There is an art to every practice, activism included. It’s what distinguishes the innovative from the routine, the elegant from the mundane. One thing that can help the “art of activism” is applying an artistic aesthetic tactically, strategically, and organizationally. Throughout history, the most effective political actors have married the arts with campaigns for social change. While Martin Luther King Jr is now largely remembered for his example of moral courage, social movement historian Doug McAdam’s estimation of King’s “genius for strategic dramaturgy,” likely better explains the success of his campaigns. From Jesus’ parables to the Tea Party’s protests, working artfully makes activism effective.
Creativity is essential to good organizing. It enables activists to imagine new tactics, strategies and goals to keep campaigns fresh and make them more effective. At one time protest marches and mass rallies were powerful innovations; today they are routine. Millions of people may have marched in the streets protesting the American War in Iraq, but public sentiment turned against the war when the mother of a dead soldier staged a dramatic encampment outside the president’s vacation home. When the Iraq Veterans Against the War decided to protest, they didn’t stage a sit-in and they didn’t march on the Capital. Instead they acted out the same military operations they did in Iraq and Afghanistan on the streets of US cities. This moving performance by veterans — street theater for the 21st century — captured the attention of both passersby and the media.
Artistic expression taps into an expertise that many people possess, but don’t think of applying to the “serious business” of politics. Even if most of us don’t compose symphonies or paint majestic landscapes, we listen to music on our iPods, perform songs in our churches, upload videos we’ve made to YouTube, assemble scrapbooks with our friends, and watch TV or read books before we go to bed. “I’m not political,” is a phrase one hears often; it’s a rare person, however, that doesn’t identify with some form of culture and creativity. Culture lowers barriers to entry. As something already embraced, it has the capacity to act as an access point which organizers can use to approach and engage people otherwise alienated from typical civic activity and community organization. Indeed, cultural creativity and artistic expression is often the possession of those — youth, the poor, people of color — that are most marginalized from formal spheres of politics, law, and education.
The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. The political topography of today includes the ephemeral ground of signs and symbols, images and expression, narratives and dreams. This is the terrain of artistic activism.
Projects run by the CAA include the College of Tactical Culture, a think-tank of artists, activists, designers and attorneys funded by and held at the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in the Summer of 2009, the School for Creative Activism, a training program for grassroots activists, funded by the Open Society Foundations, and the Art Action Academy, a workshop to help socially engaged artists become more politically efficacious.