December 9, 2009

advocating art

I find myself a tiny bit skeptical about initiatives which ‘raise awareness’ about HIV / AIDS or ‘sensitise’ us on gender-based-violence. Maybe I’m unconvinced because I’ve read some pretty awful poetry recently… which begs the question...

What is the role of artists in tackling important social issues?

Actors, painters, singers, rappers, writers and poets… 'artists' are so called because of their special ability to present emotions and facts in original ways, which may shock, entertain, or inform. Whether they are good or bad is completely subjective, but what we can assess is whether they are successful.

Have you ever come to the end of a short-story in the newspaper, and puzzled over what the author was getting at? Have you ever been dazzled by a cryptic poem, too embarrassed to admit you had no idea what it was about? Successful, effective artists use their skills to communicate their intended message to their intended audience. At the end of the day they have done their job if the audience 'gets it'.

I think artists need to understand an issue, through experience or learning, so that they have something worthwhile to say. Then they can preach an important message in imaginative ways.

Unfortunately sometimes artists present clichés, simplistic fantasies, pure conjecture… social stigma is bad, beaten wives are miserable, orphans are sad. It must be hard to empathise with someone you know nothing about. Personally I find this uninformed art rather dull; it doesn’t engage me or add anything to my understanding. It doesn't ‘raise’ my ‘awareness’.

The victims of gender-based violence tend to be silent. It would seem that the people who rattle on about GBV have rarely seen it first hand (or laid a hand!). I’m not convinced they have any idea what they’re talking about, or what needs to change. On the other hand (!) it appears that many artists have direct experience of the condom on-or-off dilemma; ‘safe sex’ has been powerfully promoted through numerous tracks and tragic stories.

Of course doing something is always better than doing nothing... so any advocacy event must be applauded for taking initiative and making a start. I’d love to attend an event which facilitates the victims to find their own voice. I’d love to see 'artists' getting personal; honestly exposing their experiences or knowledgeably exploring underlying factors… in all their creative glory. But please spare us the pretty, rhyming, uninformed, theoretical clichés, which bring nothing new to the table.


  1. I think all your points valid and i strongly agree with you...i think the problem is the GBV "AWARENESS" - knowing about GBV is not enough, people need to be empowered to act! why cant the artist work with victims and with perpetrators or people who have been affected by violence e.g. children? And solutions need to be provided because after getting me all riled up with awareness what can i do?...are there victim helplines, counselling centres, shelters… and these artists need to sensitively portray this issue, it has to be personal and powerful and has to be good, if it is not then they shouldn’t bother because they will be doing the victims of violence a disservice!

  2. I find this totally on point! Let build up, not tear down. I obviously have nothing of depth to add except my wholehearted agreement with you guys! Artists need to get out of comfort zone and work in depth on the chosen issue and the 'victims' of whatever the issue is. Muza you are bloody right, after awareness raising ...what does one do after the event? How do i support the cause, where do i refer my abused friends to for help? Educate us on the constitutional rights, and legal implications or lack thereof.

  3. Angoni Osamwa Satha09 December, 2009 16:42

    when u find the answer 2 dat question, lemme know... coz i dont know what my job is, as an artist.

  4. While I agree with these observations, I submit that there is still room in the art room for artists that do art for art's sake. It would be a tall order to expect only those that have had the experience first-hand to address an issue- for obvious reasons. The problem that the artistic world faces is an old one. Let the mediocre and the unimpressive express themselves for the world is full of artists, but only a few are "chosen" to really "raise" your awareness when they do their thing.

  5. Thanks Allan, of course 'tackling social issues' is only one motive behind art - theres many other reasons to express yourself. But if social change is indeed the aim, then we can assess this art on its impact. I'm not calling for direct experience but for an informed perspective... because thats what makes an impact on me.

  6. Imagine if in 24hrs 500 women 30 men (proportionally) recruited to undergo extensive makeup to show a brutally beaten women / men going to work as usual, going to lunch as usual talking, laughing and smiling as usual, Imagine a church with no less than 25 female members of the congregation with brutally beaten faces and arms (makeup)...then imagine... See More peoples reactions. No big media campaign, no radio shows, television psa's just people and their reactions. keep this up for a 6 months and watch what happens.

  7. I think a lot of people are very vaguely distressed by an issue and feel nice when they partake in an "awareness-raising" event. They have acknowledged a problem, perhaps thrown a dime at people ostensibly doing something about it -- in short, they have resolved their distress. So there is a demand for such events as an act of public catharsis that does not actually ask much from the public. This intersects with art because artists are in the business of providing this. And doing good as art is a lucrative teat that in a guilty western world will never run dry.

    Your irritation with the cliche and hackneyed approach to these issues is a direct result of your ability to creatively write. A staggering number of people, even the highly educated (my experience is with the informed and urgent earnestness of my classmates) don't recognize their earnestness as artifical, recycled, and exhausted. What we're picking on here is not the do good sentiment, because we share those sentiments, but their predictible presentation. But most people do not notice it as predictible. Consider yourself gifted I guess.

    There is a correlation, but not an essential one, between effective art advocacy and one's actual experience. People who have never been abused can create moving and effective PSAs on the subject; and people who have been abused add nothing to public consciousness when they speak out when they use the same language that's in the drinking water.

    We could argue about the point of "raising awareness" on certain issues. This is a huge lucrative industry in the USA for things that don't really need awareness raised (or the people who are the target of the art are the ones who are also kind of creating it). But the bottom line on effective art, for advocacy or not, is whether you are creative -- not whether you are genuine.

  8. I am not sure that the issue is this simple. Matching intended message to intended audience is propaganda or advertising rather than art. The Arts do have a social purpose but by the complex messages they transmit rather than by a single point.

  9. What would a revolution be without a song? Sometimes art is there to inspire those on the frontline of change to stay strong in their struggle. Fuel for the spirit.


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