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Art and Social Transformation

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Art and Social Transformation  *



I present here a few reflections on artistic practice and its relationship to emancipatory political projects, responding to two questions: Why is it important that the Left promote a socially transformative art? And, how do artistic practices contribute to social transformation? I hope my answer helps generate a debate about the internal life of leftist political organization, cultural activism, and Living Communitarian Culture.



1. Why is it important that the left promote a socially transformative art?



1.1 Because Culture is a Battle Field


A truly transformative social project can only happen in the realm of culture. Without deep changes in people’s internal dimensions, every attempt at transformation towards a more just, egalitarian, and solidary society will be superficial, short-lived, and unsustainable, because the foundations that reproduce relations of domination and subordination—subjectivity and common sense—will remain intact.


The cultural dimension relates to the way we see, perceive, feel, and think ourselves. That is where the discourse of power is reproduced both by the dominators and the dominated, within a capitalistic, Eurocentric, racist, chauvinistic, and homophobic template.


Social control over subjectivity, sexual life, ways of organizing, working, etc., expressed through racism, male chauvinism, homophobia, Eurocentrism, the cost/benefit analysis of human relations, the myth of the entrepreneur, etc., are supported by an interiorization of the ideology of domination in hegemonic culture.[1]


For this reason, it is in this cultural realm that we must unleash our battle against a model of civilization that objectifies individuals, turning them into merchandise, or making them invisible within a very limited understanding of citizenship.


Disputing the terrain of subjectivities and pursuing profound cultural changes demands of us the most radical of horizons of meaning: the emancipation of the human being from all relations of subordination.



1.2 Because we need to create a new, radically democratic, Institutionality


We still have an exclusive Artistic Institutionality (as relates to realms of distribution, dynamics of consumption, training centers, specialized press, etc.) that reproduces racist discourses and dynamics, favoring the dominant sectors of society. The hierarchized differentiation between Art and folk art, music and folkloric music, language and dialect, show how Western culture is seen as superior, acritically assuming categories and concepts from the centers of power. Cultural colonialism is reinforced by the absence of adequate artistic education policies, with an intercultural focus and in dialogue with local contexts.


On the other hand, in certain socio-economic processes (the Art market), the (artistic) work acts to affirm social distinction and class privilege. In this sense, the capacity to decode (understand) works of art is seen as a natural ability and not a result of education, just as art is appreciated as simply a product, ignoring its social processes. For this reason, democratizing art should not be understood as simply a democratization of the product, that is, by taking cultural artifacts to faraway, isolated places, but rather as a pedagogical process of democratization of the abilities required to decode these products and generate knowledge. In other words: to use the cultural product to generate a process of cultural citizenship.[2]


For this we need a decolonized reformulation of the categories, theories, and dynamics with which we approach our system of artistic cultural production and its creation. We need to forge a New Artistic Institutionality (new forms of producing, distributing, and consuming artistic artifacts) that competes with official institutions for hegemony (symbolic power and common sense), creating new spaces, new publics, new markets, new means of legitimization, new forms of producing knowledge, etc.



1.3 Because Art has a transformative power


Many of the so-called “political-cultural” dynamics in leftist organizations respond to an instrumentalist conception of art, as almost a substitute for the pamphlet: artists should express (illustrate or stage) almost literally the ideas, objectives, and lines of thinking of the project. The arts workers are called upon for campaigns and events, but not for political, programmatic, or ideological debate.


Arts workers have their own agendas that should not be subordinated to others; furthermore, their participation in political organizations should go beyond the specificity of their labor. Perhaps instrumentalization is due to ignorance; while the idea that artistic practices have a transformative capacity is accepted, it is not clear how they transform. We propose, then, that the transformative potential of art lies in:


1) Its capacity to move, that is, to affect the deepest dimensions of people. Art, when not reduced to a bad pamphlet, not only speaks to our conscious, but also to our subconscious, not just to reason, but to emotion; it calls to our sense of social existence. It can activate personal and collective memory, in both the arts worker and in the spectator. Thus, by invigorating ideological and emotive aspects of human beings, art can become a platform for the dynamics of profound transformation and critical awareness, as an expression of new forms of seeing, perceiving, feeling, thinking, and understanding ourselves.[3]


2) The ability to articulate struggles creating new dynamics in marginalized spaces, in alternative spaces outside the official circuits of distribution, in conjunction with social organizations, etc.  That is to say, creating a New Institutionality brings together new agendas for struggle and strengthens the social fabric.



Now, we will try to illustrate these hypotheses through concrete experiences in which we have had the fortune to participate.



2. How to artistic practices contribute to social transformation?



2.1 Creating a New Institutionality: new publics, new spaces, new practices, new theories, new means of legitimacy


In recent years, collective, organizations, and new spaces have arisen proposing new logics of production, distribution, and consumption, foreshadowing a New Institutionality. What has been called “Living Communitarian Culture” in different Latin American countries makes visible various existing proposals that, through pedagogical and artistic practices, work for social transformation.


This proposal transcends those state programs created for its promotion, given that many organizations are not registered in these state programs, out of fear of political neutralization. One example in Lima is the El Averno Cultural Center, which functioned from 1999-2013 on Quilca Street in the center of Lima, and which currently has opened the Quilca Community Library in Cerro San Cosme, where workshops are held for neighborhood children.


El Averno created a new space, a public space, separate from official spaces, based on cultural diversity, where different ethnic, cultural and political groups could share their works. A typical weekend included Sicuri, trova, and punk music; murals and graffiti; organizational meetings; poetry readings, and more.


The rebellious and anti-system spirit of El Averno forged its own legitimacy, its work was recognized both in the popular press and in academic research.  For this reason, Mayor Susana Villarán in a public address promised El Averno a new space; the promise was not fulfilled, which reveals official inefficiency and fears of a truly transformative project. Despite everything, El Averno has not died, as its current community work in Cerro San Cosme proves.


Another example is the Forum for Cultural Solidarity in Villa El Salvador. Unlike El Averno, it was ignored by mass media. Nevertheless, in its most active period, every third week in October from 2004-2009, nearly 20,000 people attended its Week for Solidary Art. There were concerts, plays, exhibitions, conferences, conversations, murals, interventions in public spaces and diverse activities in different places in Villa El Salvador, in which to contemplate alternatives to globalized capitalism and to promote solidary relations in opposition to the model of capitalist development and instrumental rationality.


It was not just a learning space for many arts workers, activists, and militants, many of whom maintain an active presence in organizations and on the national political scene, but it was also the consolidation of an alternative and communitarian space that made art the terrain for creating emancipatory and pedagogical dynamics.



2.2 Articulating different agendas for struggle


In the Forum for Solidary Culture, different organizations presented events with which to position their agendas: human rights, feminism, sexual diversity and the LGBT struggle, communitarian art, anti-capitalism, etc. These themes were reflected not only in panels and workshops but in the artistic activities themselves.


We can see another example of how agendas of struggle were articulated from artistic practices, when the Itinerant Art for Memory Museum[4] realized its interventions in public spaces with works that sought to create understanding of the Internal Conflict. The project created connections between the Human Rights Movement and family survivor organizations. The many accompanying events show how the agenda of critical art can coordinate with the agenda against impunity.



2.3 Strengthening the social fabric from within the community


In a context of generalized mistrust, of atomization of organizations, and of the disarticulation of the social fabric through decades of neoliberalism, politics happens not only through the electoral process, but through constructing (or reconstructing) a social fabric that makes possible social mobilization and that supports proposals for change.


For this reason, the Mural Brigade[5] has developed a pedagogical artistic method inspired by popular education to create collective murals. Both the concepts and the realization of a mural are collectively undertaken by the communities, generally groups of young people, neighborhoods, youth and cultural associations, political organizations, etc. The members of the Mural Brigade facilitate the process, looking for democratic participation and, foremost, a collective critical reflection.



2.4 Activating the memory and the heart


The Itinerant Art for Memory Museum is working on systematizing public debates and reactions (to the Internal Conflict), generated by diverse interventions in public space, reactions which can differ significantly according to the context: it was not the same to intervene in the Plaza San Martín (in Lima), as it was in the Plaza in Huamanga, and comments range from gratitude, surprise, and indignation to aggression.


As well, we have gathered testimony that shows how many people who lost a daughter, a brother, a friend in the Internal Armed Conflict find in these pieces a type of symbolic reparation: the woman in Huancavelica who returned with a photo of her son to accompany one of the pieces; people who spontaneously placed flowers and candles at art pieces, etc.


There may be people who have another concept of what art should be, for us it has to do with feeling emotion together with another, with challenging the meaning of social existence, with rising up against injustice, with thinking and building collectively, that is to say, with blurring the limits between art, life, and ethics. For this reason, thinking art politically means not just considering the product, but its processes, there lies its radical potential for transformation.


Jorge Miyagui

December 2013




[1] See Quijano, Aníbal. Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina. En libro: La colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas Latinoamericanas. Edgardo Lander (comp.) CLACSO, Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Julio de 2000. p. 246.


[2] See Miyagui, J. “A simple vista no se ve. Apuntes sobre las dimensiones políticas del arte” En libro “Crisis y Movimientos Sociales en nuestra América”. Daza, M., Hoetmer, R., Vargas, V. (Eds.) PDTG, Lima, Perú. 2012. pp. 285-294.


[3] Ibid.


[4] The Itinerant Art Memory Museum is an independent initiative that proposes, through art, interculturality and interdisciplinarity as pillars for the construction of an inclusive and democratic national project. It organizes traveling exhibitions and interventions in public space with works of art that contemplate the era of political violence (1980-2000) that includes State violence, the violence of subversive organizations, the causes of the conflict, resistance, the memory of our people, human rights, the struggle against forgetting and impunity. See


[5] The Mural Brigade is a space open to all people interested in coloring the walls of the city and the world with happy rebellion. It is coordinated by Mauricio Delgado, Milton Miranda, Elio MArtuccelli, Alonso Rivera, Jorge Miyagui and Andrés Juscamaita. See



* translated by Anne Lambright