by | Oct 4, 2022

What can art teach us about social change?

At SMK we are curious about how change happens. One way we do this is by learning from the myriad of innovative and creative approaches to change-making through art and art practice.

“I do think that art can change society. I don’t think it’s one artwork that does it, I think it’s the collective effort of artists and institutions together.” Bojana Jankovic, artist [1]

What is socially engaged art and practice? 

Art and art practice has long held a role in society as instigator, amplifier, agitator, and influencer. There are many ways in which socially engaged artists define themselves and their work.

What is distinctive about socially engaged artists, is they do not act alone. Even if a project is conceived and primarily executed by an artist, they always work in a larger context and environment. And it is often associated with activism because it is rooted in political issues with an end goal of starting a conversation as a way to improve and change something that is important to a particular community.

It is a term used to describe many different forms of artistic practice such as artistic activism, community based art, creative placemaking, cultural organising, participatory art, and social sculpture. But this list is not exhaustive…and that can be exhausting.

The histories of some of the different forms are significant. Community based art, for example, evolved out of the idea of cultural democracy that emerged after the Second World War. “Cultural democracy seeks to democratise culture in order to bring about an awareness and appreciation of art to as wide a section of society as possible; and to break down the boundaries between high and low culture in order to make art accessible to a wider audience.” [2]

Change-based and issue-based arts practice 

Another term is ‘change-based’ arts practice which is often regarded as activist in method. These arts projects seek tangible change in social, political, or economic conditions such as legislative art, activist art and protest art.

And one of my favourites – issue-based arts projects. They focus on raising awareness about an issue or changing the way it’s understood, often used through commercial or mass culture platforms. The likes of Banksy and other street-based artists such as the distinctive JR, who created what he terms ‘infiltrating art’, and the formidable feminist activist artists the Guerrilla Girls, all work to challenge societal views and highlight inequality, racism, poverty, human rights, and more.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei goes further than defining his practice as socially engaged or issue based: ‘An artist must also be an activist – aesthetically, morally, or philosophically. That doesn’t mean they have to demonstrate in street protests, but rather deal with these issues through a so-called artistic language. Without that kind of consciousness – to be blind to human struggle – one cannot even be called an artist.’ [3]

Learning from artists 

As part of our work to explore approaches to change-making and to share our evolving understanding of social change, will will interview artists whose work is based in change making and activism and who seek to understand and highlight contemporary social issues through their practice.

Interviews will be shared through SMK’s digital channels and website. Don’t miss out on what I believe are going to be insightful and invigorating discussions about how some artists are changing the way that today’s social issues are being represented and challenged.

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Further resources on arts and social change

The art of social change
Art as activism: a brief history of protest art 
UK-based Artists confront the big issues 
The art of a movement – protest art and the artist as activist
Six amazing artists campaigning creatively
Artistic activism for social Change
Activist artists – 11 famous protest art examples
The intersection of art and activism
Art and activism: can it change the world?
Activism in the art world – meet the next generation of radical curators
The intersection of art and activism
Can art spur social change?
Zanele Muholi – art and activism
Ai Weiwei Interview

[1] Bojana Jankovic
[2] Tate website
[3] Ai Weiwei

Emma Boyd

Emma Boyd is the Head of Marketing and Communications at SMK



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