After the Rupture: Notes on Social Impact Through Art
Limits and Possibilities in Political Art and Art as Politics
1.) DEFINITIONS AND METAPHORS
I’ll start with a definition or two, because as I’ve talked with people in different industries or communities it’s clear that certain terms that are fairly standard in one place are pure jargon in others — even as they may be very useful to us. Skip ahead if you know this part.
An “Impact Producer” is a term emerging from the film world, and more specifically (although not exclusively) the documentary/ nonfiction film world. The Impact Producer produces ‘impact’ — that is, they take the finished film and contextualize it to give it added social meaning, with a goal of creating social change. That’s the impact. Depending on the film project, the impact producer may zero in on a specific social issue, and is charged with instrumentalizing the film in the name of social change, policy action, or some other non-entertainment goal.
The idea that a film can provoke social change of course has plenty of anecdotal precedent, because film is undeniably a potent cultural force. The exact mechanism through which this happens, however, is not at all well understood (although many an impact producer will explain it to you anyway). Around the churning field of impact producing there is now a proliferation of initiatives to measure social impact, and understand the mechanisms whereby film art creates external change.
It’s worth noting the metaphor inherent in the term, because I believe it gives us some insight into the mindset that drives so much impact work. In the ‘impact’ frame, a film (or other artwork or object) is a moving thing, like a car or an asteroid — and the society around it is a relatively static presence that is being crashed into and thus changes. Impact leaves a dent, a crater, or a scar. There’s an idea of violence inherent in this metaphor, that social change occurs through a crash; and that it is art that is the fast-moving entity and society, in relation, static. Operating on that metaphor, it seems there’s a built in hierarchy of speed, righteousness, and urgency on the one hand, compared to one of stasis, inertia, and relative ignorance on the other.
All of this is based on the premise that film actually creates change in society in the first place, which is well worth investigating.
In the course of being an artist, one will sketch, experiment, iterate, or otherwise dedicate time to immerse oneself in a project until a kind of rupture is experienced. One doesn’t sit at their desk or easel and have a work of art pour out on day one. An idea or an obsession or simply a need to work gets us started, and we begin exploring, searching, trying. We assemble elements from ourselves, from our surroundings, from things we make and read and hear and see. The process of art can take a long time. We take things apart and put them together again — colors, ideas, forms, words, sounds, materials. Over and over again, until something occurs — a rupture in us, in our experience of the world.
The rupture is a moment of dissociation where the arrangement of elements and senses causes a break from what was previously known, and the artist now has come to know something different. Maybe it comes from juxtaposing images, maybe it comes from staring at a composition through the passages of multiple moods, maybe it comes from witnessing something previously never seen before. It happens in studios, editing rooms, in front of computers, out in open fields, or wherever the artist is practicing — and it is an essential part of the artistic process. Discovery, breaking, transit from one frame of mind to another. This is the accumulation of artists’ knowledge. When this breakage happens, and we find ourselves in a new territory, we know we’re on our way.
Then, the artist grapples with the meaning and implications of this rupture. Suddenly we’ve been separated from what we previously knew, and here is a new frame within which we live now and from which we can never return. (You can’t un-learn something; though you can forget it, which doesn’t place you back in your previous state, it’s only a variation on progression.) Having experienced a rupture, we are a changed person — but within the occupation of artist, we must make a record of that change, on canvas or film or paper or clay, and capture the change. This may become the work, or the first stage toward the work, which will eventually be seen by others. Often there are a number of such breakages that occur, and they accumulate into a form of making that the artist, setting out, could not have anticipated. And we package these breakages, our artistic learning, and exhibit them. Typically.
3.) FROM SENSORY STRANGENESS TO POLITICAL ENLIGHTENMENT: NOT SO FAST
Artists are also citizens of their societies, and thus political beings — and these ruptures occur sometimes outside the context of our studios or art practices, simply by reading something in the news, hearing someone speak, or encountering a social or political experience. Jacques Ranciere writes, “The means consist in producing a sensory form of strangeness, a clash of heterogeneous elements provoking a rupture in ways of seeing and, therewith, and examination of the causes of that oddity.”
When an artist experiences that sensory strangeness, that clash, that rupture, they tend to chase it down and seek still more. The ruptures energize and fuel the process, they provoke further artistic action. It may be natural, then, for artists to presume that causing a similar rupture in their audience or their companions or their community would provoke further social action — but there’s really no cause to make such a claim.
Ranciere again: “….there is no reason why the sensory oddity produced by the clash of heterogenous elements should bring about an understanding of the state of the world; and no reason either why understanding the state of the world should prompt a decision to change it. There is no straightforward road from the fact of looking at a spectacle to the fact of understanding the state of the world; no direct road from intellectual awareness to political action…”
Because the process of art is a process of change within a person, a process of learning, it’s reasonable to extend the idea to those who then experience art — it must be capable of changing people. Of having an impact.
And it is true that it’s not only artists who experience such dissociation as a result of experiencing ‘heterogeneous elements’ i.e. the stuff all around us all the time. It is not only artists that experience the ruptures of coming-to-know. Set amid a heterogeneous arrangement of elements, experiences, and sensory inputs, a person may passively spectate and take everything in unchanged, or, experience this dissociation and come to see some part of the world around them in a new way. Why this rupture occurs, when it occurs, isn’t clear, though it is the subject of research in fields from pedagogy to artificial intelligence.
And it isn’t only art that provokes such ruptures — they come to us all the time, in a million different forms and circumstances. We are changed, daily, by our sensory experiences. Still there is a special place reserved for the capacity of art to change us. Perhaps that’s self-congratulatory rhetoric coming from the creative fields themselves? Or perhaps there’s something to be said for the distillation and sharing of deeply human experience that accelerates and amplifies these ruptures in the viewer. Perhaps there are elements of both.
When it comes to the pursuit of impact — the provocation of social change through film or art — this question of how becomes essential. There is a set of assumptions in place about what creates that “general sensory oddity” of learning; and still more assumptions about what makes such learning turn into political or social action, if it ever really does.
In film impact, there is a mantra about how films can ‘start a conversation.’ (Paolo Friere does describe dialogue itself as revolutionary action, but elsewhere I’ve considered whether film is really true, equitable dialogue at all.) Impact producers may use social science-derived surveying and polling and tracking ‘theories of change,’ or focus groups and market research techniques (which themselves, of course, are derived from methods in Freudian psychotherapy). All to say, it’s fairly scattershot in that there’s a wide spectrum of possible methodologies and no regulation to which are used and when - but it gives impetus to the effort to prolong the life of a film in the world, and to give it meaning by placing it in contexts most appropriate for it. This isn’t a bad thing at all; in fact it is treating each individual work of art with the care necessary to give it life among a responsive, interested audience. Showing a film to people who have experienced something similar to what’s portrayed, for example, is obviously a real means of prompting reflective discourse (although the impact producer and filmmaker, when they’re doing their job, ought also to be the architect of the discourse as well).
But even when this works well, it’s no guarantee of social or political action. I’ve been through emotional, compelling impact-curated discussions after films that have been well-placed before a ready, responsive audience — and after the conversation there always remains the question: now what? This is just as true in the aftermath of experiencing any work of art with political or social velocity — we leave the gallery, the theater, the happening, and perhaps with our minds and bodies still ringing with the experience, the artist and their audience all silently ponder that question: now what? Has a change occurred? Is there a crater in us? Is society forever changed?
After ‘starting the conversation,’ the conventional pathway for impact producers is to construct a ‘call to action’ — some clear gesture that people can make toward social or political movement.
Whether it’s signing a petition, calling a legislator, making a donation, or even volunteering one’s time for a cause — these aren’t necessarily indicators of a rupture in a person’s understanding of the world. These may be salutary gestures, socially motivated, driven by feelings of guilt or a desire to participate without an understanding of how, or an execution of the ‘bare minimum’ to satisfy either a personal or an external pressure to act. Or, they may be a genuine first step following a breakage in knowing.
We should acknowledge that what non-artists do in the wake of a rupture is quite different from what artists do. Artists plunge forward, seeking meaning, and seeking further transformations — because it’s the nature of their occupation. Non-artists may not find it as easy to absorb new learning and transform their experience accordingly — because they also have obligations, jobs, families, communities that depend on them as they were. Pursuing new ruptures may lead them away from these equally important aspects of human experience. So leaving a ‘crater’ of social change is not a linear or dependable process at all.
Political or activist art operates with a different vocabulary than that of film and film-impact, but depends on similar assumptions. Political art on the one hand is equally dependent on the discourse that emerges from the exhibition of the artwork, but tends to do much less to structure that discourse or capture its substance. Because there isn’t a consolidated industry and thus a set of norms in evaluating and maximizing ‘impact’ around political or activist art, there also isn’t as much emphasis on gathering and showing “evidence of impact.” Film producers do that to ensure further financial investment in the project or in the filmmakers, and often that’s beyond the capacity of a fine artist.
There is also a much wider range in the forms that political/activist/ ‘impact’-oriented art can take — from pictures to social practices to monument-building. This makes It impossible to cultivate a uniform practice of ‘impact evaluation’ around this work, to measure for the possibility of ruptures within an audience (an audience which also doesn’t necessarily gather conveniently all at once, as they do with film). While the outcomes of political or social art sometimes may be longer-lasting, or are fluid enough to evolve into new forms (like whole communities, collectives, or new works of art), there is still that fundamental assumption — based, I believe, on the artists’ own experience of learning — that the artwork itself is capable of provoking the ruptures that change thinking, expand experience, and result in new forms of political action. And that assumption is a big leap to take.
6.) REFORMULATING CHANGE-MAKING
To build a clearer model of ‘impact’ or art-provoked social change, first we probably need to dispose of the ‘impact’ framework, and maybe even the change label itself. The implicit metaphor of a fast moving thing that leaves a crater in an other thing is loaded with hierarchies and separation. In a very general sense, people don’t like being crashed in to — and so aligning one’s work to impact others carries overtones of hostility and action without mutual consent.
Change, while less metaphorically violent, does still hold some of that hierarchical/ separated thinking — and this is further true when considering much of the terminology one tends to see in rhetoric around social change work: catalyst, transformation, activation. We don’t particularly care for it when someone tries to change us — in a relationship, in an argument, in a community. It’s nicer to be accepted for who we are; to grow and change ‘on our own’. And so to varying degrees being subjected to transformation or activated can feel like a robbing of our agency.
Next, we should interrogate the nature of the rupture itself, and consider the possibility that an artist responds to the ruptures provoked by the explorations of an art practice differently than a non-artist. We should consider the possibility that upon experiencing a “combination of heterogeneous elements”, a viewer must also have other conditions in place to feel that breakage of learning, that emergence into a new frame. Knowing all the conditions of every viewer’s experience is impossible, and often political art has had to be content with just ‘putting it out there’ and having faith in the power of the artwork to keep provoking, advocating, responding all on its own. It doesn’t close the gap between showing and feeling, or the gap between feeling and acting. But we can at least consider some of the things we do know which provoke responsive actions.
We often take action when we perceive violence being done to us (either bodily, or to our extended selves — our family, our community). The provocation of action through violence is sometimes emulated by artists through the creation of ‘intolerable’ images, artworks that are designed to shock and provoke. And yet there are many kinds of social and political violence enacted upon us on a daily basis that we don’t respond to. Sometimes the ‘action’ prompted by violence is paralysis, inward-turning, and the ‘impact’ ends up as trauma, a crater within. Presenting a perception of violence, then, is a highly unreliable means of closing the gap between spectatorship and participation.
People also act for social reasons — because they have made a friend or started a new relationship. In some way or another, because they have been given human value by another human, made to feel worthy, granted dignity and freedom to be themself in the eyes of another person. These relationships promote emulation and coordination, and we take actions — volunteering at a soup kitchen, joining a book club, attending a political event or a protest — often simply because our peers are doing so. The ‘purpose’ of the event is not necessarily our priority (although taking the action may compel us to consider that purpose more deeply), and so it is difficult to assert that making friends or building communities is a sure-fire means of prompting people to act. These outcomes, however, considered as outcomes of experiencing artwork, do create a sustained period of time in which the rupture from previous understanding to new understanding may occur. In fact, if involvement in a new community is lasting, this in itself could be considered such a rupture.
And people take action sometimes out of purely internal, personal motivation. There are a thousand conscious and subconscious factors at play in every decision we take, but undeniably these combine and emerge at times as gestures of political participation. The way that experiencing an artwork is involved in this mixture of inputs is impossible to quantify (or even qualify, often), but we have to draw a line connecting our aesthetic and cultural experiences to our political and social gestures. The more challenging question is, what is the weight of that line, and what else lays along it?
These three drivers of action — by no means a comprehensive list — all share a component of agency. Whatever has brought them to the point of making a social or political gesture, it is nevertheless theirs. This undercuts the implicit hierarchy of the ‘impact’ metaphor. We are not billiard balls, for we never go the way the pool player intends or expects. To extend this analogy, perhaps we should consider the lesser reliability of flinging a cueball out into the field, as opposed to walking around the table, extending our hand, and directly guiding things into the patterns and pockets we want. Perhaps ‘impact’ should be engagement. Perhaps the artwork only creates the first break, and then we have more work to do to make sense of the pattern of distribution after the fact. Artwork may be a gateway through which we can lead people, but only through level participatory engagement can we ever expect to reliable change things. If this sounds
And perhaps there’s no easy way around the necessity of directly involving ourselves in the learning and the rupturing of previous experience amongst those who experience our work. Expecting the art to do everything shortchanges the potential of it to do anything. Possibly, the artist who wants to create shifts in culture must remain an active part of the process throughout those shifts.
If this all sounds less like changing a culture, and more like growing one, then maybe we’re on to a better metaphor with which to think about how to engage with each other and ultimately give shape to society.