Pedagogy: What in Art Makes Change

My BIG QUESTION is: how do arts-based cultural works effect change?

And the inverse of that is: what is missing in the understanding of the effectiveness of participatory, relational, or socially-engaged art when we want to find cultural resistance within it? What other ways can we think about “effectiveness” or “utility” or the impact of cultural forms? Claire Bishop in her critique of relational aesthetics says that we need to instead “analyze how contemporary art addresses the viewer and to assess the quality of the audience relations it produces,” and that is true if we want to stay in the realm of art and art-makers. However, I’m curious about non-specialist makers and artists whose intention is not showing the work for Arts’ sake, but for change’s sake – activist and social change artists and cultural producers.*

Radical Pedagogy

In thinking about this, I’m reminded back to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed work, which uses Bourriaud’s idea of micro-moments of experientality, with the intention to trigger changes in consciouness and understanding among participants. One main difference between Boal and Bourriaud is that the participants themselves are the experts, coming up with the problems, ideas, and solutions [and creating the art works, though Boal/TO artists are facilitating the framing and creating the event] rather than the artist having a stake in determining the problem—however distanced or involved—in the relationship that develops.

This relates more to radical pedagogy: Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Opressed, or Jacques Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster. For Friere, all oppressed people know what it is that oppresses them, and therefore are able to think of solutions on their own. His work directly created the amazing Highlander Free School in Tennessee, which gathered white and Black workers in the 1940s to discuss labor issues, and in the 1950’s provided space for the self-education of Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights activists. For Ranciere, the Ignorant Schoolmaster is one who provides the framework for learning, while the content is generated by the students.

The Fist

“Fist” by Frank Cieciorka, 1965

The image of the raised fist reappears in these moments: as an image it is bound to visuality and at the same time, paradigmatically assigned to represent emotional, political, and social desires and needs. This image, from a 1965 woodcut by Frank Cieciorka, is one of the earliest singular fists from the 1960s protest era. It is not a standalone, of course, but an image in the tradition of all fists to be raised before it: singular yet representing the desires of a collective, produced initially individually but quickly becoming an image that could show up anywhere, used by many to denote the desire for change.

Edges of our Definitions

This is still, then us hovering on the practical edges between activist art and participatory art; and again I’m reminded that the theoretical differences are based in artists’ desire to have a way to name and define what they are doing, rather than a focus on what the participants are creating. Activist art is about the activism; participatory art is about the art. Yet both are produced from a similar liminal, hopeful, complicated social space.

I’m still not clear on the exact line of difference here, though I think it might have something to do with affect or an understanding of what slow, cultural change looks like: the strategy of a shift in collective consciousness that moves a culture away from white supremacy rather than a feel-good, temporary tactic that just lets white and Black people hang out in a room together. And that’s a pedagogical intention, rather than an aesthetic [artistic] one. So – are art critics thinking of this in a closed way? Does the function of art as an institution keep Art from being an effective site of change?

From the experiental pedagogical work of John Dewey and Paolo Friere in the 1930s; to postmodern conceptions of users as seen in Benjamin and Barthes’ writings on the shifting role of an “Author,” to 1960s avant-garde happenings and 1970s political performance art; to feminist artists like Lucy Lippard, Arlene Raven, Mary Jane Jacob, and Suzanne Lacy who sought to take their practices to the public in the 1980s; to digitalia like 1990s net art and 2000s tactical media, we’ve explored how there is an artist- and activist-driven interest in engaging viewer/spectators as maker/participants in what is ever-broadly defined as art and cultural production.

We have education, networks, commons/enclosures, and collective movement behaviours to tackle still friends – but I am relieved that we are done talking about Art. [for now].

Suggested Reading

Jacques Ranciere, Ignorant Schoolmaster


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