The relationship of art and activism is an old one. While one major and persistent approach to art is fed by the view that it contains its own rationale (“art for art’s sake”), an equally vital impulse is fed by the thought that art can change the world – or at least, create the conditions for such change. Whatever their persuasion, in the past, artists were viewed by society as specialists in their crafts, trained and dedicated to their muses, willing to risk isolation to pursue their calling. Therein comes the long association in the popular imagination of the starving artist.
Definitions of both ‘art’ and ‘activism’ are capacious, including genres from literature, drama, music, and dance to painting and architecture in the first case, and activities that critique a political situation (such as the erstwhile cold war) to immediate calls for change in the here and now in the second case. While the list of artist-activists is long, a few examples may be cited here. The German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, in a series of plays, addressed issues of war, poverty, fascism, and oppression in the troubled era of the 1940s. Because his plays continue to have relevance, they are performed regularly.
The medium of film is equally amenable to political and activist uses. In the 1920s, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein developed his famous theory of montage in order to jolt viewers into awareness of new meanings through the collision of images. In several films such as Battleship Potemkin, Strike, and October 1917, he sought to build a revolutionary consciousness by celebrating the proletariat as the collective hero of society.
Both art and activism take on meaning and power in ever new ways according to the time and place of their deployment. What are some of the ways in which media practices seek to influence social attitudes, values, and policies today? In a popular vein, Michael Moore’s name comes readily to mind as a documentary filmmaker who has taken on the problems of violence, healthcare, capitalist profitmaking, and government corruption in American society. His agit prop style and mode of direct address may be controversial, but can be seen as a way to capture viewer attention already fragmented by a host of messages from an ever proliferating media landscape.
Such proliferation also means that there is a rise in community and global activism as never before. Groups or individual artists have been especially busy in areas such as Aids activism (see Gregg Bordowitz); Middle East politics such as the work of Palestinian artist Emily Jacir; third world poverty; as well as the role of art in a world of scientific hegemony. In “Occupy the University: Reconsidering the Local, ” Micha Cárdenas writes of the efforts of a particular group to find alternative ways to approach science, “Implementing this science, the *particle group* describe their work as “combin[ing] digital technology, investigative research, and multimedia formats in works that forge subversive relationships with the twenty-first century’s frontiers of nano-science and the para/literary.” Pointing to the disastrous effects of the current economic downturn on the University of California system, she writes of ways to invigorate local groups directly affected by administrative decisions.
In this issue, we provide reflections on activism through instances that include documentary film, web-based interactivity, popular music, political statements via body gear, and the global art market. What is evident is that the very nature of the tools employed and the ease of world-wide dissemination, both materially and virtually, makes every cause a potentially global one. The submissions highlight the problems addressed, the strategies pursued, and the results obtained or sought. Lakshmi Kumar discusses the politics of international art exhibitions, and what it means to engage cultural difference. Michael Chameides, addressing activism from the other side from art, looks at the keffiyah in its historical context, showing the kind of situational politics involved in sporting its use. Deepthi Welaratna’s essay on the Sri Lankan pop singer, M.I.A. deconstructs her lyrics for their political content in drawing attention to the Tamil Tigers and her own family’s exile status in the West. Sumon Saha presents an appraisal of the film, ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ by Hupert Sauper which exposes the environmental and human degradation brought on by the fishing industry centered around Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Finally, the Global Food Flows Project is a website created by Deepthi Welaratna and Daisy Lin to show the routes taken by important staples from areas of production to areas of consumption. Given the fundamental role of food in human life and the difficulties of access to some of these basic commodities in certain parts of the world, the knowledge garnered here is relevant to both rich and poor. Through these examples, we wish to draw attention not only to the need for media activism, but to the empowering potential of such engagements worldwide.