on Art and Activism

JULY 2015 – An autobiographical reading by human rights lawyer and conceptual artist Tom Bogaert of the current debate in the Middle East concerning the relationship between art and activism.


Before dedicating my life to art, I worked as a lawyer for the Belgian Government, the UN refugee agency and Amnesty International. I documented genocide and human rights abuses in Africa, Europe and Asia. While I have always been a geopolitical news junkie, it was through my work with refugees and other victims of human rights abuses that I witnessed first-hand the concrete consequences of geo-politics. I became an activist and for more than fifteen years I was formally part of the institutionalized struggle against human rights violations across the globe.

As far as I can remember I have always made art and after having participated in a couple of exhibitions while still working for Amnesty, the idea of giving up my day job and spending more time making art got stuck in my head. I wanted to start channeling my experience as a human rights activist into my practice as an artist and at the same time I felt I needed more distance from the seriousness of my activism and subject matter. I stopped practicing law – and stopped being an activist for that matter – in 2004 when I was selected for participation in the Elizabeth Foundation Studio Center in New York City. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work full time as an artist. I don’t see my artwork as an extension of my refugee work. And although my work directly confronts the intersection of human rights, entertainment and propaganda, I do try to steer away from one-dimensional didactic socio-politics that is often associated with the activist canon of visual culture.

By the end of 2009, I ended up in the Orient by accident when I followed my wife to Amman. Drawing on my experience as a European in the East it is my intention to interpret understandings of the region – or lack thereof – from the inside out by means of artistic production.  I do realize that the issue of Saidian Orientalism – prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East as surveyed by Edward W. Said – that pervades my work is problematic. Constant self-examination and -criticism have indeed confirmed that there is very little moral higher ground for me to be left standing on. At the same time I seek to be more than a mere ‘Accidental Orientalist.’ Edward W. said: “there is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate…”

An autobiographical reading and understanding of the current debate in the Middle East with regards to the relationship of art and activism to me is unavoidable. The perennial issue of the relationship of art to politics re-emerged in recent discussions of contemporary art in the Arab world: what is the role of an artist in revolutionary times, or similarly, what is the relationship between art as a practice and art as a form of activism.

This discussion resulted in first instance in a degree of skepticism towards the role of artists in the recent revolutions: Artists have been accused of not being pro-active enough in pre-revolutionary times when the old regimes indeed appeared immovable. After all, critics say, the spark that ignited the Arab Spring was neither an artist with a conceptual performance nor a writer with a fiery essay; it was a fruit vendor from Tunisia who set himself and the region on fire. And when artists do engage in the revolutionary debate via their art practice they have on many occasions been accused of opportunistically jumping on the revolutionary bandwagon to further their careers only paying lip service to the spirit of change in the region.

At the other side of the spectrum, artists in the Arab world have univoqually and unconditionally been hailed as heroes and saviors of the revolution without whom the transformation to a better future can’t occur. In this ‘artistic exceptionalism’ scenario, artists are per definition considered as activists whether they like it or not. This is in first instance based on the perception that creative intellectuals are automatically touched by the spirit of political and social criticism characteristic of the intelligentsia. Secondly and more interesting this exceptionalism is placed in the framework of the unique position art has in society: autonomous yet embedded. According to this school of thought the political relevance of art has nothing to do with art as a form of political protest, it’s more abstract and theoretical: it’s about art having the potential to open up a horizon of possibilities, a mode of thinking in which change can happen.

While it is true that every revolution has its false prophets and born-again activists, even skeptics should recognize that countless artists in the Arab world have – both in a pre- and post revolution setting – stuck out their neck and some paid the ultimate price. The exceptionalists’ position is equally untenable: artistic practices can offer many insights, but the art world shouldn’t be reduced to a chapter in the great book of social engineering. The relationship between art practice on itself and possible revolutionary outcome is rhizomatic at best, with multiple beginnings and ends and without clear separation.   Nobody is ever going to be clearly able to delineate the causality or linearity of the elements, the starting points, the discussions and so on that led to the revolutions. The art world is just one factor in this messy equation alongside other participants in the political milieu in whatever from they take.

That said, I want to return here to my autobiographical starting point: my work and that of many of my colleagues is inevitably politicized by its rootedness within various geopolitical contexts but that doesn’t make us activists. Artists are not per definition activists – it’s about choice and intention. An artist becomes an activist when he or she moves beyond the aesthetic and intentionally intervenes in the ‘real world.’ Being an activist comes with hard work, anger, dedication and sacrifice whether you are an artist, a plumber, a lawyer or indeed a fruit vendor.

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