The setting, the Indian Treaty Room at the White House. Surrounded by a crowd of cultural influencers from the arts, sympathetic politicos and glad to be invited VIP’s, artists Nyugen Smith and Cheryl Pope are typing rhythmically. Each are flanked by a teenager whispering into their ear. As the night progresses a pile of paper grows with cryptic words: “WHEN YOU GONNA GET OUT?” “TEARS IN MY EYES.” “SAME QUESTION. SAME TIME.”
What we are witnessing is an art performance in recognition of Youth Justice Awareness month. The teens are DC students. The artists, poetically interpreting the kids' stories of the Juvenile Justice system. The guests at this intimate gathering, brought in to celebrate a social justice campaign by ACT/ART, a non profit dedicated to social impact through art. One imagines that these kinds of exclusive happenings and events could be happening any night at the White House where, the Prime Minister of Zambia could be rubbing shoulders with, say, a room full of tech entrepreneurs, but the reach and significance of this event goes far beyond the walls of the White House.
Joseph Goebbels famously remarked “the word propaganda always has a bitter aftertaste." Of course the name Goebbels leaves a sour taste behind as well, but Hitler’s CMO did have a point, although unintended. Some of the most famous propagandist art is associated with nefarious totalitarian regimes, and at most art with a political message is more likely to be judged as great graphic design, not pure art. Art is at its best as a form of self expression, to be used cautiously in the service of a political agenda, but when the personal ideology of the artist is authentically aligned with a cause, something altogether more interesting can happen.
Great propagandists understand that an image, like a catchy tune can create a lasting impression that can trigger a powerful emotion.
Why is art so potent in the first place? Great propagandists understand that an image or a performance, like a catchy tune, can create a lasting impression that can trigger a powerful emotion. Art has the ability to reduce complex ideas and dogma to an memorable meme. Combine that with today’s almost universal access to creative tools, from instagram filters to Vine and add a public hungry for building their personal brand through creative expression and you have a powerful feedback loop.
The reception at the White House brought those strange bedfellows together in part to celebrate IAMTHEMANY, a poster campaign for social justice launched by ACT/ART in cooperation with the administration. ACT/ART’s mission is to use the power of art to inspire positive change, but it doesn’t stop there. Its founders, a blend of art world influencers, cultural noisemakers and media veterans, also understand that digital culture provides a platform to make this formula achieve formidable scale and reach far more than the guests in that room.
ACT/ART was born from a series of conversations between members of the emerging art community who believed in the potential of art to reach people in a more impactful way than ribbon cutting ceremonies and policy speeches. Eventually ACT/ART self-organized as a non-profit whose immediate mission was to create campaigns that leverage this alchemy between creativity and cause.
ACT/ART launched its first campaign around the topic of criminal justice reform. Knowing it was an administration priority, we understood that focusing on it would provide us with a powerful ally, but more importantly the group felt passionately about the timely issue of institutionalized racism which lay at the root of the call for reform, and we recognized that it was already an ingredient in the work of so many artists.
At the core, a poster campaign, IAMTHEMANY uses the influence of these artists to start the conversation by submitting their own poster design on a digital platform and through social media. Understanding that a broader public could be spurred to creative action as well, ACT/ART developed an online poster making tool that allowed people to create their own art, riffing on the theme of I AM ________, a reference to the 1968 civil rights rallying cry I AM A MAN.
I AM Inspirational… I AM the Youth… I AM Change… I AM a Concerned Mother. The user generated submissions came pouring in, often accompanied by emotional stories. People directly affected by the issue of racism were joined by those sympathetic to change. Ultimately influencers and celebrities stepped in, accelerating participation on social media.
Activist art often appears in the form of the art collective, complete with the revolutionary zeal of a political movement, but until recently, the power of the collective, often a subversive response to a bigger more dominant state machine, was frequently limited to underground zines and wheat pasting in the dark of night. Today digital culture changes all that. Finally artists have a place to organize en masse to spread their ideas and influence. The broader public has the means and the creative confidence to amplify by participating themselves. Regimes who restrict the internet perhaps understand this power best.
The new corporate responsibility will not be televised; it will be brought to life through the internet and the participation of the crowd.
As a brand marketer, I cannot help from making the observation that this is a potent formula for brands. The combination of cause, culture and crowd sourcing when aligned authentically with a brand story, can be a powerful marketing tool, but whether it’s politics and art or brand, cause and culture, the trick is to legitimately join forces with artists whose hearts are already aligned with the cause.
Many brands and companies already get it, and there are many examples where well executed social impact campaigns drive awareness to a worthy cause. Corporations, politicians and artists do not always form an intuitively natural coalition, but as art continues to be recognized as an instrument of influence, the alliances are inevitable.
Standing in the White House, in a room of artists, social justice advocates and political sympathizers, I could only hope that the next administration will be as bold to celebrate art so authentically. And as brands and art continue their mating dance, perhaps there’s a way to direct patronage towards something more worthwhile than just fetishized logos.
Phil Delbourgo is a co-founder of ACT/ART.