The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.
-James Baldwin (149: 1980)
The World Trade Organization protests that occurred in 1999 were a critical moment in progressive political history. The protests occurred years before the great world recession, but it was, in fact, something that the protestors had feared. The result of the “unchecked diffusion of international power” would do harm to the world. The 1999 WTO protests were also a wakeup call for artists around the world, who in the early ‘90’s began to feel the effects of the concept of “globalization” infuse even the art world. In 2004 as Oprah gave away cars at the commencement of her nineteenth season, David Hammons at the Dakar Biennale arranged (performed) a two-week sheep raffle in the middle of the busiest intersections of Dakar, giving away two sheep a day in a place where giving a resource really mattered. All the while, in the United States any art deemed “political” was forbidden funding by the NEA and other government funding agencies. The WTO rupture was a moment that sharpened artists’ tactics as to how to intervene. This special issue of the Journal of Poverty focuses on the topic of creative interventions and specifically how artists function as cultural workers to gain attention and, in some cases, influence policy toward poverty, inequality, human rights, and social justice. Because of its dedication to investigating policies of social concern and its international scope, the Journal of Poverty offers a particularly pertinent venue for this exploration of the intersection of art and social justice.
bell hooks wrote, “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures” (118:1996). The Journal of Poverty is committed to the concerns of the poor, examining the global structures that enable poverty, and looking at ways to determine how to disrupt these structures. This issue explores the role of art as a disruptive influence in the existing structures that enable poverty. Beyond identifying the way art can act as a disruptive influence, our objective was also to show ways that art can influence social policy. Historically, decisions about policy rarely go to creative work. This issue explicates multifarious ways art disrupts the status quo, inspires new perspectives, and honors the traditional.
The interpretation of artist as cultural worker is broad, but for this issue we sought critical essays, profiles and artists’ statements that attended to work and artists that are consumed with (but not limited to) political interventions, community engagement, and accessibility– artists that forbid an “art for art sake” and explore art for the sake of instruction and movement toward political consciousness and social change. We were seeking art and artists whose aim is to influence contemporary policy against social injustice, poverty, disenfranchisement of people around the world. The five articles, three artist reflections, and multiple images in this issue all take place at the intersection of art and social change. For example, in the essay by Kohl-Arenas and her colleagues, we learn of the work of the Pan Valley Institute established in 1998 by the American Friends Service Committee has developed a community based arts festival, Tamejavi. We learn how this Tamejavi is more than just a festival for the multiethnic immigrant communities of central California; it also provides leadership skills, education, and tools for maintaining cultural roots, not to mention its role as a training ground for community activists. However, in the essay by González, Chavez and Englebrecht, we observe how through the discourses of the vernacular and Latinidad, a community of artists reclaim space in Toledo’s Old South End, thus encouraging a strong affirming community identity and agency. Ryan and Cummings take us to India for an exploration of how three NGOs are empowering women as they practice traditional embroidery. The contributions by Todorut and Goudouna are decidedly theatrical but in diverse ways. Where Todorut dramaturgically engages with the Croatian playwright Goren Ferčec to ponder the artist/intellectual as social activist, Goudouna reveals the power of a performance art group at the height of the recent Greece recession. The essays represent scholarship that is timely, current and provocative.
In addition to the scholarly articles, we include three essays by artists where they reflect on the role of their own art and its impact on social change. Artist and graduate student and Cassandra Price discovers that art is social work in rural Mexico. Piribeck and Pottenger reflect on making art to bring together diverse constituents of a community in Portland, Maine, and multi-media artist McCullough uses her art to remember those lost in the southern Arizona desert while attempting to pursue their dreams in America. In each of these essays we gain insight to the social synergy that occurs when artists engage in cultural work.
Both the British Arts and Crafts reformers movement and the Settlement movement in the United States suggested that art could be a means of radical social change. While some posited that art simply made the workers’ lives better or more pleasant, those in the British and Settlement movements argued that art could change the conditions that oppressed them. According to Thomson, socially engaged artists are artists who “work more comfortable on the street and within a community of activists than in the gallery” (3:2004). Socially engaged artists or artists labeled as cultural workers whose work is overtly consumed with community engagement, forbids “art for the sake of art” but rather moves toward political consciousness and social change. John Pietaro wrote, “No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts that musicians, writers, painters, dancers, actors and performance artists within its ranks” (The Cultural Worker Blog). This special issue of the Journal of Poverty is an invitation for us to consider multiple ways of engaging in research on the topic of poverty and social change. To rethink epistemologies and action-based work is to also reconsider how we write, report and broaden our understanding of what we define as research. This special issue is a performative action.
We would like to thank the general editors María Vidal de Haymes and Stephan Haymes for their support in this endeavor. Also thanks to their most able and efficient crew, Jessica Mantone, Emily Shayman, and Erin Malcolm. This issue would not have been possible without the guidance and the support of a distinguished community of scholars: Eda Cufer, Bernadette Calafell, John Muthyala, Beata Niedzialkowska , Melinda Plastas, Saguree Sangupta, and Katherine Smith.
Hooks, B. (1996) Killing Rage. New York: Holt
Pietaro, J. http://theculturalworker.blogspot.com/
Sylvander, C. (1980) James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar.
Thompson, N. (2004) The Interventionists: users’ manual for the creative
disrupton in everyday life. North Adams: MASS MoCa
*Photo by Cassandra Price