughout much of the world.3

Marxist aesthetics is a theory of aesthetics based on, or derived from, the theories of Karl Marx. It involves a dialectical and materialist, or dialectical materialist, approach to the application of Marxism to the cultural sphere, specifically areas related to taste such as art, beauty, etc. Marxists believe that economic and social conditions, and especially the class relations that derive from them, affect every aspect of an individual’s life, from religious beliefs to legal systems to cultural frameworks. From one classic Marxist point of view, the role of art is not only to represent such conditions truthfully, but also to seek to improve them (social/socialist realism), however, this is a contentious interpretation of the limited but significant writing by Marx and Engels on art and especially on aesthetics. 4

So what’s so bad about capitalism anyway? Firstly, to be clear, capitalism is not only economic practice; it’s a whole philosophy. Laissez faire capitalism means the total separation of economy and state, just like the separation of church and state. Capitalism is the social system based upon private ownership of the means of production, which entails a completely uncontrolled and unregulated economy where all resources or assets are privately owned. But the separation of the state and the economy is not a primary, but an aspect of the premise that capitalism is based upon: individual rights.

Some advocates of capitalism claim that it’s the only politico-economic system based on the doctrine of individual rights. This means that capitalism recognizes that each and every person is the owner of his own life, and has the right to live his life in any manner he chooses as long as he does not violate the rights of others. Sooooo, what’s wrong with having your cake and eating it? Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that assuming individual satisfaction and ultimately happiness can be determined through individual free will and self-gratification. Or perhaps the assumption that every person is born with the same resources, social position and opportunities as the other.

Such a philosophical approach overlooks the need for a fair starting point for all to contribute on an equal footing to an equal society. It also overlooks the social need for the individual to enact and feel a belonging to a greater whole. I guess the first problem, is that we are social creatures, not individualised atoms. Supporting the idea that capitalism erodes all values that are not driven by profit, therefore dismantling a wider existence of social well bing, Marx argued that capitalism tends to destroy almost all non-economic or non-profit-related values and replaces these with a mere “cash nexus”. It makes the market and therefore considerations of monetary profit and loss the sole criteria of value, action and exchange. A key argument against the philosophy of capitalism is that it erodes values that are integral to a healthy society, but have no value in the ‘cash nexus’.

Another key critism of capitalism that I’m keen to uphold is that it undermines the concept of democracy. Some capitalists state that the only purpose of government would be to protect its citizens from force or fraud. 5 The problem with this basic premise, is the assumption that individuals all start with the same access to resources, education and opportunity as each other, and that the playing field is indeed level. Unfortunately it is not.

At the core of this neoliberal ideology is a simple assertion – economic exchanges promote freedom because they are voluntary and, thus, they only occur if both parties believe they will benefit. Unregulated market exchanges thus allow individuals to engage with others in complex social arrangements without coercion, without impinging on individual liberty. Government is needed, but only to define and enforce property rights and to create and regulate the currency individuals need to undertake market exchanges. Liberal Keynesians, who argue for expanding government in order to regulate or oversee individual exchange, are denigrated because they seek to interrupt these free and voluntary agreements and they, therefore, undermine individual liberty. The flaw in this neoliberal reasoning is not hard to see. Ownership of wealth obviously confers power; it gives some individuals an upper hand in the “voluntary” exchanges they make with others. Lacking the means otherwise to support ourselves, most of us must hire out our ability to do work in exchange for wages. We might do quite well if we are educated and talented, lucky or white, but even so, we ultimately produce more value than we are paid – that is, after all, the reason we are hired.

Wealth ownership gives an upper hand to employers in these voluntary exchanges with working people. The extra value we create flows steadily into the hands of wealth holders and we don’t have a say over what it is used for. This is not exactly a demonstration of fairness for all led by the free choice of the individual. This example of the exploitation of the masses (proletariat) by the wealthy and powerful elite (bourgeois) leads nicely onto the third criticism of capitalism; which is even if all people were given fair and equal access to resources, that individual choice is not consistent with pursuing the same definition of progress. It seems that the principle of individuality is that any person can live their life as they want, as long as they do not violate the rights of another person. Pretty fair right? Capitalism today see’s the wealthiest people encircle a huge amount of wealth and power. For example, Oxfam states that almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population. This is a violation of the basic notion of justice, and could also be seen as a violation of the human rights act; depending on where you’re standing (Article 3, 4 and 23) 6 where every person has the same access to resources, and the same rights as the other; it seems to me that you can do well as a capitalist as long as you don’t care about the idea and practice of social equity.

Well, I appear to have ranted that one out. Now what’s art got to do with transforming the western fixation with Capitalism? I think there has historically been two poles of meaning associated with art; one is art as a social status symbol, or explicitly put; as a demonstration of wealth and power, and the other is as the voice and vision of alternatives; the voice of dissent. To demonstrate this theory, lets look at the social role of the Medici family, also known as the House of Medici. The family first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century through its success in commerce and banking. The family’s wealth and power is said to have fuelled the renaissance. The family had ties to all popular renaissance painters, including the Pollaiuolo brothers, Fra Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli. Jonathon Jones illustrates the point well.

“The Medici are among the most renowned art patrons in history, and with good reason. But here’s a fascinating thing: they are also among the architects of the modern economy. They were the greatest bankers of their age, and the Medici bank pioneered crucial aspects of modern finance. They were “foreign exchange dealers” who enacted a “transfiguration of finance”, points out the financial historian Niall Ferguson. When we look at Botticelli’s Venus, we are looking at money.” 7

On an associated point, I could now use Charles Saatchi as a modern purveyor of art as a symbol of wealth and power; interested in furthering demonstrations of free individuals lapping up the power they deserve, after working tirelessly for years (or maybe that’s just the elite who were born rich). But I’m more interested in exploring an example of artists or art as dissenting voice. I feel like sticking to the well known here, so have to use the example of AI WeiWei. Wei is a contemporary artist and activist, and is well know for his 2010 Sunflower installation in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government‘s stance on democracy and human rights. Although not specifically related to Capitalism, his approach demonstrates how the role of the artist can affect systemic, national and international political thought and practice. Wei has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. 8

Now I have illustrated the socio – economic poles of the contemporary and historical art world (seeking wealth and power vs. challenging wealth and power), I would like to explore the theoretical backdrop for the role of art as and agent for social change. This is related to, but somewhat apart from specifically focussing on art as an agent to transform Capitalist thought. Consider the next part of this writing more of a zoom out on the political role of art, and how art can affect political change.

Traditionally and culturally, art and politics have been held apart. 9 Therefore, it is not surprising, that it is easy for a wider public to dismiss art as excessive, as unnecessary, a waste of money and resources when compared with the destitution, ills and social injustices ever-present around the world. If you did this, you would be missing the point of art. 10 Art exposes and helps resolve issues of social justice.  As a cultural tool, art helps humanize and actualize the emotions, grievances, and fears of those who may not have another place to voice concerns. As an illustrative and journalistic tool, art shocks and inspires us to action. What art depicts can illicit a visceral, almost cellular, reaction. This view would probably greatly agitate Plato, who thought that art only advocated irrationality, and raised the irrational forces of emotion. However, having now realised the importance of emotional intelligence, art is of great value in inspiring behaviour change through arousing awareness and empathy across a range of mediums. And the interest in art as social practice, or activist art is growing. There are a now a small handful of international education programme in social practice, including the very exciting Master’s Program in Aesthetics and Politics At CalArts, an MA in Arts Politics at New York University, a course of the same title at Goldsmiths. Focus on merging arts as a medium to express and influence political thought is emerging, and simultaneously being recognised by educational institutions and organisations as an effective catalyst for change. Illustrating the uptake and increase in art as social practice, earlier this year Artnews commented

Social practice is going mainstream as more artists focus their work on making an impact on problems like homelessness and pollution.” 11

Art throughout time has been a very social act; be it through trade, commissioning, collecting, observing, participating and critiquing, not to mention making. Artists serve themselves, an audience, and often clients, and more and more cater to specific social and political need. The interesting tension is, that historically art has been viewed as somehow intellectually or rationally inferior, but as more and more artists demonstrate an ability to not only understand, but interpret and translate political issues, into emotionally compelling, compassionate and politically specific mediums, there is more and more space for art become recognised as an agent for political and economic change. I was meant to be exploring some links between art as a medium for political change with a specific focus on challenging a capitalist ideology, and my own work; but will save that for another thinking session. For now I would like to share an example of politicized work by a favourite artist of mine. Thomas Hirschhorn.

Last summer, Thomas Hirschhorn constructed the final edition in a series of “monuments” commemorating thinkers he admires. Like the Swiss artist’s other monuments, this one was crude—resembling a feverishly built backyard fort made from plywood and packing tape—and assembled with the help of the community that hosted the project. In this case, his collaborators were the residents of Forest Houses, an austere arrangement of public-housing towers dating back to 1956 in New York’s South Bronx.

 Hirschhorn designed his Gramsci Monument—in honor of Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci—to encourage interaction. “The question of the site,” he wrote in a text that accompanied the work, “is a question of human encounter.” And for its ten-week duration, the monument was just that: a place for panel discussions, seminars, Latin-music performances, and art workshops. Kids ran up and down the ramps. Local poets took to an open microphone to read their stanzas. On family day, someone showed up with a horse.

 “Even on a rainy day, it was special,” recalls Yasmil Raymond, curator at the Dia Art Foundation, which organized the project. “There was one day where Marcus Steinweg”—the philosopher—“was giving a lecture, and there were people there in raincoats listening to him.” One resident of the Forest Houses told the blog Art F City: “A lot of people up there have said they’re gonna cry when it’s down. I dunno if I’m gonna cry, but I’m gonna miss it a lot.” 12


  1.,-cognition-and-creativity/education/social-justice/what-social-justice-means. Accessed 3rd December 2014
  2. S Jackson, Social Works; performing art, supporting publics, Routledge, Oxon, 2011, p12
  3. Accessed on 3rd December 2014-12-03
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  12. (, Accessed 3rd December 2014