Political Education

Taking On the Invisible “Man”: How Art Confronts Power

This is Part 2 in a series on Art and Power.

If our arts and cultural work is to truly bring about social change, we need to understand what we are up against. There are multiple kinds of power wielded by the powerful, some more conducive to artistic intervention than others.

According to a theory first put forward by Steven Lukes, and further developed by John Gaventa and others, power has three faces. The most visible face is the power to win out in formal decision making, whether in congress or in the board room. This is sometimes called visible power, and some have made the mistake of thinking this is the only kind of power there is. Visible power can be engaged with through formal channels such as lobbying. The arts have been used occasionally in the realm of visible power — for example, Augusto Boal’s Legislative Theater.

There is a second kind of dominating power called hidden power. This is the power to decide who is at the table when visible decisions are made, and which issues can be raised. Much of the work of activist and organizing groups is focused on getting new voices to the table, and raising ignored issues. The arts can help amplify these voices, and frame issues — for example, through political posters or grassroots media.

But there is also a third, more insidious, kind of power: invisible power. This is the power to control what people even think is possible. Invisible power hides the very fact that power is at work. We can see its effects when we begin to think that poverty or racism, for example, are natural: “just the way things are.” This power does not need to be used intentionally — it exists in the culture and shapes all of us. Arts and other forms of cultural work are at their most potent in the invisible realm — in fact, they may be essential to confronting invisible power.

I think of invisible power in two different ways, each of which suggests a different kind of creative intervention. From a traditional psychological perspective, invisible power acts within a person’s mind. For example, it creates feelings of inferiority and the internalization of stereotypes; also called internalized oppression. The remedy is to engage in internal consciousness-raising processes such as political education, radical healing, or conscientization.

Artistic and cultural practices can serve as spaces for this kind of transformative work. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques are specifically geared towards conscientization, but many art forms can be used to help us explore our struggles, and collectively begin to imagine a different world. Philosopher Maxine Greene has written eloquently about how experiences with the arts can help us develop our social imagination — the ability “to bring alternative realities into consciousness, to look at things as if they could be otherwise.” Furthermore, many groups use traditional practices and rituals to  draw strength from shared histories and identities, and counter this kind of oppression.

Another way to think about invisible power is through a discursive lens, like that of Foucault. In this sense, invisible power exists in not in our heads, but in our culture. It acts as a set of narratives that are taken as true, or common sense. For example, in the US this power works through the myth of meritocracy that says anyone can make it if they work hard enough — thus making us feel that when we do not succeed, it is all our fault. If we think of invisible power this way, then the response is to introduce alternative discourses, or counter narratives, that challenge, shift, and replace these dominant stories.

To do this, we can call upon the arts as powerful storytelling media. Just as advertising companies wield invisible power by saturating our lives with narratives of consumption, artists can develop and spread alternative stories — through plays, murals, creative actions, posters, and more. And social media have created ever more accessible ways of spreading these new narratives into the public sphere — though more traditional modes of public and street art can still hold particular strength. We see this kind of work being done by groups like SmartMeme, with their story-telling strategies, or with the “Drop the I-Word” campaign.

The power to oppress is often at its strongest when it is least visible. Cultural organizing, and other forms of arts activism, might be our best chances to uncover it, and face it.

Book Review: Black Youth Rising

In Black Youth Rising: Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America, activist, academic, and educator Shawn Ginwright offers an in-depth ethnography of Leadership Excellence, the Oakland-based organization he co-founded in 1989. With a mission to “educate African-American Youth for personal and social change,” LE’s leadership development model is embedded in principles of afrocentricity, community, well-being, and collective action towards social justice.

Ginwright uses this book to put forward the concept of radical healing, drawing on his direct experiences as an activist and educator as well as often separate fields of study, such as youth organizing and public health. For Ginwright, radical healing comprises a process of building strong relationships, developing a healthy racial identity, and raising political consciousness in a way that pushes young people towards action to confront systemic issues in their own neighborhoods. It is a matter of healing not just from individual trauma, but from the collective trauma of current and historic oppression. In this framework action is healing, and healing is an act of resistance.

The strength of this book — and the work it describes — lies in part in the attention it pays to identity and culture, which is not always the case in the world of leadership development. Culture is cited as one of the four pillars of the Black community that support this healing process. By “culture,” Ginwright refers to both a historically grounded Black/African identity, and modern urban black youth culture, both of which he sees as being rich resources for radical healing. This focus on culture as healing manifests itself in the LE programs in part through sharing stories, rituals that draw youth into historical experiences, and hip-hop performance.

Ginwright very explicitly appreciates and draws on the power of cultural expression — art, ritual, storytelling — as a form of radical healing, with deep roots in Black history. He sees it as vital for young people to develop, in the words of Robin Kelly, a “radical imagination.” However, cultural expression is not an overriding aspect of his work. I believe this is a rich area for further development. Arts educators and cultural organizers could benefit from the radical healing framework, and could do much to develop new methods and take it in new directions. Radical healing sits at the intersection of some of the keys strengths of the arts: cultural expression has often served as a process of individual and collective healing; many forms of art and ritual are centered on building relationships and community; and both political education and political action have often been intertwined with the arts.

At a time when our efforts towards justice can often become fragmented, radical healing keeps our focus on the systemic, the communal, and the internal levels of social change — and offers a potent tool for the cultural organizer’s conceptual toolbelt.

For more on the book, check out this fabulous review by my colleague Thomas Nikundiwe, in the Harvard Educational Review.