Breaking Bad: Art as an agent of socio economic change

by Caitlin


“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