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On Art and Activism

“Every act of resistance is not a work of art, even though, in a certain way, it is. Every work of art is not an act of resistance, and yet, in a certain way, it is.” — Gilles Deleuze,“What is the Creative Act?

When the COVID-19 crisis hit the West, the phenomenon of the starving artist resurfaced. It was unavoidable, and reminders showed up everywhere. Observing it all was alarming and, perhaps, invaluable. The way in which we artists reacted—and the rapidity of it—exposed the enormity of the problem. Our response preceded any clear understanding of the magnitude of the situation we were entering. The financial impact had not yet kicked in; we were not desperate for edible food and it was not our physical bodies that suffered. The timing reinforced a crucial distinction of the source of our behavior: our hunger was for attention and visibility.

We immediately responded by offering our services to everybody, anybody, all the time, everywhere, anywhere, for free. Perhaps we feared that soon we would be forgotten, dismissed, replaced, and erased. That even the thin tube of oxygen that had been keeping us alive in recent years was also destined to be cut off soon. If the “market” moved on to the next, more profitable, and more easily consumed attraction, what then would we artists do?

two actors onstage

Photo by Hedda Axelsson

A lot has been said and done in the attempt to avoid such reality. Many efforts have been invested in pursuit of liberating contemporary performing arts from the control of governmental policies and funding. Alas, the weakened body of contemporary performing arts is now twitching in the locked jaws of governments and bureaucrats.

When it comes to power dynamics in society, more often than not they are tipped towards the ruling hands of our governments. Potentially as a result of this, art has been traded and discussed within the sociopolitical discourse, using semantics and methodologies that belong in economics, political campaigning, and marketing. The language with which we attempt to protect our place in society has influenced the ways in which we practice our art. I suggest that in order to reclaim art and its immanent function in society, we ought to refrain from subjecting it to the civil-political discourse and be encouraged to primarily utilize the semantics and methodologies that are accurate and particular to art.

Support for Artists, or Lack Thereof

In November 2019, the Flemish government in Belgium cut off 60 percent of project funding. In June 2019, the Swedish Arts Council released the results of operational funding for dance organizations for 2020: none received what they asked for, many received half, many received nothing; the average granted amount was utterly insufficient for a year of serious and professional operation. In Australia, for years—and particularly since 2015—the Australian Arts Council has been continuously and systematically reducing its support to independent companies and small organizations. Late in 2019, artists in Europe had to riot so the word “culture” would not be altogether erased from the European Commission’s portfolios. The list of such governmental reductions and confinements placed on independent artists, small companies, and micro-organizations goes on and on.

Many efforts have been invested in pursuit of liberating contemporary performing arts from the control of governmental policies and funding.

In the shadow of such occurrences, artists’ work is expected and required to answer to the needs and demands of large, diverse, vastly geographically spread, cross-generational, multicultural audiences. Essentially, artists are obliged to reach out to all the communities and social groups that are otherwise overlooked by our governments. Slowly, we transformed into government’s employees in the disguise of artists.

I am aware that there are artists who genuinely believe they are immersed in a responsive relationship with society and as such are compelled to create art that aspires to activate society. My curiosity lies in the potentiality of art to not reinforce the civil-political discourse; for there to be alternative ways art can exist independent of political subjectification—which, by doing so, would multiply the dimensions of existence and being for society.

Employed by the Government

Through years of maltreatment, contemporary performing art has been stripped of its immanent narrative as an alternative catalyst of society led by sublime particularities and appreciation of experiences and impressions, which is different than the civil-political discourse currently led by a competitive and materialistic capitalistic—neoliberal ideology. Performing art is currently changing according to the trends of the market. It feels as if we artists in Western society have lost our value and significance. As a result, most of what we do is sell. Unfortunately, the selling is not limited to the “products” we fabricate in response to public demand; it also devours us—the artists—and the art forms.

If we are seeking an escape route out of this unbearable state, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on what brought us here. While my knowledge and experience is predominantly of Western Eurocentric systems, from my standpoint it’s clear that our societies value mostly products and brands. There is very little, if any, appreciation or even acknowledgement of the people who labored on the developing and making. In a capitalistic society, no factory production-line worker is valued beyond their particular function within the greater capitalistic machinery. The logic for the artists follows: No production, no value. No product, no pay.

The system quickly became about maximum production at minimum cost. To get artists to work for very little reward, we are made to believe we are lucky and privileged to earn anything at all and receive any bit of support or acknowledgement from the government (our employer) for every product (our art) we make. As this model of manipulation became acceptable, we artists went on to mutate our ambitions, desires, dreams, and passions to match the degenerative regime.

But if artists were appreciated and valued in society, and if art was recognized as an important contributor to the collective cultural and social evolution, there would be a system in place that would support artists for being artists. We would have a basic salary from the government that would enable us to live a dignified life without operating as an endless production line—which would have meant avoiding the same level of panic, pain, confusion, hurt, and shock we have endured throughout this pandemic so far.

An artist’s future is not secured; we are constantly in survival mode. We spend endless hours and forge impeccable willpower to resurrect after unsuccessful grant applications or when our projects are rejected or cancelled because something else had to be prioritized. In an April 2020 survey led by the Swedish organization I’m artistic director of, ilDance, we asked 128 emerging artists from around the world whether they felt trying to pursue a professional career in contemporary dance had an impact on their mental health; 93.4 percent said yes. We might joke about how arts and culture are always the first to be lost and last to gain, but the damage is real.

If art was recognized as an important contributor to the collective cultural and social evolution, there would be a system in place that would support artists for being artists.

Support Artists

Not having a secure position in society, artists are requested to cast their web wide. The role of an artist in Western society encompasses lobbying, advocating, promoting, and campaigning—preferably on a public platform so others can bear witness and have their own struggle as artists validated. This causes many artists to be preoccupied by the pressure to act in the civil-political sphere rather than investing their demonstrative powers fully in the art, separate from the oppressive power structure dominated by the government.

The constant attempt to defend our art while also trying to participate in the sociopolitical sphere exhausts us, so we burn out. We sacrifice our personal life. We submit our dignity and integrity just to climb up the funding structure so we will—hopefully, eventually, potentially—gain some financial stability and then finally start making art. We forget that art can deliver the intended message from its unique position without being subjugated by the agenda of the civil-political discourse.

As the government, society, and eventually artists disregard contemporary art’s activating power, we are subscribing to the apocalyptic scenario where art is no longer defined by those who make it but rather by those who consume it. If we yield to such a scenario, we potentially complete the transformation from art to commodity and from art form to industry.

What Is Happening in the Art Sphere?

In order to suggest new possibilities and interrogate potential solutions for the unfolding of our reality, we must activate society’s imagination, hope, and passions. The optimal way to do this is by exposing them to the extent of their capacities, so they can both experience encounters in all modes of being and personalize their lingering impressions—bringing them to a realm that is not subjected to the government’s domination of language and ideas. Art is the human virtue for such exploration and experimentation. If we artists accept and appreciate our true function in society and allow ourselves to focus on our art, we might enable a tremendous shift of paradigm and potentially change the human experience.

The marginalization of the arts in the civil-political discourse might stem from the fact that when society ponders upon the purpose and function of the arts, we utilize a language that is overtly manipulated by those in power. By now, society is mostly preconditioned to think of art’s function within the grid of the civil-political matrix. Perhaps a true change in the status of art and particularly that of artists will only sprout when we penetrate through the limits of this type of thinking and reconcile with the transcendence of art over the oppressive limits of dominant governance.

The guilt and shame we artists have internalized over the years has been translated into behaviors and instincts of survival and desperation. We have become deprived of the very basic right to practice our art without having to argue for how it fits into the profit-making machine. So we are wounded, we are starving. This is where we reacted from when the COVID-19 crisis hit.

We need to treat the shame and guilt we have accumulated over the years and regain trust, confidence, and hope in what we are meant to be doing: making art.

If we artists truly owned our purpose and function in society, we would not surrender to the pressure, we would not morph into something else, we would not become activists.

Activism versus Activation

Humans learn by example. We encounter something—an object or an objective occurrence—and that ignition of desire leads us to learning. Contemporary art contemplates the now and, thus, the art becomes a desire-igniting object for society. As an attempt to reclaim the very being of art, artists making art for art’s sake is a political act. With that additional perspective, art can trigger a collective aporia—puzzlement—and be translated into change.

The philosopher Michel Foucault described “contemporary” as that which is against the now. Instead, the contemporary is critical of the now, it interrogates it, and by doing so it creates a new potentiality for events and encounters. It is the contemporaneity of contemporary art that activates society and brings on what might include, but is not limited to, civil-political-social change.

Being an artist is a lifetime vocation of queries and quests. Artists give society clues about otherwise mysterious and hidden aspects of life and living. By doing so, artists might succeed in pointing at invasions or emergences of peculiarities. Artists expand the human realm.

If we artists truly owned our purpose and function in society, we would not surrender to the pressure, we would not morph into something else, we would not become activists. We would fully immerse ourselves in the making of art; we would trust the art to cause the impact and for the message to ripple through society.

three actors onstage

Photo by Hedda Axelsson

Art ought to remain independent and should not be pulled into the civil-political sphere. It might, at times, engage with the civil-political discourse in a particular way, limited to a specific space-time, but such interaction must predominantly—perhaps explicitly—occur when art is able to invent and describe the rules and boundaries for the interplay. By remaining independent of the civil-political sphere, art will return to exist within a different sphere. There, humans (and, sequentially, society) will gain an alternative perspective and discover agency that is liberated from the domination of governments and the abuse of language as a manipulation tool.

Note to Artists

Make art. Be proud of what you do. Invest in what you do. Trust what you do. Do not shy from the responsibility that is conjoined with making art and being an artist. By doing the act of art making you turn the wheels of society.

Express yourself and promote your visions through your art. You are enough. Being an artist is enough.

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