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A view of “Living as Form” in the historic Essex Street Market. (all photos by the author)

What is the connection between art and social change? I’ve pondered this question for many years. According to the received wisdom, art means an aesthetic object. Sometimes it also means a performance or an action — but then, it’s always an artificial one. Art is a deed staged not to accomplish a social or political goal but as an end in itself. Yes, an act could be art, but what about activism?

When I moved to New York five years ago, I discovered Creative Time. The visionary public art organization has built a program on challenging the definitions of art and muddying accepted categories. In addition to mounting inventive interventionist projects, such as Paul Chan’s “Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Creative Time also gives out the annual Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change. The $25,000 award honors “an artist who has committed his or her life’s work to promoting social justice in surprising and profound ways.” The first recipients, in 2009, were the Yes Men, an artist-activist (artivist?) pair that goes around impersonating greedy corporate leaders in order to publicly shame them.Would I call the Yes Men’s interventions art? (No.) Did it matter? (No.) Here, Creative Time asserted, were art and activism together. It was possible to do and be both. Maybe we needn’t adhere to definitions — or, more than that, maybe definitions are malleable.

In its latest exhibition, Creative Time has taken up this subject on a bigger and broader scale. Living as Form, on view in the historic Essex Street Market through Sunday, documents some 100 projects that have lived in this grey zone between art and activism. A few choices indicate the curators’ broad-mindedness in thinking about these terms — Tahrir Square, for instance, merits its own wall text and photos, as well as Harlem on the night of President Obama’s election. I doubt the participants in these events saw what they were doing as art, or as anything more than, well, life. Which raises yet another question: when does activism ascend to art, and when is it just plain activism?

And yet, wandering the vast, grungy space of the market, I was struck less by this question and more by the epiphany of an answer: the thread that connects art and social change. Of course. It’s creativity.

Both artists and activists succeed when they think creatively about the world, when they approach its problems in original and inventive ways. This is why it can be so difficult to tell them apart. If an activist organizes a program of letter writing and advocacy for inmates confined in a “super max” prison, who’s to say this feat of creation isn’t art?

Merriam-Webster defines art as:

… the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.

Chuck the “especially” and you have a definition for much more than paintings and sculpture: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination.

Following close on the heels of this thought came another: every one of the protesters at Occupy Wall Street should see this exhibition. If the demonstrators are seeking alternative models of existence, new forms of living, they need only cross lower Manhattan for inspiration. There, a warehouse awaits them, full of examples of artists and activists — people like them, in other words — doing just that.

Creative Time’s Living as Form continues until October 16 at the historic Essex Street Market (southeast corner of Essex and Delancey Streets, Lower East Side, Manhattan).

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

One reply on “Could Activism Be Art?”

  1. This show sounds really cool. And glad the question is: can activism be art rather than can art be activism (which I would say ‘no’ to as long as it stays within gallery walls or within an artworld context). 

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