The Just Metropolis: Art and Social Change

by Vivien Park



“It is easy to be a realist when you accept everything. It is easy to be a visionary when you confront nothing. To accept little and confront much, and to do so on the basis of an informed vision of piecemeal but cumulative change, is the way and the solution.”

– Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West

Can art change the world? As active producers of cultural artifacts, artists throughout the ages and across the world have made conscious effort to initiate and participate in the process of change. From a mural-sized painting that depicted the horrors of war, to outdoor projections of political messages, to an urban intervention in the form of living sculptures, to a community-based project that disseminated symbols of identity to people in a small town, to a time-based ice sculpture that represented the impact of global warming, artists are creating a context of possibilities in a wide range of forms.

Art has the ability to connect to emotions, spark conversations, challenge assumptions, and suggest possibilities. But without the continuation of action, change will not be effective or long lasting. Activism can easily be perceived as a fad or an empty gesture, so expectations will need to be managed. Artists who are interested in pursuing activism in their work may want to consider a few things in addition to production and display. What are the different types of audience? How will the work be received in its chosen form and context? Is there a corresponding movement that can further its cause? Can the dialogue continue after the work is seen, heard, or read? I don’t believe art on its own can change the world, but it can change people. And with time, people can change the world.

Credits: Photo of Picasso’s Guernica from The Artchive.

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