April 1, 2023

The Artist as Activist (or George Clooney gets arrested)


Last week Hollywood actor George Clooney was arrested after failing to comply with police at a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington DC. He told journalists he was “just trying to raise attention” about the situation in southern Sudan where military action supposedly targeting terrorists is devastating civilian populations, and aid is still barred entry.

He certainly raised awareness – here I am writing about it for one, and it seems clear this appalling situation has jumped up the discussion list. Or is it really just the pictures of Clooney in cable-tie hand cuffs trending on Twitter? The Guardian ran some choice tweets on the subject, my favourite was this from @RichardA: George Clooney’s arrest is a distraction for the bank heist Ben Affleck is doing across town #movieplot. Even if people are more aware, does trading on your own fame to get something noticed really count as activism?

What are we supposed to make of the artist when he turns to activist? Clooney is not the only one doing it, look at the recent Falklands war of words, and it’s become common to see ‘celebrities’ (usually also ‘artists’) endorsing the work of charities – the ‘Real Men Don’t Buy Girls’ campaign (pictured) is another recent example. Of course we could question the sincerity of these celebrities, but for now lets assume they are genuine in their support of their chosen campaigns. Is what they are doing really good enough, or should an artist who wishes to become an ‘activist’ exhibit that in their work as well to be taken seriously? For example – Ashton Kutcher appeared in the “Real Men . . .” campaign and had some intelligent things to say about child sex trafficking. But this is the man who is currently most famous for taking over the ‘Charlie Harper’ slot in Two and a Half Men – taking over the role of a character who’s regular evening antics involved sleeping with one or more of a selection of hookers. Of course adult prostitutes (especially the thousand dollar a night Malibu type Charlie Harper used to cavort with) can be said to be a far cry from forced sex slaves, but it’s a notch on the same bed post. Does an artist loose all credibility as an activist when they fail to uphold that activism in their work?

I’m inclined to think Clooney has more plausibility than Kutcher, but he may well raise more awareness by making a piece of artistic work about the situation in Sudan as well as taking a direct protest action. Most people remember that he was arrested last week, few will remember the details of why, or even care. I wonder how many people remember the plot of his recent (and rather good) film The Descendants? There are lots of artists out there striving to create work that reflects the truth of situations they feel strongly about, and that contribution to the debate is incredibly important. Art is a way of inspiring empathy, a tool to unlock people’s understanding of a situation otherwise alien to them. Protest is important too, and that’s something that we all can and should exercise our right to. Not everyone can write a play or star in a film, and unfortunately the popular market for works that tackle real and difficult issues – and consequently the funding for them – is diminishing. Of course there is demand for escapism, but producers across mediums are also guilty of underestimating the public. Many of the people working on human rights stories, protest stories, counter-cultural stories can barely afford to keep going, and wouldn’t at all without the charity sector who, in turn, rely on them. If the likes of Clooney were to step into that sort of work, perhaps we might see a change in attitude.

When all is said and done I don’t think George Clooney is taking the easy road. It takes guts to let yourself be arrested, whoever you are, and it takes courage to travel to Sudan and to stand in front of politicians and the media and tell them what you’ve seen. I applaud that and I hope that it has raised awareness. I doubt whether other celebrities deserve such praise, and whilst we should encourage charity work we should also subject ‘famous’ artists to meaningful scrutiny. I am sure Clooney will continue to raise heckles, as well as attention, and maybe he will consider taking his passion for activism more deeply into his work.

1 Comment on The Artist as Activist (or George Clooney gets arrested)

  1. This is a very thorough article and a good discussion for anyone joining the debate on art and activism, sincerity versus self-promotion. I would agree that doing activism as an artist requires an endorsement of that activity in the art work itself, whatever the means used. In NY the Guerrilla Girls continue doing political work and performing it, through their activism to keep awareness raised about inequality of female representation in the art market. I think artists generally ought to be thinking about their responsibility of tackling, ‘silence is complicity’.

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