Re-framing art activism? (New) research approaches to art and politics

by Paula Serafini


Art activism has been written about. A lot. Politics and art are a good match, and events, exhibitions and publications that address the artistic and the political have been en vogue for a while now. So why keep writing about this stuff? There are a few straightforward reasons: new practices emerging, new contexts, new social movements, new technologies. These all call us to reflect on the relationship between art and politics in new ways, and to consider the potential of practices like art activism in light of the big challenges of our times. But when we approach art activism as researchers, there is an additional question that drives new work: what theoretical and methodological tools can we apply to the understanding of long-standing and new art activist practices? This is a question that is at the centre of much of my work.

In the past, art activism (and the relationship between art and politics more broadly) has been approached from a number of perspectives, from art history and art theory (e.g. Bishop 2012; Stallabrass 2004) to philosophy (e.g. Holmes 2009; Mouffe 2007; Rancière 2004, 2010), sociology (e.g. Tucker 2010) and anthropology (e.g. Haugerud 2013).  These disciplinary perspectives determine the methodologies used (be that media analysis, visual analysis, historical perspectives, ethnography, or theoretical approaches), as well as informing the research questions and focus of the work. While some have focused on the political nature of art (hooks 1995; Lippard 1984) and the tactical aspects of art activism (Bogad 2016), others have looked at its place in the wider web of a neoliberal art world  (Sholette 2010, 2017), have used art activism as a lens to examine the cultural politics of different eras (Reed 2005), have questioned the legitimacy of art activism as art (Jelinek 2013), and reflected on the importance of art for the sustainability of movements (Shepard 2011).

Being an interdisciplinary researcher that stands somewhere in between the arts and humanities and the social sciences, I have always approached the subject from an interdisciplinary stance. However, this is not just an outcome of my position, given that art activism can indeed be understood as a hybrid practice combining codes, objectives and processes from artistic practice and from activism. It therefore makes sense to try to look at art activist practice as both these things, employing the concepts and tools that relevant disciplines make available to us. In the case of art activism (and specifically of contemporary practices in the UK, which was my field of study for seven years), it was necessary to create a framework that borrows from social movement studies so as to situate art activism within wider organisational processes; from art theory so as to consider these events not only as political but also as moments of collective creativity and expression; and from performance studies, acknowledging that so much of contemporary art activist practice is performance-based.

High Tide performance by Liberate Tate at Tate Modern (2015). Image by the author

In Performance Action, a book that is the result of ethnographic, participatory research informed by an interdisciplinary framework as outlined above, I set out to investigate two issues. First, the relationship between aesthetics and politics as experienced and understood by art activists themselves (in relation to, but also beyond, any theoretical debates on the subject). And second, how these experiences and understandings of that relationship (one that I argue is defined by being in constant tension) shape the different aspects of art activist practice, from the development of collective identities to the planning and staging of performance actions and the relationship between art activists and cultural institutions. These questions aim at a better understanding of the politics of art activism, rather than its objectives or outcomes.

Intervention at the British Museum by activist theatre group BP or not BP? to highlight the controversies surrounding BP’s sponsorship of the Indigenous Australia exhibition (2015). Image by the author

The task of generating new frameworks and approaches to understanding the relationship between art and politics is never ending. As the political landscape and socioeconomic conditions of our world change, art activism reinvents itself. As the demands, structures, identity politics and language of social movements transform, art activism responds with new aesthetics, reworked narratives, and recuperated or original ways of intervening in the public space. Beyond the theoretical works on art and politics that we will continue to reference for a long time, new theoretical approaches that combine previously isolated perspectives, and contextualised studies with contextualised frameworks, are both key in moving forward our thinking on art activism.


Paula Serafini is a Research Associate at CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies, University of Leicester. Her work is concerned with the relationship between aesthetics and politics, particularly in relation to contemporary cultural practices and institutions and environmental and social justice movements. Her publications include the book Performance Action: The Politics of Art Activism (Routledge, 2018) and the edited collection artWORK: Art, Labour and Activism, co-edited with Alberto Cossu and Jessica Holtaway (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018).

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