“Art is highly explosive. To be worth its salt, it must have in that salt a fair sprinkling of gunpowder. The sprinkling can accumulate dangerously if governments don’t provide outlets for symbolic aggression.”
– Doris Summer’s The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, 2014
Art can have many roles within a society. History shows that art has long been used as a carrier of (religious) messages to the often unlettered people, like stained glass windows in churches depicting passages from the Bible, but also as propaganda in times of war, like Leni Riefenstahl’s movie Triumph Des Willens (1935) or communist propaganda posters from the Mao era in China.
Therefore art, in all its forms and shapes, has always been and always will be an important aspect and shaper of culture and society. Works of art are hardly ever merely aesthetic objects and art is always colored in some way by, on the one hand, factors like the artist’s personal background or motives, his or her preferences, taste and point of view, and on the other hand, by the receptor and his or her education (the museum visitor, the listener, the critic etc.), the period of time it was created and/or presented in and the physical spaces it is being displayed in.
From the many functions art can have in a society I will now focus on the provocative role it can play. Pieces of art can often be the source of discussion around existing or more recently arisen problems or issues within a society, country or group, locally as well as worldwide.
So how can art fulfill the role of provocateur in political or societal problems that may even occupy the daily news and world politics? In order for a work of art to be of significance it must have that ‘gunpowder’ factor; it must have that extra dimension that raises questions and plants the seeds for further discussion in the receptive audience and eventually on a larger scale, like in politics and governments.
This gunpowder factor lies mainly in the provocative, rebellious features pieces of art or artistic projects can have. Art can be the symbolic instigator to political discussions and provider of new dimensions and views on a subject, problem or issue.
By being somewhat more accessible and more easily comprehensible to a larger audience, society-critical art has the symbolic function of passing on messages, just like it did back in the Medieval times, and providing starting points for fiery discussion that may eventually lead to problem-solving outcomes.
An example of this this provocative, rebellious feature of art is clearly represented in pretty recent work of guerilla artist Banksy: his mural of Steve Jobs in the refugee camp in Calais, France. The mural shows late former Apple director Steve Jobs as a refugee with a bin bag over his shoulder and an early Apple computer in his hand. With this mural Banksy wants to point out that we are of misconception that migration is a drain on a country’s resources, since Steve Jobs himself was a son of a Syrian refugee.
Obviously, this statement work of art led to even more intense debates on the refugee subject, especially considering it came at a poignant moment in time, right after the Paris attacks and right-wing politicians around the world calling for borders to be closed to refugees.
The danger however lies in the fact that governments and policy makers may not take this ‘sprinkling of gunpowder’ in works of art seriously enough, maybe even reject it as ‘bothersome mosquito’, leading to an accumulation of frustrations and political dissatisfactions on both the artists’ as well as the public side. Art’s role as provocateur and representation for public opinions and debates may not be underestimated, as it functions as an educated public voice that can lead to sometimes highly necessary turns in or takes on societal problems.
So by making art a means for “social acupunctures” (Sommer, 2014), using art (projects) positively and to shed light on societal problems, it can lead to “collective healing”. Therefore it is important that governments and policy makers do not restrict or disapprove of “guerrilla-like” art, but instead stimulate these forms of art, give artists space to initiate projects and eventually use it as starting points for social debates.
Doris Sommer. The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014. Chapter 1