Should art change the world?
Saturday 27 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Lunchtime Debates

Many artists see themselves as socially engaged, making political points in their work, and involving themselves in programmes that encourage community participation in the arts. Many art galleries have programmes through which artists work with ‘excluded’ groups in the local community. Government policy supports these practices with funding on the basis that art can make people’s lives better. Is this an unalloyed good, or it time to make a stand for ‘art for art’s sake’?

That old slogan begs the question of what art’s sake is. Few visual artists today see their role as simply producing aesthetically pleasing objects, though many do that. Undoubtedly, art trades in ideas. But how is it then distinguished from journalism, or politics, or propaganda even? And how should audiences respond to ideas in art? It is often easier to identify a message and discuss that rather than looking at the work as art. The media, funding bodies, and even arts institutions often seem preoccupied with art’s relevance to social and political questions, and its practical role in fostering community, for example. Does this encourage inappropriate expectations? Can art transform or revivify politics?

Arguably politics has its own crisis of purpose, with the main parties struggling to inspire popular support. Might socially-engaged artists succeed where politicians have failed? Or do they simply refract the vacuousness of contemporary politics itself, espousing fashionable causes in a sort of ideological karaoke, at the expense of finding and insisting on their own artistic language?

Arts & Business, the festival Arts Champion, have invited guest curators to put on an exhibition on the theme ‘should art change the world?’ which will be on throughout the weekend in the Lower Gulbenkian gallery.


Dave Beech
senior lecturer, Chelsea College of Art and Design; artist; writer, Art Monthly; member, Freee Art Collective
Alison Jackson
artist, photographer, filmmaker; books of photographs include Private and Confidential; co-producer and director, Channel 4's Blaired Vision
Andrew Brighton
writer and painter; contributing editor, Critical Quarterly; former senior curator for public programmes, Tate Modern
Munira Mirza
advisor on arts and philanthropy; former deputy mayor of London for education and culture; author, The Politics of Culture: the case for universalism

 Produced by

Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Should art change the world?, Andrew Brighton

 Recommended readings

The ethics of aesthetics
How art can be socially and politically transformative without sacrificing that which makes it art
Sarah James, Art Monthly, 30 April 2005

Politics v the arts
If it has the ability to change people’s attitudes and behaviour, should art therefore serve political ends?
various, Guardian, 21 May 2007

Use or ornament - the social impact of participation
'The real purpose of the arts', argues this influential 1997 publication, 'is not to create wealth but to contribute to a stable, confident and creative society'
Francois Matassaro, Comedia, 1996

Arts Funding and the Threat of the Olympics
Watch Claire Fox News discuss Museum and Galleries Month, Slavery and Museums and the cuts in Arts funding following London's succesful Olympic bid.
Claire Fox News, 18 Doughty Street TV, 5 May 2007

Art and beauty
The revival of ‘beauty’ in aesthetic discourse draws on the exhaustion of its political impetus
JJ Charlesworth, Art Monthly, 31 August 2003

recommended by spiked

'Thou shalt worship the arts for what they are'
John Tusa, 28 August 2007

Session partners