Art of Activism book

The Art of Activism Interview

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A chat with authors Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe

Takeaways

  • Don’t blindly replicate tactics that have worked in the past
  • Don’t focus exclusively on tactics—objectives and strategy are also important
  • People are not persuaded by facts alone
  • To stay motivated, activists need to envision a utopian goal

Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe started the Center for Artistic Activism in 2009 as a research and training organization. Now they have published The Art of Activism. The book makes the case that successful social change requires both visionary creativity and rational strategic planning.

Lambert is an artist and Duncombe is a professor. Their core philosophy can be summed up with a hybrid expression that they invented: “æffect.”

Æeffect

Pirate: 'Tis pronounced eye-fect
Graphic by Steve Lambert from The Art of Activism

To convey the idea that successful activism must touch people’s hearts, they came up with the word affect, a psychological term suggesting the emotional response you might feel from viewing an inspiring work of art. But they realized that expressive actions alone were not enough to create real-world change. Social justice campaigns also needed to have a material effect to change behaviors, to change structures, to change policies.

Æffect is the marriage of affect and effect, of art and activism, resulting in creative campaigns that engage people emotionally, motivating them to step off the curb and join the struggle for social justice and political change.

Last month I interviewed the two Steves about The Art of Activism for a piece on the Waging Nonviolence website. Below are portions of the interview I was not able to include due to space limitations.

But first, a note on terminology. Duncombe and Lambert use certain words that every activist group seems to define in a slightly different way. For clarity, this is what the authors mean when they use these terms in the interview:

Goal
A goal is the ultimate destination. It is the guiding dream that gives direction to a campaign—a kind of north star. A goal is aspirational and may not be realistically obtainable.

Objectives and tactics lead to the goal
Graphic by Steve Lambert from The Art of Activism

Objectives
Objectives are milestones that mark progress toward the goal. They are like mini-goals, but unlike goals, they are specific, measurable and achievable within a given time period.

Strategies
Strategies are roadmaps for describing how goals and objectives will be achieved. They are plans, not actions.

Tactics
Tactics are actions—marches, rallies, street theater, interventions, etc.—that are used to achieve objectives. They are the basic units of activism. Tactics should always be chosen with an eye toward advancing the strategic plan.

The Interview

The go-to tactics for many activists—rallies, marches, civil disobedience—are not very imaginative. In the book you say these conventional tactics often send the wrong messages to the public. You refer to them as “spectacles of disempowerment.”

Stephen Duncombe: That actually came out of my personal experience. My first job as an activist was working for these large organizations in which we would organize these large protests. And in the name of people’s empowerment, we would negotiate with the police on a route that was written out in advance, we’d supply our own marshals to keep law and order, and we’d usually march around in a circle in Washington DC on a Sunday when nobody was there to see us.

And at a certain point, I thought, “This is insane. This is a spectacle of disempowerment. It’s a spectacle of being controlled by our own people.”

We were doing it because we were following the script that had been left over from the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement and so on. It really got me thinking:

“Okay, so if this communicates disempowerment, then how could you create some sort of protest that communicated a radically different message—people’s empowerment, play, fun, creativity, and so on?”

You write in the book, “Artistic activism is more than just an innovative tactic, it is an entire approach: a perspective, a practice, a philosophy.” Can you describe the philosophy of artistic activism?

Steve Lambert: All effective activism has to involve creativity and culture. In order to be successful, you can’t just repeat formulas.

You can’t try to replicate what’s worked before, the things that made actions work in the past.

Things that we think of as incredibly successful—the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, ACT UP—once those became part of history, they became part of a tradition, and people saw the final result and then tried to replicate that.

Duncombe: The civil rights movement was very conscious of using things like signs and stories and spectacles and staging in every single one of their tactics. And so, it is an approach that always sees activism as a creative activity—at the level of organization, at the level of strategy, at the level of objective setting, at the level of tactics. It is always thinking about 1) how does this work on an aesthetic level, and 2) this notion of innovation and change that Steve was talking about. How does this work at this moment, for this audience, in order to move them in the way that we want them to be moved?

When, for example, an artist designs a banner to be used in a demonstration, is that artistic activism?

Duncombe: It could be.

Lambert: But t’s not really taking advantage of the artist and what an artist can bring.

The real power of the arts is infusing it into every part of the campaign.

Duncombe: Our callout to activists and activist organizations is this: don’t plan the demonstration and then call in the artist. When you’re planning the demonstration or when you’re just thinking about tactics, bring in some artists and help them brainstorm different ways of thinking about a demonstration—perhaps as a performance, perhaps as some sort of a spectacle.

So is artistic activism just for activists who are artists, or those who have special creative talents?

Duncombe: No. We all have special creative talents. Everybody has a creative outlet. When we start our workshops, we have a number of things we ask people. We ask them, “What is your creative outlet?” Often, as we go around the room with activists, they’d say, “Oh, I don’t have one.”

“No? What did you do last Saturday?”

They might say, “I had a dinner party.”

“Oh, that’s interesting. And what did you serve at the dinner party?”

Then they’d start talking about selecting the ingredients, and thinking about what people would like, and how to display it, and in what order the different courses would come.

And we’d say, “Well, that’s a creative outlet.”

Then we’d say, “Okay, using that creativity, how can you start to think about, for instance, a political meeting a little bit differently?”

Because we don’t just want to make people into artists, we want to make people tap into their inner artist and then bring it back to their activism.

The book makes the point that simply informing people of the facts, this idea of “raising awareness,” is not enough. There needs to be some kind of emotional motivation before people step out of their apathy and become engaged in trying to change things. To illustrate the deficiencies of rational discourse, you’ve invented a kind of syndrome: the Matlock Method of Political Persuasion.

Matlock in courtroom
Graphic by Steve Lambert from The Art of Activism

Lambert: Matlock was this cheesy courtroom show. Matlock would defend someone, make the case, and he always won. And the idea was that if you put together the evidence and you make a great case, you’ll win.

In the book we talk about this lingering idea that the truth will set us free, or that by merely informing people, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will see the light and change their minds.

Duncombe: As a young activist, that was the model I used—the classical enlightenment model. If people just had the right facts, if people just had access to the truth, they would see the world as it actually was, and of course join our side. And anybody that’s been involved in activism knows that’s just not true.

What is tactical myopia? Did you guys make this term up, too?

Duncombe: I think so.

Lambert: It’s getting fixated on tactics as opposed to the objectives and strategy. This is especially a risk with artistic activism because the tactic, the final product, is often so stunning or incredible.

When you’re thinking about objectives, you’re thinking about goals, you’re thinking about strategy, it’s really easy for your mind to slip into, “Oh, we could do this, we could do that.” But the way that you get to real success is by thinking through objectives and strategy.

Duncombe:

One of the problems we see in a lot of artistic activism is it’s only about the tactics.

The activism is doing a tactic, doing a piece, doing a performance, doing an intervention, and not really thinking through what the impact is. Who do I want to see this? If they do what I want them to do, or hear what I want them to hear, or feel what I want them to feel, what would happen then? And I think that’s a problem with the practice of artistic activism we are continually trying to address.

You write, “In our years of experience, we found that artists and activists tend to focus more on the problems they face and less on the outcomes they desire.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Lambert: I think it’s a natural thing that if you’re an activist, you’re thinking about your day-to-day. You encounter those obstacles and you know them really well because you know the issue. And over time, it becomes harder and harder to imagine success.

So, we spend a lot of time with people trying to help them think about what the actual goal is, or what a real win would be. When you have that vision of the outcome, it’s easier to chart ways around the obstacles.

Duncombe:

Activists have to do both. They have to acknowledge the problems, but they also need to have that utopian vision.

Martin Luther King
Graphic by Steve Lambert from The Art of Activism

Martin Luther King was brilliant at this. We’ve gone back and listened to the “I Have a Dream” speech to write the book, and realized his brilliance. The first half of the speech is problem-thinking. He’s laying out the problem of racism and white supremacy in the United States. And then in the second half, he gets all trippy and starts hallucinating this vision of where we want to go.

He understood, you need both. You need to acknowledge the problems, but if people are going keep marching every single day, they’ve got to keep their eyes on the prize, they’ve got to have that point on the horizon so they don’t get lost. This is what art can bring to activism.

Art can envision a future that is not here in the present. It can give us an idea, an experience, of what a different world might look like and might feel like.

Read an interview I did with Lambert and Duncombe in 2018
Read my 2021 interview with Lambert and Duncombe on Waging Nonviolence


Creative Commons License
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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