(Photo credit: Hannah Watkinson)
I recently did a presentation at Ilam School of Fine Arts, where I’m currently undertaking my Honours degree. I sat there for two days straight, a nervous wreck knowing I was to present last. I didn’t think there was much point in it, I thought what I had to say was irrelevant because I generally try to keep out of the Fine Arts scene as much as possible. Apart from, of course, being a full time Fine Arts student for the past five years…
I also talked about why I’ve made a website… Instead of another book. Teenagers don’t read books, but they sure do read the internet. I don’t read books (often), but I read the internet every day. Yeah, I thought, my work doesn’t and never will belong in a gallery. I know it, they know it, everyone knows it.
To make a long story short, in the scheme of things I have found it easy to dismiss the art world, never feeling like I fit in or have a place. The panelists at the seminar asked me to reconsider my thoughts on this, so I’ve done a bit of research:
Tao Wells and 2014’s Walter’s Prize recipient Kalisolaite ‘Uhila are both social activists as well as artists, both based in New Zealand, both working in the same contemporary context as me, and both raising a lot of important issues to the art community and even further with solid media coverage.
I was then led to Emma Jameson’s thoughts on the social value of art on Eyecontact:
I recommend giving this piece a read. She asks some intriguing questions, ones that I have battled with and am still trying to figure out for myself:
She unpacks a number of issues related to art as social activism, some of which I have experienced myself. “In a trend-based social context…artworks are quickly celebrated and dismissed even faster.” Having been in the media two days this week, I noticed a massive hike in my Google Analytics on the website. The story which made it’s way all over Stuff on Tuesday has now disappeared, and it’s only Thursday. It’s obvious why this happens, we live in a fast-paced internet-hungry world where seeing one story repeated over a few days must mean a slow news week. But as soon as the media coverage stops, so do the site visits to some degree.
Maybe her questions need to be answered by the individual artist. Will ‘Uhila continue his social activism despite a potential decrease in media attention? Surely.
How to we even measure social impact? By the number of commenters on an online article? By the number of hits on a website? For me it’s easy, I can run a workshop with young women, ask them to read the stories I’ve produced and get them to write feedback. I can have a direct connection with my 'target audience’.
But how can social impact be measured in the way Jameson might be referring to, i.e. the passing through of a gallery… the viewing of an art piece… how can we measure peoples’ responses to their consumption of activist art… anecdotally?
Also, at what point does art become valuable, and how do we measure value? Personally, I’ve received a lot of praise from whanau and friends after having an article in the press and being on radio this week, even though the work I’ve made hasn’t changed. I’m still the same artist. But all of a sudden because of media attention, my work seems to hold more value to people.
I definitely haven’t come up with any answers but I have a new, burning question in my mind - can art create social change?