Art ‘After’ Activism – Introduction to Issue #11

Art after activism? This question was the prompt of a debate at the 3rd Next 5 Minutes tactical media conference in 1999.[1] The debate addressed political activists’ skepticism about the potential and usefulness of art in activism. The proposal written by David Garcia posits that from an activist point of view any symbolic action and discourse seem to be a mere spectacle. At the same time, he also points out that art prevents activists from only asking questions they already know the answer to, and teaches them when and how to give up control. Accordingly, art activists should not just be generating spectacle, but also “triggering, supporting or interrupting discourse.”

Street stencil created by Michael Anderson for the Not For Sale project of Political Art Documentation/Distribution 1984.
Courtesy: gsholette archives

The idea of issue #11 of Mezosfera was born on the flip side of this debate. While the question of how art affects activism remains important, this issue asks: how does activism change art? This question came to me when I became a member of the art activist collective BFAMFAPhD, and I experienced the very different attitude activism and organizing requires from a person compared to how artists are traditionally trained. It is not just a different attitude, but almost the opposite attitude in every aspect. Art activism seemed to be worth exploring from this angle.

If we were thinking in terms of ‘turns’ we could say that there is an activist turn happening in art right now. Not that art activism didn’t have precedents in the past several hundred years (read more about this in the interview with Gregory Sholette and Kuba Szreder), but in the second half of the 20th century and especially during the alter-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements it gained an undeniable significance. While historically activist artists stayed outside the canon the mainstream art world has recently also taken an interest in them.  

According to Boris Groys, art activism is different from political art in that it wants to actively change the social, and political conditions in society by means of art, but usually outside of the art system itself.[2] Gregory Sholette describes art activists as part of the ‘dark matter’ of the art world, who self-consciously work outside, and even against the conventions of the mainstream art world, for reasons of social and political critique.[3] Tania Bruguera created the concept ‘arte útil,’ or useful art, and also encourages artists to realize they have value without art institutions.[4] As I invited the authors of this issue to think about this question together with me, they brought other considerations and examples of what they understand as art activism. The essays explore art activism not only from the perspective of artists but also from the perspective of other art professionals and non-artists who join art activist projects to amplify their own voices.

The art activists and activist professionals who contributed to this issue, or whose practices the essays discuss are challenging the long-held, institutionalized rules of the art world, although this may not always be their primary goal. Numerous activist artists who want to use their creative skills more directly in service of communities and everyday life work outside the official art world with little regard for it, nevertheless, many aspects of their work put the hierarchies and practices of the art world into question.

The unprecedented loss of jobs in the art world early on in the pandemic prompted voices that called for the reimagining of institutions so that we rebuild a more equitable, sustainable, and just (art) world. We believe that the theme of this issue is especially timely, on one hand, due to the new wave of art activism, and on the other hand, because we can learn from art activist practices as we are experimenting with finding ways out of the current political economic and social crises. This issue of Mezosfera will focus not only on the activist projects themselves, but on the new artistic practices that emerge from activism, and how it changes how we think about art.

This issue has been long in the making. When most of these texts took shape, we still lived in a world where it was unimaginable that a bloody war could take place in the heart of Europe. In the immediate wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the following weeks and months, it felt like there was nothing left to say, only to do – and several of us in countries neighboring Ukraine were actively supporting Ukrainian refugees. But after some consideration, we decided that even if the circumstances made the essays somewhat outdated, there is merit in publishing them.

One can read the essays in any order, but the way this issue was imagined it opens with a conversation between Gregory Sholette, American artist, writer, and activist, and Kuba Szreder researcher and independent curator based in Poland, about art activism amidst capitalism’s internal logic to turn everything into a spectacle. Gábor Erlich and I asked them about the place of activism in art education, the current conditions of artistic labor, and artists’ mobilization since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the interview, we also discuss why ‘postartistic practices’ might be a better term for art activism, and take sides in the perpetual debate regarding art’s potential to create change.

Zsuzsa Berecz and Sarah Günther of the Budapest-based Pneuma Szöv. raise very similar questions about the possibilities of art and activism in the age of total Spectacle as the guests of the previous conversation. They warn against falling for the urge for productivity, usefulness, and purpose-oriented thinking which usually drive activism and capitalism as well, but make art gradually impossible. Instead through a collection of playful exercises, they show how to invite failure, laughter, solidarity, community, repurposing, and self-institutionalizing, into everything we do in order to disrupt capitalism.

Valentina Sarmiento Cruz interviews the group Restauradores con Glitter from Mexico, a group of restorers who became active in the wake of extensive protests decrying the growing violence against women in 2019. They have been openly supporting protesters who were facing public condemnation for spraypainting national monuments with messages of dissent. Their conversation explores how activism and public dialogue might slowly transform how a profession and eventually a society thinks about cultural heritage, conservation and human rights.

In the early days of the pandemic, the University of Theater and Film Arts in Budapest faced an unprecedented situation, where the government arbitrarily and unilaterally changed the institution’s organizational and funding format. Gábor Erlich and I interviewed two members of the FreeSZFE movement – which grew out of the university-wide resistance – who gave a vivid account of their experiences of organizing, community-building, creating grass-root direct democracy, building solidarity, and sustaining resistance. The movement became known for the memorable performances and performative direct actions that mobilized people even outside of the university to join the demonstrations, and thus won national and international support for the cause.

As an example of the blurring boundaries between art activism and other forms of creative self-expression in social movements, Elisabeth Kovtiak analyses what she calls ‘artivism’ that emerged amidst the harsh oppression of popular decent in Belarus in the wake of the rigged elections of 2020. What started as open and critical dialogues and actions in contemporary art spaces and galleries on the periphery of the public sphere, became the inspiration for peaceful demonstrations that attracted more and more people from outside the art world who internalized the creative and performative language.

The issue concludes with a more theoretical analysis of art activism and its effects on art from a sociological point of view. In this essay, I point out that art activism is a blind spot in the most influential institutional theories of the art world, and suggest a couple of new directions of research in light of this realization.


This issue of Mezosfera is edited by Ágnes Szanyi. She is a PhD candidate in Sociology at The New School for Social Research in New York. Before moving to New York she studied sociology at the University of Szeged and Central European University, Budapest. She also worked at the Budapest-based contemporary art organization tranzit.hu. Her dissertation focuses on political and social activism among contemporary artists in New York. Drawing on interviews, participant observation and discourse analysis, she investigates how art activism affects the meaning of art for activist artists. She has been a graduate fellow of The Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies and The Curatorial Design Research Lab and is a member of the art collective BFAMFAPhD.


[1] David Garcia, Introduction “Art After Activism?” Next Five Minutes 3, http://www.tacticalmediafiles.net/n5m3/.

[2] Boris Groys, “On Art Activism” E-flux journal, #56, 2014.

[3] Gregory Scholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, New York: Pluto Press, 2010.

[4] Alex Greenberger, “‘Art Without Permission’: Tania Bruguera and Dread Scott Discuss Art and Activism at the Brooklyn Museum,” ArtNews, December 14, 2014, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/art-without-permission-tania-bruguera-and-dread-scott-discuss-activism-at-the-brooklyn-museum-5515/.

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