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Outside the lines: how art fuels social justice

The Rothschild Foundation Lecture

Royal Academy of Arts, London | Nov 7, 2023

Here’s Looking At You, Kid

Lucy von Goetz


Seeing and looking are siblings not twins. Seeing is a softer, almost passive act that happens by having a pair of eyes. It’s biology. The body allows us to see.


Looking is active, we take part in it consciously. We control looking with thoughts. We can see something by accident, and we can choose to look away. How we let ourselves see and how we decide to look makes us who we are.


Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, spoke recently at the Royal Academy of Arts about the relationship between art and justice. He said that art is a direct route to creating empathy, and with that empathy, comes justice. This is true of some art, and a powerful statement; “no art, no empathy. No empathy, no justice”.


Walker said that if all people were educated in arts and culture, there would be no bad people in the world.  He said that if people experience what it’s like to stand in front of an amazing painting and contemplate; they will be a good person.


It is a cute idea, that art can save the world and humanity. It’s also a laughable idea, that people who have been traumatised by devastating abuse or war or tragedy can be healed by going to see a nice big Turner painting at the National Gallery.


All of us in the lecture theatre who mainly worked in the arts felt instantly praised. This was great news; we had been told that we worked in an industry that has greater healing powers than all the gods in the world. Sadly, there is little truth to Walker’s point.


Art does have the power to move people. But increasingly art and meaningful engagement with culture is reserved for a select few. The whimsy of Walker’s sentiment that art can fix everything recalls the august sanity of Auden when he wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen”. Does art really have a tangible impact?


There was a moment later in the lecture when an audience member chimed in. They mentioned that art was being used for activism in a direct way by the Extinction Rebellion protestors. That very morning, two protestors had smashed the frame of a Velasquez painting in the National Gallery.


The perfect irony of us all sat there talking about the use of art for justice, for change, for improvement – and yet the mention of an artwork being used that morning as a way for activists to draw attention to their Just Stop Oil campaign – visibly disturbed us. Tepid horror settled in the theatre. We then started to realise the hypocrisy. If art is to be used for justice in the world, is it really within our remit to decide what art, how, where and when this is done?


If the goal is justice, it’s hard to argue that a painting in a private museum in the USA, steeped in impenetrable academic literature is a better orator’s stage for a cause than the mass media power statement of smashing a masterpiece in a famous gallery. The latter makes its way into the press with a huge and broad audience. The former requires an existing entry point into an elitist art world where most of the audience are so privileged that when faced with art that is campaigning against injustices in the world, they do not want to acknowledge it. Not beyond a level of intellectual masturbation. Like Auden’s extreme feeling regarding the usefulness of poetry, how useful is art? Does art lead to outcomes?


We speak about exhibitions giving a voice to people who need a voice, we talk often about starting a conversation, a dialogue about an issue that is difficult or taboo, we speak of art having the power to draw attention to issues that need it. This is all true and important, but all without measurable outcomes. Has a painting ever directly changed policy? Has a sculpture impacted the outcome of a hostage release deal? The people who are the most privileged are the most upset by seeing things that seem to them disruptive.


Walker quoted F Scott Fitzgerald; “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” In psychology this is known as cognitive dissonance. Walker was saying that for him, this manifested as being an eternal optimist and simultaneously filled with rage at the injustices in the world. It’s not really a skill reserved for the intellects as Fitzgerald said, it’s a commonplace method to survive.


Later that evening, my friend asked me to summarise the lecture, I told her simply: “it was very American.” It was polished and glitzy, like Hollywood and it left people with the exact dose of self-congratulation, like the Oscars.


The lecture did draw attention to the huge gaps in what the art world is doing for justice in practical terms. Some of the artworld believes that balancing the genders, race, backgrounds, and identities of the global art collections is enough. That stuff is a given, the different voices being represented. This should be standard practice now. The art world has had a lot of rehearsal time compared to other industries – we have been well versed in rebellion, protest, and the taboo for centuries. It's time to move from optics to tangible outcomes. We are too stuck in the conceptual, the theatrical, and the talking. This lecture showed that too clearly.


What we allow ourselves to see and what we choose to look at, privileged or not, without fear, is where we form what and who we are.


Wer sehen will, muss die äugen schlissen.

Lecture information 

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