The transformative power of art must not be underestimated

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With public statues being brought under the lens, the necessity of galleries for experiencing art called into question and the (long-overdue) consideration of underrepresentation in the creative world, the role art plays in society has been recently re-examined.

Art often contributes towards positive change, but its impact can be difficult to measure. This could have a negative effect on the medium’s significance in a post-Covid world where, from a glass-half-empty perspective, culture and creative sectors are under serious threat. But art has the power to alter how people think: it can influence policymaking; it can advance equality and other agendas; and, although it is more than apparent that the playing field is far from even, art is a necessary communicatory tool in the path to progress. As such, it must be preserved.

As artist Bojana Jankovic explains, “art can help change society”, but “it does it in very incremental ways, and very slowly”. The co-founder of Germany’s Green Party, Joseph Beuys, is an example of this. In 1982, the artist’s ambitious project – 7,000 Oaks – was unveiled in Kassel, Germany. The title alludes to how Beuys planted 7,000 oak trees across the city. Over several years and with the help of volunteers, each tree was planted alongside a basalt stone. The artist was responding artistically to the city’s increasing urbanisation and in doing so, directly altered the ecological landscape of Kassel. For Beuys, “the tree is an element of regeneration”. 

Not only did this piece of land art stage an ecological intervention, but it also undoubtedly had a longer-term social and environmental impact. The volunteers who assisted with planting the trees and the people of Kassel who now walk past the oaks on their commute will be encouraged to reflect on how they impact the environment. Globally, 7,000 Oaks has had a wider impact too. The project was picked up in the US in 2000. The Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture in Maryland created the Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park and Tree Partnership, where 350 trees were planted in various parks by 500 volunteers from local schools. Beuys’s work also changed the art scene: the concept of “Social Sculpture” – the understanding of art’s potential to transform society – was born.

Art that directly changes the art world, such as representation in galleries, can also be linked more broadly to influencing certain groups’ position in society. From the Guerrilla Girls to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, this specific impact can be viewed alongside the French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s theory in his The Politics of Aesthetics. Rancière argues that “aesthetics is bound up in this battle [for democracy]… because the battle takes place over the image of society – what is permissible to say or to show”.

Before the Guerrilla Girls staged their feminist intervention in 1985 against major galleries, such as the MoMA and the Tate, which exhibited shockingly few women artists at the time, the female experience was considered “impermissible” to galleries. In a similar vein, the “Black Aesthetic”, coined by Larry Neal in 1968, was seen as “crucial to the development of an African-American identity”, and was achieved through artists creating “a new aesthetic in opposition to the white western one” which provided a platform for black communities. Other instrumental examples include AfriCOBRA – a Chicago-based collective of Black artists also founded in 1968 – who aimed to produce their own artistic aesthetic to “foster solidarity and self-confidence throughout the African diaspora… rather than bringing about change through political revolt”. Developing their own, distinct art form was significant in changing the way they were perceived in society.

Art, alongside activism, can bring about change. Through influencing individuals, empowering unrepresented communities, evolving the art scene itself to better reflect society and even physically changing our environment, it shows an incredible capacity to do good which should not be underestimated.

Francesca Lister-Fell

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