What should art’s role in social change be?

French Artist Prune Nourry’s uses her exhibition ‘Terracotta Daughters’ (featured in Shanghai’s Gallery Magda Dansvsz) as a way to raise awareness about China’s skewed sex ratio. Chinese artist Li Tianbing showcased an exhibition titled Me and My Brother in London, in which he displayed black and white photographs of himself as an only child (BBC News). Can artists be the voice of change and awareness?

I think that art can be a powerful tool for social change. When I was younger, my middle school would take us on school trips to a nearby Art Gallery. I remember a picture I had seen during an exhibition in this gallery that will stick with me forever. It was the image of aborted fetuses after a tragic gas leakage in India. I remember staring at it with shock: afraid to keep looking and afraid to look away. I do not remember the identity of the artist or anything he said in his introductory speech, but that image has stuck with me.

Today, exhibitions also have live models and increasingly provocative visuals. They try to shock the viewer into understanding their point of view of a subject. This is a powerful and extremely effective tool. If a photograph has made a lasting impact on me, surely live models and visual representations can have an even bigger impact. However, exhibitions and visual art performances are often viewed as something for the more ‘cultured’ sections of society, and it is true that it is not accessible to a large portion of the population, ironically the portion that probably needs this cultural influence the most. Prune Nourry’s exhibition Terracotta Daughters is held in an art gallery in the heart of Shanghai. Li Tianbing showcases his exhibition in London. Although these exhibitions are powerful tools of expression, they are not accessible to the poor Chinese farmer, who needs this awareness the most. Neither is this going to interest a poor urban worker, who would rather spend his spare money seeing an entertaining film for enjoyment than seeing a didactic exhibition. Art exhibitions are not able to make a big impact on society because of their limited accessibility, although the exhibitions can be great tools for fundraising because of the crowd that they attract. If these funds could be used to promote these exhibitions amongst the masses, artists will be able to make a lasting impact on society.

An artist’s true identity is that of a social influencer; an artist can serve as a powerful agent of all types of change and transformation, both individual and communal.  In the words of Jerry Kosinki: “the principles of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.”

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