Artists on Ferguson & Social Responsibility

anigif_enhanced-14865-1408474701-12The last few weeks have been heavy on us all, to say the least. Sparked by the lack of indictments in both the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases, Etta, Kathy, and myself have been in dialogue in recent weeks about where we find ourselves within the complexity of the social injustices that occur on a daily basis. In the midst of processing everything, I remembered that I not only have a stake in this conversation as an individual, but also as an artist, educator, and organizer. With these thoughts in mind, I wanted to raise the topic of current racial and political events and social responsibility to artists, using the Make Space website as a platform to continue some of our personal dialogues.

Last week, I asked artists from across the country (Wolfie E. Rawk, Marisa Williamson, Samuel Hertz, Ginevra Shay, Sean M. Starowitz, James T. Green, Roxana Azar, and Victoria Martinez) to reflect on recent events and to respond to this question:

Do artists have a responsibility to address political and/or social issues in their work and/or general practice?

The question is not a new question and others have posed it at different points in time, yet I think it’s a question that we need to continue re-visiting and forming new dialogues around. To be honest, I am not looking for any specific response or perspective from this question, but rather my goal is to give all artists, regardless of the work they make, a space to feel like they have a stake in this conversation. I believe artists, organizers, educators, curators, and other people in the art world have a responsibility to engage with the social and political issues of our time, even if they don’t make overtly political work. This post features politically engaged people that also happen to be artists, some of who directly grapple with these issues while others engage with them more subtly.

This is the first of an ongoing series of writings, conversations, and programs around our social responsibility as artists organized by Make Space. The format of this post and brevity of each artist’s response (imposed by me) does not reflect the amount of things they wanted to write. Not only did I ask them to submit a very brief response, but I also asked them to deliver this information in a short period of time. I’d like to thank them, not only for their contributions but also for their insights and support.

Wolfie E. Rawk is an artist working in video, installation, sculpture, smells, and social interaction. A product of New Jersey and a child of Germany, they’re currently based in Chicago, USA. 

Do Artists Have a Social Responsibility?
To the artist wondering if they have a social responsibility to dismantle systems of oppression they may not be directly targeted by*:

1. Yes! You do!


2. Surprise! Your work is already dealing with inequality.

Artist to Wolfie: Whaaaat? Hoooooow?

Ok, lemme Wolfsplain something to you:

3. Having the ability to turn away from realities of oppression is a comfort many don’t have.
4. This “turning away from” is in and of itself, an active position.
5. By not working to dismantle systems of oppression, you uphold and perpetuate them.


6. Here’s a quote that may help: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

But Wolfie! I swear I’m not actually racist/cis supremacist/ableist/classist/misogynist!

7. Don’t care.

7b. I don’t care what you are, I care what you do. A cis person who is personally a wildly transphobic cis supremacist but actively works to make their workplace/school/etc trans-inclusive is about a million times more valuable to me than an allied and personally well-meaning cis person who does nothing to tangibly and logistically make their spheres of influence more trans-inclusive.

The text above is only an excerpt, please read the entire response here.

Marisa Williamson is a New York based artist working in performance and video.

It’s been a weird few weeks. In my life as an artist, student, and educator, I feel the very real pull of my personal and professional responsibilities–finish editing this film, read text on neo-Marxism, create lesson plan, find a doctor who accepts Medicaid. But there has been, on top of that, the very confusing, bulky, and awkward heavy burden of communicating, analyzing, sharing, and fielding concerns about violence against black bodies. It permeates every aspect of my life. It pools in the bottom of my soul. I search for a seat on a crowded subway car, and wonder, with growing resentment, how many people are completely oblivious to the struggle that rages in the isolated black body, and within the collective psychological mind of a community that bears the brunt of America’s irresolute relationship with black people.

On Social Responsibility: I would never say that artists are obligated to do one thing or another. I address political and social issues in my own work because I can’t work any other way. My mind is not well-equipped for compartmentalizing. Everything that’s in there finds its way into the work. If there were a Container Store that provided tasteful, durable, storage and organizing solutions for the critical, post-colonial, feminist, millennial mind, I would shop there, using coupons they’d send me in the mail. I don’t know what my work would look like–maybe abstract, color fields, fabrics, textures, basically a well-ordered Martha Stewart table settings.

Samuel Hertz is a composer, sound artist and performer living in Oakland, CA.

The events in Ferguson/NYC/untold places around the country are harrowing to say the least. As a white male, I’m extremely cognizant at every moment that this oppressive system commits murder in my name, but that this oppression benefits me regardless of whether I accept it or not. This is why it is important to me to show up to these rallies and marches as an ally to force police and state accountability for the stolen lives of black youth. This is why it is important to me to show my face to these militarized police so that they know I’m fighting as hard as I can against them and the racist system they try to protect.

On Social Responsibility: For me, the idea of artistic responsibility of addressing social/political issues stems more from the idea of having a relevant and engaging artistic practice that provides alternatives as opposed to being responsible for creating ‘political art.’ I definitely hold artists accountable for having a practice that reflects the outside world back on itself – for transposing social/political situations, yet still remaining relevant to them. At its core, art is social and political – we (artists) are responsible for making sure it is framed that way, that our artistic practices are culturally informed, and that they represent a platform that promotes discussion and conversation. Art often comes with a fair to heavy dose of abstraction, so the degree to which it exists within the context of a lively and ever-changing field of dialogue is essential to its (and our) success.

A Minute for Every Hour Michael Brown’s Body Lay in the Sun

Ginevra Shay is a visual artist and curator. She is also the program manager of The Contemporary a nomadic museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Passivity is a disease that saturates humanity. Lack of action is a submission to a corrupt and racist hegemony. Fear is the mind killer. Fear of police brutality for speaking up about injustice is a killer of the human spirit. A fear of the acknowledgment of systemic racism and white privilege is a killer of openness and diminishes the possibility for growth and change. We’re at a time in the United States where privilege of all forms demands to be examined. It’s imperative that we have broad conversations to help reconstruct our country and envision a society without disparity, and this takes action, and action takes many forms. Artists should act because we are human and we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis; so long as action is taken, any way it manifests is essential and relevant: art, protest, writing, donating, song, conversation, and so on.

Sean M. Starowitz is an artist and bread baker based in Kansas City, MO.

A Bali choreographer response to what makes a great dancer…
“A good dancer is one who knows all the traditional repertoire and can recall it from memory without error; a very a good dancer is one who knows the traditional repertoire and can infuse its performance with spiritual insight; and that a great dancer is one who knows the traditional repertoire and perform it with spiritual insight, and who also is a farmer”

I find this troubling that in this day and age we have to ask this question of artistic responsibility. Maybe the historic path of the artist has been blinded by our current market-based economy and our failures in art education. The power of art to influence public opinion and organize has been displayed by the many historic events around the world that try to silence artists. Arts and culture are usually the first to be censored, removed, or suppressed. Art provides voice to multiple perspectives, it naturally draws out varied forms of response through reflections, discussion, and debate. You know, the sort of things that are elemental in a healthy democratic system. Artists, cultural workers, poets, writers, singers, musicians, performers, dancers, and chefs (among countless others) can be the “canary in the coal mine”, but oddly enough, there has been a strange silence. We need song more than ever, we need poetry more than politics, and we need artists to hold up the mirror and provide the space for deep reflection. Art is about everything we’re hoping for and that’s not here yet, and art is here ahead of time to tell us that it’s coming.

James T. Green is a designer by trade and an artist by practice–making work that explores identity through new media, writing, object-making, and performance.

Art is the opportunity to communicate a thought or idea to the engaging public. While political and social work may be the most powerful, it can be either therapeutic or mentally draining to the maker. The last 2 years—with the trials of George ZimmermanMichael DunnTheodore Wafer and the non-trials of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo—hit close to home. The lives of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Micheal Brown, and Eric Garner were cut short due to the same American justice system that can end my life just as fast. Eventually I responded in these four works because it hit my heart hard, but I can see how other artists may not want to touch political and social topics, especially if they live in a state of privilege where they may not be affected.

Roxana Azar is an photographer and digital artist based in Philadelphia, PA.

These verdicts are outrageous, but these gross injustices are very common occurrences. This type of violence is a reality for people every day, not just a national news story. I just read about these plainclothes shooting at an unarmed deliveryman in Philly this morning. If the cops can get away with murder, can some “vigilante” get away with it, too? What about Renisha McBride? She was asking for help from a stranger after a car crash. She was murdered on the doorstep. What about Trayvon? McBride’s killer has been charged, but we all watched Trayvon’s killer set free. There are long lists of people murdered by cops and white folk. What about casual racism, everyday injustices? Why isn’t it surprising when this system fails another citizen? I live in Pennsylvania and our governor slashed funding for struggling schools in Philadelphia, but invested millions of dollars into the prison system. This sort of thing goes pretty deep.

Victoria Martinez is an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in Chicago, IL.

We most definitely have a responsibility to deliver work, messages, text, and documentation about social and political issues. There are various approaches. An artist can choose to present theories and history about what is to revolt, rebel, or be a part of a revolution. An artist can explore by maintaining practices and significant traditions by cultures that are part of genocides and massacres all over the world. I also believe it’s important to report on multicultural artists who participate in the contemporary art world. The youth, specifically the underserved, need to learn about artists they can reflect to. They need to be aware of “minority” artists who achieved a successful path in the arts, especially because the media demonstrates that Black and Brown people are supposed to fail. Additionally, I would love to hear what professional curators discuss. Should a curator’s vision and direction transition with what’s being depicted in our society? There are different visions to follow and audiences to serve. Reinventing could seem distant, but I believe artists have the power to keep spirits alive and offer genuine approaches to coexist with one another.