The Role of the Artist: Using the Arts for Social Change

DaDaFest-logowords by Sinead Nunes, Editor

“Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Bertolt Brecht

In mid-July, I attended a talk hosted by DadaFest with special guests Roger Hill (Broadcaster, Performer & Artist) and Ruth Gould (Artistic Director of DaDaFest). The topic of conversation? When is art for more than just art’s sake? The arts have the power to alter both the personal and political, challenging people’s views and impacting the structures of society. So should art always communicate a political message? Or is it okay to sit back and enjoy creativity, regardless of intent?

Roger Hill opened the evening’s discussion with a bold statement; “If the person who affects change is the Mayor of Liverpool, then you’ve got to go and do whatever it is in his office”. So, to change the system through your work, be it visual or performance-based,  it is important to engage people who have political power. But will those powerful individuals listen, and are they open-minded enough to understand that message? Roger stated that he believes the role of the artist is to “precipitate openness”, to deconstruct society and to enforce change. I similarly believe that political and social messages can convey great meaning and reach a great audience through art, and so placing this mantle on the shoulders of the artist is in some ways just. This sharing of information is a huge part of social change, and if artists can precipitate this by conveying meaning through their talent, then why not share that information with the person at the top?

Countering this argument, Ruth Gould pointed out that politicians are not around forever, so you need to convince the people, not them. I found this to be a reasoned response, grounded in a clever logic: even if you got that ticket into 10 Downing Street, said your piece and convinced Cameron of your ideas, he’s still not the only one you need to get on side. Whatever legislation he comes up with next would need to be accepted by his peers, and more importantly, the public. Just because the government says something is so, it doesn’t make the people like it or want live with it, and there are countless examples of laws and actions in recent history that we have risen up against. Ruth believes influencing the views of even just one person at a time means empowerment for the arts and for disabled people, which is something DaDafest is working hard to achieve. And besides, the next election is always just around the corner.

But does art even need to do any of the above to be called art? The medium itself is not always about audience – art can be part of self-renewal, a private practice to better oneself, to come to terms with an emotional experience or simply to produce something to be proud of. Roger suggested that creating art can also be a rehearsal for the society you want to be a part of, where the artist has control of the future and is able to shape it, making it perfect and beautiful.


It is also true that art can be complicit in social orthodoxy, and used as a commodity by the powers that be. Art is forever tied up in a relationship with the economy and the recession filters the kind of art we see; take for example Arts Council funding. In order for an individual, collective or organisation to gain funding, they must first submit a proposal to a powerful body which then decides whose project is worthy of their money. These gatekeepers therefore play a crucial part in choosing what art is produced, and perhaps more sinisterly, what is prevented from reaching that grander scale of public influence. With a lot of public art in effect being paid for by the government, could it be that art is sometimes part of a political cover-up rather than as the solution to social change?

The next idea to be discussed was what artists must do in order for their art to enact change; should an artwork shock its audience, and what is the perceived point in this? As Roger pointed out, there is no larger effect if what we get from art is exactly what we expect; disruption must occur, and the audience must be encouraged to think about things differently if they are to learn or understand a new idea or concept, or even just be left with a lasting impression or memory of what they have seen.

Norma Jeane
Norma Jeane

A way for this to happen is for the artist or performer to change the relationship between artist and audience; take for instance one of the artists taking part in this year’s Liverpool Biennial, Norma Jeane. Norma Jeane is an artist “without a fixed body, gender, or biography”*. The artist was born in LA on the night that Marilyn Monroe died, and by taking over her birth name and using this persona to contain a wide range of different personalities, her ideas translate into participatory works of contemporary art where the audience is as much responsible for the outcome as the artist. This is a trend with potential across all artistic mediums, and by inviting the viewer to be part of the work, the audience feels responsible for the result – a phenomenon that could translate into better education and social change.

Next, we pondered why it seems that only small independent organisations face the expectation to be actively in support of change and social justice, and why the expectation is not always the same of larger institutions who have the resources and backing to actually contend with serious issues. This relates back to the ideas discussed around revenue streams, and how those with the power (the boards funding bigger arts organisations) can actually prevent politics from entering into the gallery (or performance) space. Ruth explained at times being faced with the ultimatum: are you a political organisation for social justice, or an arts organisation? For her, and for the people of Liverpool and beyond, DaDafest has thankfully managed to transcend this boundary and define itself as both; facilitating great art as well as fighting for equality.

For DaDaFest, fighting for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts, is part of a much wider issue of equality. As Ruth pointed out, “disability is a human issue, not just something for disabled people to think about”, reminding everyone present that we are all simply “temporarily abled”. Only 17% of people classed as disabled were actually born with their disabilities, whilst the majority acquire their disability during their working lives, through age, injury or otherwise.

47% of disabled people are currently in work compared to 77% of non disabled people, which is a shocking statistic given the advances society should have made on matters such as these by 2014. As well as the distinct lack of opportunities, disabled people are often treated differently on a day to day basis, because there is a lack of knowledge around disability. As such, it is the media who must become more reflective of the disabled population if those with disabilities are to be accepted on a social level. Currently, 18% of the UK population are disabled ( but this translates to only 3.8% of BBC employees.

We live in a “mediated society”,  and the rare false-positive images of disabled people in the media misrepresent the truth, causing us to ignore the very real problems people are having to deal with. Proper education is the key to encouraging  society to be more accepting of those with disabilities, and DaDaFest are amongst those who believe that this positive re-education can be made possible through art. DaDaFest make it possible for disabled artists to be seen as artists, not defined by their physical capacity but by their artistic talent, and respected as such.

So what is the purpose of art? Roger Hill summed it up: “If art doesn’t celebrate or criticise, then there is no point”, and surely these are the only prompts an artist would need when sitting in front of a blank piece of paper to suddenly find themselves inspired. The idea of art either having to celebrate goodness or to highlight society’s wrongs encompasses all that an artist could hope to create in order to produce a positive, constructive outcome from its audience. I can’t think of a better reason to write an article or compose a review other than to celebrate or criticise. If art doesn’t comment on life in some way, then it can be of little interest or relevance to its audience.

Let us hope then, that DaDaFest and artists across the country can continue to produce art that is for more than just art’s sake, and inspire social change through their work and practice.

This event ran in conjunction with an exhibition about positive images of adults with learning difficulties in the media, entitled Working Lives: Here and There.