Is raising awareness enough? Two more factors of impact

A few weeks ago, I was talking with Felix Endara, who works with the Artist as Activist program at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

We were discussing an arts initiative I had managed, and he challenged me: “In addition to raising awareness, what kind of impact does the initiative have?”

Now, let me say that while I believe all art has impact, I don’t believe that all art has to “have impact” as its guiding force or purpose. But the nexus of this discussion revolved around projects and films that were indeed seeking to make an impact.

Adi and his mother, Rohani, share a solemn moment in Drafthouse Films’ and Participant Media’s The Look of Silence. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer worked intimately with the people affected by the 1965 Indonesian genocides that he filmed for The Look of Silence (film still pictured here). Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

At his question, I suddenly realized how dubious “raising awareness” could be as a purpose. Make no mistake – I believe strongly in the idea of it. My dream job would be to work for a large company akin to Bell Laboratories of the 1960s-70s, that believes that presenting employees with arts, music, lectures, etc… inspires its staff to see different perspectives, be inspired, and think creatively in its work. If I worked for a company like that, I would schedule programming that brought people into other worlds and introduced them to new concepts. I would be championing arts that raise awareness.

Then again, I would not be presenting films or arts to change their minds about anything, or to inspire social change. While open minds and changing perspectives lay the groundwork they rarely in and of themselves effect change.

But what about filmmakers who set out to make a film about a problem they’ve “discovered” in their communities or on the other side of the world? If their intention or strategy is only to raise awareness about an issue, is this bullshit or a cop-out? Is it lazy to just say you’re raising awareness? Is it enough?

Felix was coming from a place focusing on artists as activists, those who use creativity and collaboration to effect positive social change. The Rauschenberg Foundation believes that “creativity is an essential component of any movement for change.”

From the impact perspective, what makes one project or artist look better than another to a foundation or funder that’s operating at the axis of art/social justice? Two additional components that the Rauschenberg looks at are creative problem solving and engaging those affected. Expanding on the foundation’s guidance, here’s how I see those two things:

Creative problem solving – As an artist, you would like to see a world where the issue you’re concerned about doesn’t exist. What does that look like? How can we get there? What could you create that could be a vehicle for that social change?

Engaging all affected – Are you just dropping yourself into a community, because you think your camera or your pen can save it? When you create your project, is it really about you, about what your vision of positive social change would be? Or are you actively engaging the people you’re focusing on so that you’re painting a complex and accurate picture?

We’ve all seen films where an outsider goes into a community to document an issue. It’s not a problem that the filmmaker is an outsider. In fact, sometimes an outsider can make a more objective and challenging film than someone too intimately involved in the subject. But it is a problem if that filmmaker doesn’t take the time to understand the nuances of the issue and truly give the film subjects a voice or allow them to be fully-fleshed human beings instead of just placeholders/ stereotypes/props.

Even participatory media projects can fall into this latter category, as the projects can be more about the ego of those who are “creating the opportunity” for disenfranchised voices to be heard than about the participants themselves.

As an artist in general, you’re not required to incorporate these concepts into your work. But if you’re an artist working at the intersection of social justice/change, then these are rich and rewarding additions to think about and add into your practice.

Note: If you are an artist addressing important social challenges through your creative practice, check out the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s Fellowship program.  This year’s theme is focused on mass incarceration.