Organizers and Artists: A Conversation with Ken Grossinger

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Social movement strategist Ken Grossinger discusses overcoming alienation, museum unionization initiatives, making a commitment to long-term change, and teaching artists how to work with unions and community organizers.

Gregory Sholette: I am really pleased to have this opportunity to exchange ideas with you about the relationship between artists and political action, thank you for this. Before I get to specific questions, some of which I confess to not having answers to, I suspect that many of the visual arts faculty who will want to use your book ART WORKS in the classroom, are, like me, individuals educated about art as a set of skills, including fabricating sculpture, painting on canvas, possibly photography and video, and perhaps more conceptual or performative art making approaches, and almost universally drawing. But indirectly, most young artists are also being educated during their years in the  BFA, MFA, or in Europe, the PhD, into a certain attitude, or mindset, about the artist’s relationship  (or lack of relationship), with broader society. 

This way of thinking has traditionally had two broad tendencies. Either the artist turns away from society by sequestering themselves in their studio, or they (less often but this is now changing) seek to confront, subvert, or challenge the “status quo” using their art (we might say that the first is the Modernist paradigm, the second is that of the Avant-Garde). Sometimes this latter approach is purely an expression of anger or outrage. Sometimes, as with my circle of instructors and comrades in the 1980s, it introduces an analysis of the system as a means of illuminating its problems. Think here of Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, Carrie Mae Weems, or Rasheed Araeen or even Leon Golub whose paintings are in many ways more analytical than emotive (and I do not mean any of these people lack a sense of justified wrath towards injustice!). Still, in all these instances, whether we speak of the angry artist or the analytical critic, the artist places themselves to one degree or another off-stage, as if they are outsiders looking into society (this is more evident in the visual arts, than it is with, say, Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed approach). A separate branch of this latter, more conceptual tendency has lately tried to bridge the gap between artist and society in their practice, Suzanne Lacy, or recent projects by Dread Scott for instance, and I believe this is where your book focuses its attention most sharply. 

“Challenging power requires collective action.”

Anyway, the backstory to this artistic embrace of alienation by professionally trained visual artists might appear to outsiders as some special cult, handed-down generation to generation for over a century and a half now, and going by such names as the Avant-Garde, Modernism, Postmodernism and so forth. At the same time, alienation has been eased somewhat at times through self-organized artistic micro communities and movements including Cubism, Surrealism, or The Situationists, or even PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution), AMCC (Artists Meeting for Cultural Change), The Fox Magazine, and increasingly through younger collectives and social practice artists today (as your book and those by Lippard, Finkelpearl, Lacy, Kester, Bass and myself attest: * my short list of mostly recent pis found at the bottom of this post). As we both know, the artist as an “exceptional” social outsider is definitely undergoing a transformation recently, with many more artists, art instructors and art programs seeking ways to bridge the gap between the social and the artistic. Documenting and encouraging the different types of socially engaged art practice is at the heart of your practical and accessible new book, ART WORKS as it is with some of mine and increasingly more and more contributors. Nevertheless, doesn’t the angry protest artist who lacks what you call a “political infrastructure,” sometimes wind-up reinforcing the artist-as-exception bubble, rather than bursting it (and I will return to this below). 

Ken Grossinger: Greg, thank you for  this helpful background. As you know, some activist-artists and educators dismiss any coordinated connection between their work and campaigns for a more just society. They express themselves on their own terms and in their own time without engaging in collective action for social change. I agree with you that this can reinforce what you’re calling an “artist-as exception” way of thinking.  That said, understanding their approach to art and activism is key to eliminating the obstacles to new forms of collaboration among artists, community, and labor organizers.

Art Works looks at the impact of artist/organizer collaborations that fuel  social movements, from the Civil rights and BLM movements to environmental and immigrant justice. Further it looks at institutions including foundations and museums and their role in supporting or disrupting strategies for social change.

While individual forms of political expression can make important contributions to change, collaboration and alliances across many sectors can strengthen our capacity to win. Addressing the mindset you’ve just described is key to understanding what might be possible and to harnessing our potential power.

GS: What advantages, but also perhaps what disadvantages, exist for artists who work “without a political infrastructure,” by which I think you mean operating from a non-aligned and independent position? 

KG: The downsides to working without a political infrastructure are significant. Organizations have resources that artists often don’t. They have mailing lists, organizers and sometimes communication and digital strategists on staff, philanthropic support – that is harder for individual artists to achieve – and more.

The absence of these basic resources that are necessary (though not sufficient) for change further constrains the capacity of the left to win because it is no match for powerful industries and government that want to maintain things the way they are.

Challenging power requires collective action. Rarely, can individuals muster the resources to contest for power, no matter what sector they come from. 

Without infrastructure artists are left to their own devices, forced to fend for themselves. Who besides the artists themselves is looking out for their basic needs, from studio space to putting bread on their table. It’s difficult enough for organizations that have some political clout to influence policy but without their proactive support, and a popular mobilization that forces change, how will artists achieve protections and basic worker rights?

We’re seeing the answer to this question play out right now with the new organizing reflected in the Writers Guild and SAG AFTRA strikes. These artists, screenwriters, actors, and others are collaborating with community and labor organizations, to their mutual benefit.

We’re also seeing a surge in the number of museum staff who are unionizing for protection and better compensation. They are joining a wide range of unions, from the Auto workers who represent 15 plus major cultural institutions including MOMA and the Whitney, to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, (AFSCME) to Steelworkers and Machinist unions. These organizing drives are sometimes catalytic, sparking others to do the same. Organized cultural workers are slowly emerging as an important voice for progress.

You also ask if there is an “upside” for artists who work completely independent of organizations. The truth is that many artists feel less constrained working solo.  Organizations often bring a poll tested messaging approach to their work and this, along with organizational culture can stifle their creative impulses.  The pressure from advocate organizations on artists to work in a way they believe will maximize conventional organizing may unintentionally marginalize artists, diminishing the very quality and strengths they bring to the strategy tables; out of the box thinking and their artistic skills.

Organizing metrics are also more quantitative then qualitative and that can cause a rub among artists and organizers. Community organizers want meausrable change yesterday, and many artists like Hank Willis Thomas, think change happens on a 10–40-year horizon. That’s because narrative change is not an overnight campaign, but a long-lasting initiative which art could propel.

It takes trust, common interest, and a commitment to change to offset an “outsider” approach to community. Artists, community and labor organizations, and funders can mitigate the risk and reduce the obstacles I just described by establishing upfront agreements on the terms and scope of collaboration. When we’ve got that, we can succeed.

GS: Or is it that these artists’ politics are already presumably “progressive”? Is that necessarily a wise assumption from a politically effective position?KG: Like many, I believe artists fall more toward the middle and left than the right. But there is no doubt that the right understands the power of art and capitalizes on it. Whether we are looking historically at the film Birth of the Nation, which helped double the size of the KKK at the turn of the 20th century, the role the CIA played on the MOMA board during the cold war to advance abstract expressionism as a counter to soviet social realism, or more recently, the song Rich Men North of Richmond which FOX news used to open the first 2024 Republican primary debate. The right gets it. Many of their change-agents deeply understand the importance of culture to advance their interests.

GS: Does working for change also involve overcoming the type of “training in social alienation,” that I refer to above? And if so, how do we convey this problem, but also try to overcome it in the classroom context? 

KG: Not all artists need to grapple with social alienation, but for activists who want to use art as an accelerant for protest and/or to shift dominant narratives that oppress, it’s critical. That said, formal training (as you know) isn’t a prerequisite for artist/ organizer collaborations. Alliances are often created organically, on the streets, in meetings and discussions. We need look no further than BLM to understand and document that.

In a classroom context, I would just say, looking in from outside of the Academy, that it is useful to bring into the classroom people who are doing the work by engaging their communities. Artists and organizers who work at the intersection of art and social justice will discuss their work in classrooms, and teachers can (and do) facilitate dialogue between them and their students, focusing on, among other things, how they think about the artist as exception notion, to the extent that they do. If you’re an artist-activist interested in change, one question for classroom debate is under what conditions it is possible to reconcile an outsider stance with the value of collaboration. These conversations can also inspire students to become organizers, artists—or both

When classroom work is deeply embedded in community, whether that is the art and organizing world writ large, or in Queens, NY, the possibilities for developing new forms of collaboration are particularly salient. Describing the relationship between social change and his art, Rapper Jasiri X notes in Art Works that “My art and music are connected to the work I do every day. It has the most power when it is rooted in movements. When creating art is rooted in community, it becomes art for social change.”

GS: As important as battling injustice has become for younger artists, if the deeper political economy of culture and society is not also challenged, are we not in danger of merely forming a kind of “loyal opposition” within global capitalism? A danger that is made all the more likely in the absence of “political infrastructure.”

KG: Yes, and we do need a loyal opposition. But as you suggest, that is not sufficient to disrupt systems to create space for change. For that to happen, building alliances with other sectors is crucial. ​​My friend Heather Booth, arguably one of the most effective organizers in the nation, likes to say, if we organize, we can win. Si Kahn, a musician and organizer retorts “there is no guarantee that if we organize, we will win. The only guarantee is that if we don’t organize, they win every time.”

“It takes trust, common interest, and a commitment to change to offset an ‘outsider’ approach to community.”

Individuals can send shockwaves through the system and nourish greater activism. Think about the iconic photo of “The Tank Man,” the individual who stood alone in front of a moving army of tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Or more recently about Banksy’s work which is not collaborative but impactful. By themselves these individual acts of resistance whether driven by photographers or street artists are unlikely to change powerful systems. That takes organizing.  When Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of that Montgomery County bus, she did not act independently but in concert with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations working for racial justice. It was a collaborative initiative – and it changed the world. Artists are building what has recently been called “narrative power”: taking control of the stories that shape how we think about history, culture, people, and places.

GS: What is it, do you think, that makes artists better at generating this “narrative power” than say politicians, or union members, or poll workers, or loyal democrats (or republicans for that matter), or anyone with experience working inside a political infrastructure?

Similarly, what is it that makes artists better at generating “narrative power” than everyday people? Is it merely a question of having the power to communicate and express these narratives, or is there also a social, structural advantage perhaps?

KG: Artists by their nature are storytellers. Whether the stories are told through theater, music, painting, poetry, song, or spectacle, all art tells a story. The former SNCC field director John O’Neal, who founded the Free Southern Theater argued that “in telling stories, and working through metaphor, rather than argument, people come to shared understanding more quickly.” In the UK, there is a Storytelling Institute that is a part of the United Arts of London, an umbrella organization of six art colleges. They focus on the impact of Storytelling.

Too many organizers fail to address the cultural narratives that underlie their fights because they are not trained to do this. As somebody who has worked in the organizing community for 35 years, in community organizations, at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and running legislative field Operations for the AFL-CIO, I was never trained to think about culture and narrative change. So I never practiced it and when I began to teach younger organizers how to think about their work, I didn’t teach it.

Organizers have much to learn from artists who are often the most skilled at shifting narratives. Think about Kehinde Wiley’s Rumor of War monument. Historical monuments became a flashpoint for protest during BLM, both because the Confederate generals on top of these horses symbolically glorify oppression and because they offered up local targets for action.

“As a strategic matter, it is necessary to embrace both political and cultural strategies if we want change to take hold.”

In Rumors of War, Wiley replaced these racist figures with a young Black horseman in dreadlocks and sneakers, mocking the confederacy while elevating a Black man to hero status for others to look up to.

That type of narrative shift work, which can be found in all art forms, is key to achieving progress. Protest movements sometimes lead to policy and legislative change, but those changes are often rolled back when power changes hands. So the political pendulum keeps swinging left and right. Long lasting change requires narrative shift strategies aimed at the ideas, values and attitudes held not just by politicians but by the electorate. 

Art penetrates popular culture by reaching our heart in ways that policy and organizing never will. Whenpolitics and culture are inextricably linked, organizers and artist-activists are more likely to achieve lasting change in the body politic by working together.

GS: I wonder if you would agree that these same connections between culture and politics are now being exploited by the far-right. If we conceive of the “artist” (at least since the mid-1800s) as the true critic of established society, the underdog, the exceptional outsider and so forth, how is it that the far-right now portrays itself as the real cultural rebel force, even adopting the types of activist art that you and I have documented and discussed in our books and lectures?

Most baffling, and complicated, is how might we take the wind from these reactionary cultural sails without unavoidably defending aspects of neoliberalism, especially as it expresses itself within the art world through socially-oriented museum programming (including your important example of the Speed Museum in Louisville after the Breonna Taylor shooting from chapter 5), but also biennials taking place in the global south, the recent ranking of BLM and the #metoo movement as a top art influencers,** all of which is dependent on another reality involving billionaire trustees, jet-setting curators, the art washing of oligarchical or pharmaceutical dollars (which you also discuss in ART WORKS), and perhaps the most difficult aspect of all, recent efforts made by the mainstream art world to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (below a certain level of management or trusteeship), but which never actually addresses the underlying and unequal political economy that supports the art world and its markets.

“This shift among community organizations toward embracing art and culture is seen clearly in the environmental justice movement.”

KG: I wish we had a magic bullet – or even a magic ballot. The right effectively wields immense resources to drive wedges in the electorate for partisan gain, at a scale that is hard or next to impossible for the left to match. As you know, they’ve linked politics with culture to amplify their campaigns and more deeply embed their views in community institutions, from schools to museums and professional associations. Their abhorrent cultural strategies, from banning books and discussions about race and sexuality in the classrooms, to criminalizing abortion to promoting greater gun use, are just the latest in a long list of “cultural issues” they’ve taken up to assert control over our communities and the narratives that frame how we think about history, people, places, and each other. Although the media and some politicians have branded them “cultural issues,” at their essence they are racist, and anti LGBTQ focused, and labeling them as cultural issues obscures their intent and simply provides the media a “neutral” way to report on them.

Organizing can help take the wind out of these cultural sails. We need to organize on a broader scale, in ways that are more disruptive and engage not just the urban loyal opposition but rural communities and others who sometimes are on the sidelines, to stop the right. Fortunately, it is not just the right deploying art and culture to serve their interests. The left has a long tradition of doing so. Many remember the way Norman Lear’s All in the Family sitcom brought race, prejudice, and LGBTQ issues into our homes.  Millions of families viewed these weekly TV episodes that took on bigotry and homophobia. They spoke to ordinary people who saw themselves in the characters the sitcom created. Lear would say “that was part of their power.” This sitcom and others like the Jefferson’s helped to make equality a kitchen table issue.

More recently, conceptual artist Mel Chin created a covert entity called the GALA committee, a collaborative project among artists, producers and others that secretly inserted 200 pieces of art with messages on a prime-time soap opera called Melrose Place. It was broadcast to millions. TV is but one vehicle for artists to reframe narratives, and there are countless others, some of which link organizing directly to the narrative shift work. Organizing for the long-term requires deploying art and cultural interventions on scale. Art Works discusses strategies for how to do this, drawn from social movements, contemporary issue campaigns, and initiatives.

As a strategic matter, it is necessary to embrace both political and cultural strategies if we want change to take hold. That means that collaboration among artists and organizers is essential. Street artist Shepard Fairey argues that facts don’t matter unless we’re emotionally primed to take them in, so it’s necessary to “lead with something that is emotionally resonant.” That approach to social change is an important departure from just appealing to reason, which organizers have been trained to do.

This shift among community organizations toward embracing art and culture is seen clearly in the environmental justice movement. Historically, it was dominated by science and for decades the persuasion pitches made by environmentalists were dominated by charts, graphs and poll tested messaging. That remains important, but artists are now complementing this way of communicating by creating cultural handles, symbols and works that touch the heart, not just the mind.

It’s why we need both artists and organizers to help create a better world.