Is it possible for socially conscious art to have a remedial purpose at local, regional, national or transnational level? Can it move authorities in political systems known to control information?

I got really tempted to trigger this particular topic when I read this question. I can say it is more out of curiosity to know your point of views that I'm writing this post; it is, at least apparently, not a concern or related to any of my art works. So, excuse me for not adding a visual. 
I've always felt a deep urge to question artists the same thing, specially those who work with topics dealing with changing something in the society, or highlighting an issue, it can be cultural or political. And when I read this question I thought this is the right time to explore it, not necessarily debate it from a one-sided point of view, but from a bird's eye view.
Can visual art really bring substantial change around us? Does it even reach where it should and talk to the people concerned? There are multiple conflicting views inside me which pull me from one side of the coin to another, or one can call it a rhizomatous sphere of various view points, but they never resolve my dilemma regarding committed art. When I visit white cube galleries and see artworks on some sensitive topic like Kashmir conflict, global warming, farmer suicide etc. I really get surprised and a person inside me says what and where is this going? Do the people who are seeing this show even bothered about these things once they step out of the gallery space? Is the artist really so deeply affected, and if so then what was s/he thinking of achieving by showing it at such a constricted space visited mainly by people with a taste in visual art? Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing a visual translation of a research paper where the concept note demands more engagement and brain picking than the actual artwork. I know I'm generalising such a vast topic and the artists dealing with it, but to question something one has to address it keeping it under a single umbrella which may have holes, but it makes it easier to then narrow down to the main problem. And hence I want to ask myself as well as you what is the true scope and outreach of committed art? 
Of course now artists have moved out of galleries and are doing community projects, which I still find more relevant in terms of reaching and benefitting the people concerned. But then I ask myself 'really?' when I see these short-term project based works where the artist is treating a targeted community as a patient and behaving as a self-proclaimed saviour. There is an element of hierarchy, voyeurism and a violence done by capturing their real life problems within an individualistic artist project. Then another question arises, can the artist do the same thing if s/he is asked to do it anonymously and selflessly? It becomes a question dealing with basic human psychology of gaining credit and appreciation. I also sometimes feel insecure and demotivated when a fellow artist uses politics as a formula and a device to cash and fit in the art scenario, since, at least in India, it is quite in trends with the galleries and reputed art organisations to promote socially and politically conscious art.
I don't know where I'm getting at with this, but its just coming out in a flow and I hand over the steering to you guys to please take it from here and quench my inquisitiveness. Would love to hear your views, specially artists coming from different countries. It would be interesting to know how different forms of political art is received at your place, and has visual art brought any real change in the way society and the governments function? This is a very personal view I'm sharing and I can be completely wrong from your view point, because as I said, I'm pulled to opposite sides and right now in a confused state when it comes to this sphere of art making. But at the same time I respect and encourage criticism from your end.
(Btw you can see few of my older works here to get a clear picture about which trajectory of art practice I am coming from:


  1. Sonam Chaturvedi | 10.11.2017

    @Ashok Vish, It is not about agreement or disagreement, we need not make efforts to reach at a mutual point within the discussion, I’m just questioning and curious to listen to others.
    I’m not saying that artists who work with socio-political issues are not motivated at all, I’m just questioning to what extent and how does the audience relate to these concerns and how to make it more deeply engaging and touching. One derives and questions things which they see around them, and my opinion does not arise from nothing but from what I’ve seen and experienced around me. You are right that the process is as important and your example quite interests me. Documentary films, as a medium, I find is very effective in capturing an issue at hand in detail, which is also because of the dissemination it provides.
    @Kate Mcelroy, I agree that it does get quite dangerous, when you quantify and also when you question its relevance. Every work has different intensity of feelings captured which differs from person to person and we should think and question these intensities as an individual. Your point about the approach taken up by artists to deal with the subject and engage with the local community is very apt and the work reflects the same. The Nepal observation is very interesting and I would like to know more about it.
    And Ushmita’s explanation and elaboration makes me ponder over the parallel found throughout history and how each artist has treated the subject in a different way. To give an example I personally admire the works of Amar Kanwar, because of the same intensity and the way he treats a particular issue presented with a tint of poetic lyricism, which makes it captivating for me, but again it is an individual observation.

    I’m not taking a stand here, either for or against socio-political art, of course it does reach someone or the other, which any art work does. And there are certain works which are remedial at a foundational level. A lot also depends on how one portrays their work, sometimes it happens that the process and the work is stimulating but the way it is showcased makes the viewer misinterpret the artist’s intentions and only when you talk with the artist or excavate the work you get to know how different it actually is.
    It might seem that I’m criticizing socio-political art/artists but I’ve made it clear that I’m myself searching for the answers, and the responses I’ve got from you have resolved things for me to an extent.

    “Powerful art, whether displayed within the white cube or beyond will find its audience, its message will cut across cultural and temporal boundaries.” So true!

  2. Ushmita Sahu | 10.7.2017

    Sonam hi. I appreciate your approaching the subject in question with such candour.
    In India, socially relevant art is still in its nascent stage, hence your concerns are not altogether unwarranted. As in any emerging field, there may be practitioners who are not completely evolved in their language or may be riding the wave of current trends or even exploitative as you say. This has more to do with the question of ethics than creativity.
    Should we be swayed by a few bad experiences or do we make an informed decision? Historically art has always tried to comprehend the time it belongs to. When David painted The Death of Marat, was this extremely politicised statement any less relevant than Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower seeds? In case of the latter, a work of art provided revenue to a village of traditional ceramic artisans, talked about dying traditions while still being quite political in content. As Kate rightly points out the Guerilla Girls or a Banksy can act as strong parallel subversive cultures which work from the outside to inside. The participation in those collective moments of Visual Arts can give people an enormous sense of freedom, agency, and chances for personal change, as well as coming together to institute change. Foucault said- “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do, but what they don’t know is what-what they do does.”
    Powerful art, whether displayed within the white cube or beyond will find its audience, its message will cut across cultural and temporal boundaries. I think questions of personal values, our position and our perspective within society, personal ethics and larger civic ethics. are important questions when creating or even looking at socially relevant art.

  3. Kate Mcelroy | 10.7.2017

    It’s also a very hard thing to measure and gets quite dangerous if you try to quantify its value. How can we measure the impact that raising awareness about an issues has? Or if something moves you emotionally? Also I find that exhibitions can come back into your mind long after having seen the work when you are in context that relates to it. For instance seeing work about Schizophrenia when I was very young and not understanding the work at the time but it has been a work I have thought of many times since and it has helped me to imagine what the condition may feel like. Perhaps people seeing videos on the suicide of farmers will make people more empathic, maybe make them reach out to people they know in similar situations, or even more empathic in general having a new sense of a common suffering throughout humanity. It won’t affect everyone the same way like a piece of music has different effects on people, but the artist has to try and bring the truest version they can forward for them and the people involved.

    I see your point on how it can seem somewhat voyeuristic at times but it also depends on the situation of the art project. Is the artist directly involved or connected to the work? Or have they spent time integrating into the community in a way that would hopefully be a somewhat symbiotic relationship with the community and the artist learning from each other? If it is simply capturing and retelling it could be considered more journalistic, but again how can we measure the value of awareness? These things can subtly affect peoples thinking and for instance influence people’s decisions on who to vote for, whether they buy certain products etc..

    I am currently on residency in Nepal and recently they ran a community art project with people of a community in Sindapalchowk an area badly effected by the earthquake and a very socially marginalized area. A professional photographer went to the village and trained some teenagers in DSLR photography and they were given the cameras and encouraged to express the way they look at the world around them and portray their realities. Their work was then exhibited and I found this very powerful.

    I do think work outside the gallery can be extraordinarily effective if we think of the campaign of the Guerilla Girls or work by graffiti artists for example though they often work in galleries too. Depending on the project I think it is up to the artist to evaluate what they are doing and who they are trying to reach and try to do it in the most effective way possible. I think it is a good thing to question as it will push us forward in trying to come up with new and inventive solutions, refining what it is that needs to be communicated and what is the best way to do it.

  4. Ashok Vish | 10.6.2017

    I’d like to start off my response by saying your honest opinion is always appreciated and completely valid. However, I disagree completely with your point of view especially since your opinion seems to originate with the expectation that art produced with a political or social theme needs to have a wide, ever-expansive outreach. I come from the school of thought that even if a particular artwork touches or affects one person, then it’s just as successful. Let me put the outreach aspect aside and point out the motivation or inspiration behind a particular artwork that has a political or social theme. Artists come from all walks of life and everybody is inspired, affected, moved and influenced by different things; Part of being an open and diverse society is to appreciate and welcome all issues as valid and important. So, perhaps the artist created a socially charged work to work through a particular struggle or difficulty that they have experienced personally, and in turn engaging the public with such issues and highlighting them. By doing so, the artist is imploring others to gain confidence and strength in a society that probably feels unsafe for them as well (just like the artist). Whether it reaches a mass audience becomes irrelevant. And I haven’t really come across any such artists who would proclaim themselves as a savior or the problem solver of a respective issue.

    Let’s also consider certain subaltern groups or (generally speaking) people without a voice or ones with no political mobility. Usually others step in to speak up for them out of necessity or goodwill. In such circumstances, these “others” are seen as translators, which can definitely include artists. I would argue that the role of such a translator could be extremely important. The operative word here being “could” as it then boils down to intention. I am drawing a parallel here from Gayathri Spivak’s essay, “Can the subaltern speak”. For those interested, it’s a great read. Here is the link:

    Also, one should not only consider the artwork’s audience but also the process that went into creating the work. Let’s use one of your own examples about farmer suicides. I know of a filmmaker who made a documentary about this exact subject matter. His team spent endless hours with similar farmers understanding their plights, struggles, successes and failures. Their team raised money for such farmers, spearheaded lobbying efforts with the government, put them in touch with NGOs/start-ups working in the field of farming and education to help these farmers with new innovative farming technologies. This is a clear example of how art was created about a major social issue and also had an affect on the art’s subjects BEFORE it was even presented to an audience. Additionally, the film clearly will provide awareness on this issue to people who haven’t heard of these farmers’ plights opening up the possibility for others to want to help.

    To conclude, politically and socially charged artwork or films or plays are extremely important in my opinion. Then again, not everybody has to create work with such themes.

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