“Since modern day society is centered upon individualism, it is important that members of the art world respond to this trend by connecting art and social responsibility."
As a child, Tyree Guyton was deeply influenced by the riots that were occurring in his Detroit east side neighbourhood. In 1986, at the age of 31, Guyton gathered his family and neighbourhood children to clean up vacant lots on Heidelberg Street in his old neighbourhood (“The Heidelberg Project”). Using paintbrushes, brooms, and salvaged objects from the garbage, these individuals began to transform vacant lots into works of art. Guyton altered the aesthetics of these houses by painting them in bright and friendly colours. This outdoor artwork soon became known as The Heidelberg Project (see fig. 13.1) and has transformed the once threatening neighbourhood of the Detroit East side into a welcoming environment. Guyton’s project still exists today, and projects like his can be seen in urban communities across America. This is just one case where art has been used as a method to increase social awareness. I use the example of The Heidelberg Project to examine the lasting connection between art and social change.
Guyton’s approach to the problem in his Detroit community considers the possibilities of using art to directly benefit society, a way of using visual material that art critic Suzi Gablik has defined as “Connective Aesthetics.” Incorporating art into one’s local community has always been a challenge for individuals who try to pursue careers in both art and activism, yet a large number of artists have recently created projects revolving around issues of inequity both within their respective neighbourhoods and also globally. These artists who take an active lead in social justice issues directly impact underprivileged individuals and minority groups. Their projects are done in different locations, varying from art galleries to local organizations. By examining specific artistic projects and their results within their respective communities, this essay will examine the achievement of these projects in comparison to the artist’s intent for their work. This essay will also compare successful and unsuccessful forms of social art projects, indicating which approaches are the most effective and beneficial to their communities. The artists and projects to be examined include the art of the YA/YAs, Tyree Guyton’s The Heidelberg Project, Henrikus Bervoet’s Artists and Kids For AIDS, Oliviero Toscani’s Benetton ads, groups such as Arts-In-Corrections, ArtsReach, Great Wall of the San Fernando Valley, and Maggie Hutchenson’s Paperfire. These politically active artists gain a sense of self-fulfillment by helping others in need through their art. While the success of these projects can be measured by their impact on society, the emotional impact on the artist also reflects the value of each project. In her article “Connective Aesthetics,” Suzi Gablik plays out this idea, stating that the politics of social art are “oriented towards the achievement of shared understandings and the essential intertwining of the self and other, self and society” (6). While the artists mentioned above have received both credit and appreciation for their efforts, many also speak about what these experiences have done for them as a person.
The YA/YAs are a group of students and art teachers in New Orleans who use art to tackle issues of social justice and to enliven the community’s creative economy. Madeleine Neske, a high school teacher in New Orleans, had been deeply affected by issues of race and social status within her workplace of Rabouin Magnet Highschool. During her time there, the students have been mainly African American, and have been susceptible to the many racial stereotypes projected onto them by the upper class white society of New Orleans. Neske started her YA/YA artist collective with a small group of these students, inviting them to participate in after school art activities (Fahey 2). She encouraged these students to paint about their life experiences and then to display their paintings in local galleries as a way of helping the community to build an appreciation of youth who come from less fortunate circumstances (Ibid.). Neske’s programs have since grown into established extracurricular activities in which the school’s students can paint images concerning the social injustices that they face on a daily basis. Despite the damage wreaked upon the city of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the YA/YA program is still heavily supported by and involved in the community, fostering hope for residents in a time of struggle. It has remained an important artistic component of helping youth deal with losses in the aftermath of this natural disaster ("YA/YA"). The artists, now known as the YA/YAs, work together after school hours in order to keep them away from the streets during the time when youth violence is most common. Neske also contributes to a brighter future for these youths by teaching them about the value of education. Her students learn aesthetic techniques to make them competitive in the art world and are encouraged to apply to post-secondary schools, maintain high academic averages, and take advantage of internship and job opportunities that she researches for them (Fahey 3). This afterschool art program not only benefits the community by increasing the visibility of arts and culture, but also gives hope to at-risk youth that they can succeed in society.
The success of the YA/YA group started within the New Orleans community: their work was purchased by public art galleries across the downtown core, bringing them to the attention of the larger New Orleans art scene. The group has also recently been tied to major businesses such as Burger King, MTV, The New Orleans Opera, as well as clothing designers (Ibid.). Thirty percent of the profits gained from each exhibition have been put towards the students’ post secondary educations (Ibid.). These efforts have promoted self-esteem, created job opportunities, and made the New Orleans’ community more tolerant of youth who were once at-risk for developing violent behaviours. Neske acknowledged the potential of her students as positive contributors to their community and managed to successfully remove these youth from the streets. The art of the YA/YAs has been distributed and acknowledged in various parts of the United States, which has expanded art world opportunities for the students involved, and Madeline Neske has become established as an important figure within the New Orleans art scene, which could allow her to take her project even further as well.
Similarly, issues of social inequality have been explored in art projects involving youth from more fortunate social circumstances. Henrikus Bervoets’ Artists and Kids for AIDS portfolio involves a series of collages made by high school students across Ontario. Rather than dealing with local issues as Neske does with YA/YA, Bervoets’ strategy is to educate North American youth about the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. In his workshops, students can explore issues of global equality by creating their own images. It is estimated that over 22 million people in Sub Saharan Africa are living with AIDS; 1.5 million of these people die each year of resulting complications ("AIDS and HIV statistics for Sub-Saharan Africa" 1). While Bervoets’ students use their artistic skills to express their feelings and opinions about the pandemic, they also foster awareness of endemic disease and poverty in the third world by distributing the students’ work across their communities. While there is a difference of scale in Neske’s and Bervoets’ work, both artists’ organizations inspire their students to take an active role in issues of inequality through artistic expression.
The Artists and Kids for AIDS campaigns have generated a large revenue from their collages. In 2004, the organization raised $95,000 from the International and Kids for Kids projects (Ibid.). Prints of the collages have also been sold with proceeds going to non-profit organizations that focus on AIDS research in Africa (Ibid.). The success of this organization was not only apparent in funds raised but also in each locality where the work was displayed. The youth portfolios have been distributed in London, Ontario, in locations such as the Alex P. Keaton bar and Museum London. The images’ public location creates a visible reminder of the AIDS pandemic in the Western world and provides an entry into learning about the crisis. The collages also generate awareness among their creators since the students must first educate themselves about the social, physical, and political effects of the virus before creating an artistic response to it. The youths’ involvement may also act as a catalyst for further interest in social change.
While the students of Artists and Kids for AIDS have gained valuable insight and knowledge about the global AIDS crisis, the organization’s CEO,Henrikus Bervoets, has gained valuable exposure in the art world with his collaborative projects. His work has impacted both the lives of North American high school students and African children alike. Through his strong organizational leadership and his great compassion, Bervoets has pushed his geographic boundaries further than Neske and the YA/YA project, making international headlines. The communications and cultural experiences that Bervoets has started transcend Artists and Kids for AIDS’s local origins through collaboration with youth and artists both nationally and internationally. His appearances at almost all of the program’s events prove that he is committed to his work and interested in seeing results from his efforts.
A larger community art project can be seen in the San Fernando Valley of California. The Great Wall mural was initially created by a collaboration of artists and individuals identified with minority social groups in Los Angeles. The murals depict scenes from American history, outlining issues of racial discrimination against African Americans, segregation of Japanese Americans, and the hardships of Mexican refugees, among others (Cleveland 239). The issues portrayed in the mural educate both the artists creating the work and local viewers about America’s conflicted history. The project serves as an opportunity to learn from people with different social backgrounds and to endorse public art-making within the community. One of the Great Wall mural’s greatest successes has been the enduring relationships fostered among its creators. The community building and education promoted by this project is remarkable: gang members, California youth, community organizers, and members of the U.S. army were all able to find common ground in painting the mural (Cleveland 240).
The Great Wall mural’s aesthetic harmony attests to its success as a work of art. Located in the Los Angeles core, the Great Wall is accessible to millions of people daily. Judy Baca, a collaborator on the project, describes her experience as an opportunity for her to “translate, mediate, and inform” (qtd. in Cleveland 244). Baca’s contributions to the mural project were beneficial for developing her tolerance and acceptance of social groups that she identified as different. Art critic William Cleveland describes the Great Wall mural as “necessary for the poor to counter the degrading aspects of their lives” (242). The forms of self-expression discovered by the participants in this mural project helped them solidify their places within their Californian communities.
Similarly, the organizers of ArtsReach work with community groups to educate them about a range of social issues. ArtsReach organizes programs for California youth in correctional facilities, primarily teaching them drawing, painting, and ceramic skills (Cleveland 211). This program allows unlawful youth to express themselves artistically, giving them the freedom to explore their creativity, and to experience a positive working environment. The project is aimed at developing creative minds so that when the youth leave the correctional facility, they will have acquired the knowledge and skills needed to sustain themselves without recourse to criminal behaviour. This goal calls to mind Arts-In-Corrections programs that provide artistic education to adults in California prisons. The facilitators of the original Arts-In-Corrections program initially fostered the inmates’ interest in areas of writing, acting, and drawing. Due to the success of the program, it was expanded to include lessons in painting, modern dance, Native American basketry, video production, papermaking, and ceramics (Cleveland 86). From 1988 to 1989, the program increased to provide over 43,000 hours of artistic programming by 279 artists to 8,019 inmates (Ibid.). Unlike the youth of ArtsReach, many of the adult prisoners are already repeat offenders and have had little encouragement to change their negative habits. By teaching the inmates in an atmosphere of free artistic expression, program organizers hope that they can overcome their problems and better understand themselves through a new freedom of thought.
The projects ArtsReach and Arts-In-Corrections have successfully changed the lives of many inmates and at-risk youth. The success of the Arts-In-Corrections programs can be seen in the program’s students who were released on parole. The inmates that participated in the Arts-In-Corrections programs for at least six months in prison were half as likely to violate their terms of parole than those who did not participate (Cleveland 87). This finding suggests that there exists a link between the inmates’ artistic involvement and their successful reintegration into society. With these art programs installed in correctional facilities, inmates and correctional youth have a better chance of one day positively contributing to their communities.
ArtsReach’s mission statement is “to bring stimulating arts experiences to isolated members of society” (Cleveland 211). The artists involved in ArtsReach and Arts-In-Corrections programming were able to exploit their artistic abilities while increasing their own acceptance of individuals who are too often labelled as a social threat. They also promoted a form of self-expression among individuals who had little or no contact with their communities. Many of the inmates and correctional youth were very reluctant to accept new forms of learning, and the artists had many problems trying to motivate the participants to create works of art (Cleveland 220). The challenging circumstances of the collaboration between the art educators and the inmates and at-risk youth make the success of these workshops all the more rewarding. In overcoming such difficulties, the artists gained problem solving and communication skills that can be fruitfully applied in future endeavours.
Another form of art acknowledging the positive potential in even violent and criminally susceptible communities can be seen in Tyree Guyton’s The Heidelberg Project, described at the opening of this paper. This art intervention was a response to the crime and violence associated with the neighbourhood in which Heidelberg Street is located. It and surrounding streets were segregated from other parts of Detroit due to their associations with crime, poverty, and despair (“The Heidelberg Project”). Guyton began cleaning up the community and painting on the houses, creating visually appealing scenes consisting of vibrant polka dots and inviting images. Guyton’s project, now an organization unto itself, continues to grow through its belief in “the persistence of reflecting on the history of Detroit, realizing the issues and potential of the city, and renewing the community with creative power” (Ibid.). A variety of city art interventions of this kind are transforming communities worldwide, offering people a chance to become educated about problems within urban centers and beyond.
The success of The Heidelberg Project has been inspiring for both local and international art interventionists. Despite two demolitions made by the city of Detroit in 1991 and 1999, the project continues to grow (Ibid.). With a once bleak future filled with socioeconomic disadvantage, Heidelberg Street is now recognized as one of the most influential art environments in the world. The Heidelberg Project attracts around 275,000 visitors annually, and has received media attention from Newsweek, Time, Essence and People magazines (Ibid.). Parts of the project have also been exhibited in areas across the United States and in Latin America (Ibid.). The success of this project demonstrates the ability of artwork to revive a violent neighbourhood and to change the lives of the people who live there. In Tyree Guyton’s estimation, The Heidelberg Project has prevented Detroit youth from experiencing the destitution to which he was subjected as a child. Guyton sees his project as a way to return to his own past and to find answers to the problems that future generations will have the misfortune of sharing.
Maggie Hutchenson is another artist intervening within her own community. Hutchenson is concerned with issues related to the war in Iraq, a theme which formed the basis of her outdoor performance work in Toronto. In 2002, Hutchenson prepared a series of puppet shows that she performed on the streets of Toronto as part of an art collective later entitled Paperfire (Hutchenson 80). She organized a series of puppet-making workshops for her shows and then performed with the puppets on the streets of Toronto in hopes that onlookers would be inspired to think about issues of social inequity around the world. This type of artistic performance introduces a positive form of social debate without imposing the sort of threat often associated with traditional protests. Centered in Toronto’s urban core, Hutchenson’s performances draw in an unintentional audience, extending their impact to a diverse cross section of Toronto’s citizens.
While Hutchenson’s performances are successful in that they reach a wide but local audience, Paperfire still lacks direct engagement with the problems of the Iraq war. Hutchenson argues that these performances merely “cast a different light on events that were very much already in the public eye in hope that this would inspire continued action against the war” (86). But Hutchenson also believes that her performances could be more engaging and that they need to address issues surrounding the Iraq war more directly. Still, her project has never been regarded as a failure; the success of Hutchenson’s project consists in the impact that her Paperfire performances have left on unsuspecting audiences.
While they benefitted her local community, Hutchenson’s performances also give her confidence in her personal ability to create successful activist art. Viewer response has helped Maggie Hutchenson to fine-tune her Paperfire performances and represents her primary method of analyzing the success of her work (Hutchenson 87). Since the artist’s work is fundamentally collaborative, it has allowed her to learn from a variety of individuals. In much the same manner that the artists of the above-mentioned mural projects interacted with their students and colleagues, the ideas and insights contributed by others have exposed Hutchenson to knowledge from a variety of groups with unique and sometimes contentious interests.
The work of socially conscious artists is not limited to non-profit organizations and individuals; many international corporations have also attempted to take on issues of social inequality through their advertising campaigns. While the intent of these works is questionable since their basic function is to generate commercial profit, social awareness remains an important part of their advertising goals. Such is the case with advertisements for United Colours of Benetton. Photographer Oliviero Toscani was hired by Luciano Benetton in 1984 and began to photograph controversial themes concerning racial harmony and world peace for Benetton advertisements (Giroux 188). Toscani attempted to use media culture to provoke social change and ethnic tolerance within consumer society. Arguably, consumers of Benetton represent a suitable target for these ads since the company’s high priced clothing attracts individuals who enjoy positions of wealth and power within their societies. The Benetton Company believes this advertising is a form of “art with a social message” that represents its brand (Giroux 191). This form of visual culture uses the power of the media to communicate social activist ideas, which in turn can be supported by the power of mass culture.
Yet, like Hutchenson’s Paperfire, Toscani’s Benetton advertisements were not completely successful in their stated aims. Toscani’s original photographs have become tainted with the association of a company whose primary goal is to profit from the sale of retail clothing. But just as Hutchenson’s Paperfire performances are acknowledged for their attempts at raising awareness, Toscani’s controversial images should also be credited for their attempt to provoke social change. In Henry Giroux’s article “Benetton’s ’World Without Borders’: Buying Social Change,”he claims that Toscani’s advertising “appeals to the moral high ground, one that he suggests is untarnished by the commercial context that informs the deep structure of his job” (192). There are many capitalist ideals behind Toscani’s advertising, but if Toscani’s target market is able to look beyond profit goals, his photography can enrich their social awareness. Toscani’s advertisements have given him the opportunity to create activist art while still earning both a sufficient salary and recognition within the advertising community.
Artwork aimed at stimulating social awareness is widespread across North America. Artists and laypeople work together through many obstacles to create socially charged artworks that still function as aesthetic pieces. The success of these works can be credited to each artist’s unique approach to community involvement, the impact of the artwork on the community, and the social and emotional rewards motivating artists themselves. Since modern day society is centered upon individualism, it is important that members of the art world respond to this trend by connecting art and social responsibility. As Joni Seager discusses in the foreword of Wild Fire: Art as Activism, art “sometimes provokes, sometimes portrays or sometimes precedes social transformation, but it is never far from the heart of the struggle” (9). The issues raised by activist art establish a link between individuals and communities, although these links that can be hard to maintain due to the competitive structure of capitalist society. The success of these artists’ works stresses the importance of their art as both an influence and inspiration in their respective communities. The art world should be intrigued to see what new forms of communal activism these artists will explore in their future work.
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