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Yearly Archives: 2013

Activist Art: Does it Work?

Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert
Originally published in Open!: Platform for Art, Culture
and the Public Domain, Fall 2013

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Activist Art:  Does it Work?

The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. The topography on which the activist fights may no longer be the mountains of the Sierra Maestra or the jungles of Vietnam, but the lesson still applies. Today, the political landscape is one of signs and symbols, story and spectacle. Responding to this new terrain, there has been an upsurge in the use of creative, artistic, and cultural strategies as a tool for social change. This practice goes by many names: political art, activist art, interventionist art, socially engaged art, and social practice art. No matter the description, artists are using their aesthetic training and skill to wage battles for social change. Yet as practitioners and trainers in these forms of artistic activism, we are haunted by the question: Does it work?

So we started asking artists whose work we respect this very question:

SD&SL: As a political artist, how do you know when what you’ve done works?

Hans Haacke: I’ve been asked that question many times, and that question requires one to go around it before one really avoids it.

The above is just one example, and Haacke’s response is meant to be humorous, but in asking scores of talented and sophisticated activist artists this seemingly simple question, and in surveying hundreds of examples of activist art, we were struck by the inadequacy of the conceptualisation of the relationship between arts and demonstrable social change. Unfortunately, much of what passes for activist art seems to be aimed at four hazy targets:

The Whole World is Watching. The artist determines the success of a particular practice by the amount of media coverage it generates. If the work is covered by the mainstream news media, or the art press, or is noticed by the activist and arts communities at all, then the artist can count this as a success. This is not merely self-aggrandisement: the function of the media coverage is often thought of as a means to “raising awareness” and bringing the political or social issue to the attention of a wider audience.

Power of the Public Sphere. In this case, the success of the work is determined by whether it fosters conversation on a particular issue. Here the ideal is not to offer up a message, or even a particular perspective, but to stir the pot and “start a dialogue” around a topic so that audience members can — either individually or collectively — come to their own conclusions.

The Truth Will Set You Free. The aim here is to expose an uncomfortable or inconvenient truth. Art becomes the means for revealing facts about reality — often concerning corporate malfeasance, government corruption, or social injustice — that the artist believes are hidden, censored or otherwise unknown by the public at large. The mere exposure to the truth, it is believed, results in transformation.

Political Expressionism. Art becomes the means by which the artist’s rage, joy, disgust, or hope is communicated to the world. In this case, it is the act of bold self-expression itself that is the goal. Artists see themselves as bravely conveying their feelings about the political moment and judge whether or not their art succeeds in relation to how well that feeling is expressed.

What these artistic activist aims have in common is a faith that awareness can change the world without any specific follow-through. This is magical thinking. Ironically, this sort of magical thinking is deeply rooted in the rationalist Enlightenment tradition, which holds that knowing, expressing and conversing upon the Truth leads to social transformation. Knowledge = Power. There may have been a certain validity to this point of view once upon a time. When Church and State had a monopoly on Truth to entertain opposing points of view was an implicit strike against the powers-that-be, but in the age of the Internet — of information surplus rather than scarcity — this faith in the power of mere awareness strikes us as dangerously naïve.

These aims also share a fear. For an artist, declaring they will solve a social problem makes one vulnerable; it’s difficult, art school doesn’t teach it, and it is obvious to others when you fail. But awareness is safe and comes easily for anyone trained in the arts. In art school, we are taught to use shortcuts like, “make it big, red, and shiny”. Applying this lesson to activist art, we take some controversial imagery, mix it with a hot-button issue, and make it very public. Awareness can also just be a euphemism for attention, and everyone — especially perpetually under-appreciated artists — loves a little attention. But as people who believe that art and artists not only can bring about social change and, given the cultural terrain of today, are necessary to bringing about social change, we are deeply dissatisfied with these ambitions. We support all those artists who are working to bring positive and progressive change to the world; we just insist that they aim higher and shoot further. What is at stake is the efficacy of this practice.

Awareness is important, but it is also not enough. Awareness, and its attendant components: expression, revelation, distribution and dialogue are, to borrow a phrase from the social sciences, “necessary but not sufficient conditions”. Action without awareness results in an unthinking activism with stupid, and sometimes horrific, consequences. But awareness without action is just as bad. It results in the appearance of political engagement without any of its results. It can make an action into a release valve instead of a turning point. It is an activism of bad faith.

If, as artistic activists, we are to take ourselves and our work seriously, we need to trace out the explicit connections between our practice and the change we want to see in the world. This might mean measuring the effects of our work in changing public opinion, working within larger campaigns with clear material goals, or creating art practices that constitute new communities committed to collective action. We wish we had an easy answer but we don’t. In fact, we resist the easy answers because we don’t think a simple response would do justice to the power of art (an aspect of which must always be beyond explanation) and the myriad ways in which social change happens. Nevertheless, understanding the complexities of the process does not absolve us of the responsibility of envisioning and articulating clear outcomes, goals, even dreams for what we want to have happen and the means by which this will occur. We look forward to the day when we can ask the question: Does it work? And receive the answer: Yes, and here’s how…

Sharon Arts Center | (con)TEXT

Sharon Arts Center, Main Gallery
New Hampshire Art Institute

Curated by Tim Donovan – Launch F18 Gallery, New York
September 6 — October 25, 2013

Opening Reception: September 6, 2013, 5—7pm

Whether it is repurposing found letters, bombastic political statements, documenting intimate details or elusively abstracting a phrase, text incorporated within art offers a profound purpose by both redefining our perception of what language can be and what it can do. Often, by manipulating its context, text is freed to become a vehicle that allows us to take into consideration what was previously concluded.

eywn at museum 1

Public Programs: Curator’s Talk: September 19, 2013, 5 —6:30pm


  • Ultra Violet
  • Rachel Perry Welty
  • John Waters
  • Sam Trioli
  • Hank Willis Thomas
  • Erin Sweeney
  • Adam Stennett
  • Ryan Steadman
  • Adam Parker Smith
  • Michael Scoggins
  • David Shrigley
  • Pete Schulte
  • Glen Scheffer
  • Kenny Scharf
  • Walker T. Roman
  • Frankie Rice
  • Janaki Ranpura
  • David Potter
  • Jack Pierson
  • Kottie Paloma
  • Doug Padgett
  • Ewa Nogiec
  • Susie Nielsen
  • Edward Monovich
  • Ryan McGinley
  • Charles Lutz
  • Peter Liversidge
  • Sean Lamoureux
  • Steve Lambert
  • Darren Kraft
  • Terence Koh
  • Morten Hemmingsen
  • Jenny Holzer
  • Heather Hilton
  • Raul Gonzalez III
  • Gilbert and George
  • Peter Scarbo Frawley
  • Peter Fox
  • Mark Flood
  • Silas Finch
  • Tracey Emin
  • Tim Donovan
  • Len Davis
  • Joy Drury Cox
  • Michael Carroll
  • Tricia Rose Burt
  • Helene Aylon

Via Sharon Arts Center

Capitalism in Times Square, NYC

Capitalism Works For Me! True/False Times Square Steve Lambert

Capitalism Works For Me! True/False will show in Times Square as part of the 2013 Crossing The Line Festival and Times Square Arts.

About Crossing The Line:

Over twenty-five days, Crossing the Line, presented by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), offers New Yorkers a chance to engage with the work and imagination of seventeen extraordinary international artists, several presenting their work and ideas in New York for the first time.

PDF Brochure


Capitalism Works For Me! True/False will be in Times Square on these dates.

  • Sept. 20, 12-5 pm
  • Oct. 6-7, 12-7 pm
  • Oct. 8, 12-7 pm
  • Oct. 9, 12-7 pm

Does Capitalism Work? Public Conversation

“Does Capitalism Work?”: Conversation with Steve Lambert, economist Richard Wolff, and psychotherapist Harriet Fraad

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM (EDT)

Times Square, Venue to be announced

RSVP on eventbrite




Read more about the project

Photos by Jake Schlichting

Sharper Image at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, NYC

Opening reception June 27th.

JUNE 27 — AUGUST 31, 2013
251 W 19TH ST,
NEW YORK, NY 10011

What is the unique thing that all artists share? What do they search for in their art that defines them? Is it their brush stroke, line, hand on the material, humor, politics or choices in presenting ideas?

ETHAN COHEN NEW YORK presents Sharper Image, a group exhibition that brings to together 22 artists and the unique expressions. The purpose of this exhibition is to showcase these diverse ideas as each of their practices moves toward some notion of idealism and refinement.

Idealism, in its myriad forms, can be serious or playful, abstract or representational, sculptural or painterly, conceptual or nonobjective, active or passive.

Idealism in its painterly form, like in the work of Barry Nemett, Kyle Hackett, Chi Ming, Joseph Ayers, Peter Ferguson, Li Lin, June Culp, Laini Nemett, M.Cheon aka Kim Il Soon, Liu Xiaohui or Lillian Lorraine, focuses on specific details, like an architectural step or varying approaches to portraiture. As Barry Nemett says,“Painting, for me, is about bringing subject matter, emotions, ideas into visual focus. Ironically, sometimes sharpening an image involves ambiguity, ethereality . . . even invisibility.”

The everyday object finds revision and refinement in the sculptural works of Brookhart Jonquil, Michael Zelehoski, Bob Bailey, Matt Kinney, Breon Dunigan, and Isaac Aden, who employ speakers, street signs, skeletons, fluorescent tubing, and mirrors. In the work of Eric Doeringer, the artist has taken familiar art objects — on Kawara’s date paintings, in this case — and appropriated it as his own.

The intangible is given form in the sound/algorithm paintings of John Aslanidis, and Leanna Pascual’s yoga-practice-turned-performance artwork. Likewise, Steve Lambert’s lit sign illuminates, literally, the notion of authoritarianism and power.

Sharper Image artists include Trong G. Nguyen, Breon Dunigan, Eric Doeringer, Leanna Pascual, John Aslanidis, Barry Nemett, Laini Nemett, M. Cheon aka Kim Il Soon, Brookhart Jonquil, Michael Zelehoski, Lillian Lorraine, Peter Ferguson, Steve Lambert, Kyle Hackett, Joseph Ayers, Matt Kinney, Liu Xiaohui, Isaac Aden, Bob Bailey, June Culp, Chi Ming, and Li Lin.

Ethan Cohen New York will presentSharper Image: Part II,a special exhibition, at artSTRAND in Provincetown, Massachusetts from August 9 — 18, 2013. For more information, or 508-487-1153.

For general inquiries about Sharper Image, contact 212-625-1250 or

251 W 19TH ST,
NEW YORK, NY 10011
T 212-625-1250
F 212-274-1518


Sharper Image Announcement

Questioning Capitalism in Iowa

Bill Moyers had a show back in February called Taming Capitalism Run Wild with, my favorite economist, Richard Wolff.

I realize asking someone to watch a 45 minute video within a post online might be far-fetched, but if you have the time (now or later) I recommend it. We used it in the installation at Legion Arts because, as I am here in Iowa, this discussion is even more relevant. Here’s what Wolff has to say about the lack of criticism of Capitalism in the United States:

There has been that kind of thing in our history. I mean, we as Americans, after all, we take a certain pride, which I think is justified, we criticize our school system. We just spent two years criticizing our health delivery system in this country. We criticize our energy system, our transportation system.

And we want to believe, and I think it’s true, that to criticize this system, to have an honest debate, exposes flaws, makes it possible to repair or improve them, and then our society benefits. But then how do you explain, and that’s your question, that we don’t do that for our economic system?

For 50 years, when capitalism is raised, you have two allowable responses: celebration, cheerleading. Okay, that’s very nice. But that means you have freed that system from all criticism, from all real debate. It can indulge its worst tendencies without fear of exposure and attack. Because when you begin to criticize capitalism, you’re either told that you’re ignorant and don’t understand things, or with more dark implications, you’re somehow disloyal. You’re somehow a person who doesn’t like America or something.

I’ve experienced all those responses — the interrogation of a system with the goal of improvement, as well as the doubts about my intelligence and questions of loyalty. In fact, I’ve seen more of the latter in Cedar Rapids. There’s been more anger here than anywhere else I’ve traveled with the Capitalism Works For Me! True/False sign (not all anger, but a higher ratio).

Capitalism at the Cedar Rapids Casino Site

Capitalism Works For Me! True/False at the site of a controversial downtown casino proposal in Cedar Rapids, IA

Often I get asked by people approaching the sign, “what are you proposing” or sometimes told, “there is no alternative” (and the speaker is not aware of the history of that phrase). I always answer “something better” because often socialism and communism are brought up, and I try to steer people away from things they likely see as failures of the past. Usually this tactic works and we can move the conversation from a dead-ending confrontation about Capitalism/USA vs Communist and Socialist Others to place of hope and vision — the economic system is not set in stone, there can be alternatives, things can get better. Ultimately a softening of their position and opening to, what may feel like, radical new ideas. Most importantly, new ideas that are coming from within themselves.

Iowa is the first place I have met hostility to this — from a small minority of participants, but still very present. One visitor, who was an older man, owner of multiple businesses, and a Vietnam vet aggressively responded to my “something better” with “that’s weak!” The attitude was that if I was going to criticize the U.S. economic system, I better have some idea of a system to replace it — and all the better if it was something he could rip apart — but coming to the table with nothing was even worse. The idea of moving forward admitting you don’t know exactly where you’ll end up was unacceptable.

Of course, I see this approach more analogous to advising someone to continue in a romantic relationship they know is hurting them because it’s unthinkable to be with no partner at all.

Sometimes you just need to move forward into the unknown.

If the sign is asking anything, it’s asking you to check-in at the edge of that unknown.

For some, that is threatening and causes an angry and defensive response. Perhaps because it challenges a system that has treated them very well. The reaction may also be explained by what Wolff’s wife describes — that facing the system’s failures is too ugly and clinging to the ideals is more attractive. I think part of the explanation must include the simple fact that moving away from anything familiar towards an unknown is frightening.

For me, this path may be more familiar, if not still a little frightening: it’s part of the creative process. As an artist, I don’t have fully formed ideas of completed works. They come in flashes, are fleshed out in iterations, bad sketches, and progress through tests, study, conversations, and taking breaks. It’s a long journey and sometimes ideas are even abandoned along the way. All this is normal. This is how you get somewhere better. This is how you make any progress at all.

Like all creative processes, our lives also happen in iterations. Every day we come at it again, learning from the past and striving to be better. As a culture, we can do the same. The truly harmful form of conservative thinking (not in the political sense) I see here is clinging to a single world view. As Stephen Colbert put it “Thinking the same thing on Wednesday that you did on Monday. No matter what happened on Tuesday.” Going further, it’s clinging only to what one knows as most tangible and real — their singular experience of reality — closing ones eyes in the face a problem with no sure solutions.

To solve problems, we need the vision and the courage to go forward through darkness with eyes wide open.

Poison Green at the Czech Center in NYC

625poison-green 1


Opening reception: Tuesday, June 25, 6:30PM-8:30PM, Free Open through September 2
Czech Center New York – The Gallery and Rooftop

Exhibition examining themes, concepts and cultural fictions dealing with environment and ecology, featuring Czech and international artists Matej Al-Ali (CZ), Silvina Arismendi (CZ/UY), Mark Dion (US), Petr Dub (CZ), Mathias Kessler (AT), Tomas Moravec (CZ), Because We Want It (US), Anne Percoco (US), Katerina Seda (CZ), Klara Sumova (CZ) and Slavoj Zizek (SI). Curated by Kristyna and Marek Milde. Opening Reception with Czech beer and Czech wine is supported by Staropramen and Vino z Czech. Rather than painting green and romanticizing nature, the artists and concepts, presented in Poison Green interrogate and study the complexity of our environment, examining the consequences of the urban, post-industrial, and virtualized reality we live in. Ultimately, Poison Green seeks to demystify the ideologies inherent in our understanding of nature, reflecting on conventions and stereotypes, and looking for possible enviro models socially integrated into our daily lives and culture. The exhibition Poison Green is incorporated in a series of installations and visuals that extends from the gallery of the Bohemian National Hall to its rooftop, where a community garden project accompanying the show is installed. Here participants and visitors have the opportunity to experience the process of how to grow just enough food for one dish.

Organized by:
Czech Center New York