ART AS SOCIAL JUSTICE
Here's a thought: what if we stopped thinking about art and social justice and instead looked at art as social justice? By keeping them separate, we are asked to value one over the other, or worse, we make one subservient, a mere tool that's in service of the other. I posit that maybe they can be one in the same.
I don't mean to imply that all can or should function as social justice. But there is a small and growing part of the field that is proving that the art itself can be a manifestation of social justice. By social justice, I mean, "...promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity. It exists when "all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources." (source here)
Some examples that come to mind include:
El Teatro Campesino's Zoot Suit. The play put Chicano history and Chicano/Latino/a actors on stage at a major regional theater. The play enjoyed a long and successful run and eventually bowed on Broadway and was also adapted to a film. The very fact that this work of theater, which depicted a largely unknown moment of history (the Zoot Suit riots), commented on the present day discrimination, brutality, and bias that Latinos faced (as told by Latinos) made it a manifestation of social justice. Each performance demanded a more just society and inserted Chicanos into American history.
Cornerstone Theater Company's Central Avenue Chalk Circle. Culminating a 15-month community residency in Los Angeles' neighborhood of Watts, Lynn Manning adapted Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, combining the talents of community residents with Cornerstone's ensemble of professional artists in a wildly theatrical presentation that helped bridge African-American and Latino residents in the changing neighborhood. Not only did the play garner widespread critical praise, it offered a new narrative about the people living in this neighborhood for those residing both inside and outside on Watts.
Mondo Bizarro and Artspot Productions' Cry You One. This collaboration between two New Orleans-based ensembles included community non-profit community partners (e.g. Guardians of the Land and Water) as well as governmental collaborators (e.g. Louisiana Departments of Natural Resources and Transportation and Development) to heighten the awareness of land loss and the corresponding loss of life and culture in the Gulf Coast. The production looked unflinchingly at environmental racism, showing us the consequences of unequal treatment and allocation of resources, and leading us to a moment of forgiveness and closure.
The aesthetic framework for art that have a social justice purpose is a step in the right direction in that it acknowledges that there are, in fact, aesthetics at work. It asks us to look at the art, itself, as work that is artful and socially relevant. This matters because the process of making the art and the art itself allow us to envision the future; it shows us what can be. This is meaningful because, when it is social justice, result is a vision for what justice can be and look it. If we can see it, we can do it.