Art, activism and cultural change

So basically this post is me wrapping my head around ideas around how artistic practices can help in political and cultural movements. I have always, always hated when people ask “so what’s your theory of change?” Mostly because it sounds like the most wonky crap I’ve ever heard and almost always comes from someone who only ever operates on a theoretical basis. But here I am. Thinking about change and media and the “how” of arts as a mechanism for regeneration. Ergh. This is a theory of change, isn’t it?


The easiest place to start in how graphic narrative arts contribute to political and cultural changes is in the role images and text in sequence in the form of propaganda. According to the book Propaganda Prints (which I strangely requested as my 13th birthday present) the roots of propaganda come from the Catholic Church’s attempts to counter the reformation.

In 1622 the word ‘propaganda’, which comes from the Latin propagare, meaning to ‘sow or propagate’, was adopted into the title of a new committee of cardinals, the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, created by the Catholic Church to promote the faith in mission territories.

Colin Moore, Propaganda Prints p. 7

There you have it folks. Propaganda – like yours’ truly – was a product of the Catholic Church’s project to maintain and populate power the world over. The creation and distribution of propaganda is an applied art with the explicit aim to shape the cultural environment of a society. To use motifs and visual language to manufacture consensus within a public forum. In a devastating blow to the Catholic Church (let me find my tiny violin) newly formed protestant groups made a hit serial comic of the troublesome priest. The Catholics may have created the weapon, but the Protestants won the war.

The troublesome priest comic

Basically, propaganda is a way of making art that takes nuggets of distilled and accessible ‘truth’ and distributes them as widely as possible. It has historical precedence of supporting and broadening social movements, as well as consolidating power dating back thousands of years.

Tom Eckersley’s print in support of the WWF is a good example of environmental propaganda. Prints supporting animal conservation are not necessarily propaganda, but this print is not about supporting nature, it’s about supporting the WWF. The WWF has a history of supporting nefarious actions in the name of conservation, including colonialism and paramilitary activity. This poster is for the WWF, not nature, and certainly not people.


So propaganda is an applied art, and a way of top down distribution of an ideological position claiming to be truth. If you want to change people’s minds and behaviour, there’s a lot of precedence in making and distributing good looking, emotive visual media for your cause.

But what if the cause you’re supporting is a grassroots, bottom up movement? Does the creation and distribution of posters, zines and mean that the art is extractive? I would say yes – but on a spectrum. It doesn’t matter what or how your cause is structured, if you aim to occupy more space, and gather more support with media that distills a truth beyonds its nuance and complexity, it’s extractive in some way. That said, a little run of zines to support a local movement is obviously very different to a warmongering marketing campaign. It’s just a question of how much space are you justified in occupying? Is your work going to take up more space than you really need? Or is there a way to make art for a cause while encouraging others to tell their own stories and make their own art?

Messy artistic movements of care

I’ve been reading a bit about movements where the act of making is the way of change, rather than the product. I think it’s a good path of trying to making a system of regenerative graphic storytelling. Graphic narrative objects are very flexible, and reasonably easy to make (at least in a basic form). There’s a lot of flexibility in terms of what you use and how you make things.

This week I read this article about how crafting groups in Colombia were doing more than just making objects. They were finding communities, connecting to materials and each other, and finding ways to navigate a profoundly disrupted social and ecological environment. A lot of the tapestries the women crafted were about stories, they used images and text to articulate how they felt about their world. The materials they used were viewed as part of both the community and the ecologies around them. It was away of weaving continuity, and friendship even in times of upheaval.

Tarcchetti et al said that making and caring were two wheels of the same bike – where coming together to create stories was a means of checking in, and mutually providing space, food and support for each other. I’ve read about this in other crafting groups and in zinemaking as a form of slow pedagogy in the USA too. In all of these examples, the product was something to be proud of, but the making was the avenue of change.

Moving into my ways of working – whether that’s storying ecologies with foraged items, or making graphic resources for scientists, I think it’s important to keep in mind the following questions:

  • Is this work about making a product for a client?
  • Is it about exploring and understanding the world?
  • What materials am I using? Whose bodies do the materials belong? Do I know them?
  • Do I need to use inks and colours I don’t know?
  • What’s the story? What are the limitations of the story I’m telling?
  • How much space (ecological and social) is the story taking up?

This year I hope to find avenues of building collectives of makers, so that I can engage with the mess and making that might create a slower, creative and caring community.

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