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Art and its Social-Political-Cultural Impact

I am a firm advocate of the thinking that all Art has a social and political impact. In particular, the self-indulgent art that portrays an apolitical stance is firmly rooted in a political perspective that some people can remain aloof to and abstain from the political sphere of human societies. This is not only not possible, but the direct result of a media-driven and politically-motivated economic model of society, which assumes that the appropriate role for most people is merely as a consumer, allowing the producers and owners of material wealth to monopolize political power.

But Art has a way of undermining all monopolies. Art is very nearly nothing unless it mimics, ridicules, satirizes, parodies, exaggerates, highlights, and illustrates reality. In fact, it is because of its abilities to do so that we enjoy our Arts, preferring it to News, which attempts to tell stories without relying on these very human tools of expression and persuasion. (This is one reason that I consider much of contemporary TV news – like Fox News to be *poor* art and not news.)

Whether it is music, comedy, plays, movies, sculpture, painting, or collage, much of modern art is at the cusp of political unrest and upheaval. One of my favorite urban art forms – graffiti – is an irreverent form of art as protest, often merely belligerent, but occasionally poignant and historically significant.

In East Los Angeles, where I grew up, graffiti artists continuously modified the walls, telephone posts, and billboards of our neighborhood, tagging it with their identities and constantly showing their disapproval of their social and economic status.

While graffiti has been frequently denigrated as a sign of degenerate youth, there can be no doubt that public art has had a profound political impact, including on the fall of the Berlin Wall, the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the so-called anti-globalization movement, and the recent freedom-movements in the Middle East and North Africa, collectively referred to as the Arab Uprising.

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In March 2011, TED awarded its TEDPrize to French artist JR, for his project “InsideOut“. In his award speech, JR said, “I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we’ll turn the world…INSIDE OUT.”

The prestigious TEDPrize awards $100,000 to an individual to share “One Wish to Change the World.” Previous award winners include Jamie Oliver, Sylvia Earle, José Abreu, Bill Clinton, and Bono.

What I found most significant about JR’s award is his insistence on the InsideOut Project to be crowdsourced and global. Anyone can participate. Here’s how:

One of the most significant results has been in Tunisia, where InsideOut first and JR first made an impact. All results are temporal – history never ends – but there is no doubt that InsideOut has given many people a powerful perspective that they are now the foundation for a new era in Tunisian history. No longer dominated by a single face, many faces will lead a less simple and certain future.

But good Art is often like that; it is uncertain and a bit difficult to comprehend. It is imprecise. It is inscrutable. Because life itself is difficult to comprehend, imprecise, and inscrutable. But that is this quality of life and art – conflict, hope, and uncertainty – that is the true source of beauty, its significance, power, and impact on politics and society.

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