Art and Social Justice

by Caitlin

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.