“Social Justice Art: A Framework for Activist Art Pedagogy”| A Book Review by Becca Barniskis

Editor’s note: Too often “social justice education” or “social justice art” get thrown around with little to no thought about the quality of that education or art making, let alone the political implications of blindly embracing anything that attaches “social justice” to itself. Becca Barniskis tackles these issues in her recent review of Marit Dewhurst’s book “Social Justice Art” (Harvard Education Press). The full article is now available for free pdf download

Full citation: “What is Social Justice Art?: a review of Social Justice Art: A Framework for Activist Art Pedagogy”,  Teaching Artist Journal 13(3) Resource Exchange pp 177-184, by Becca Barniskis.


…As a teaching artist I identify with the impulse to open up more space for students to make political art, or art that engages political questions and struggles; there are all kinds of instances of injustice and oppression that I want my students to call out in their art if they wish, and just as I do in my own work as a poet. People should be free to make art about whatever they wish. Taken in a broader context however, this book represents something of an accommodation to the extremely deformed political landscape of American education and society, and presents a very narrow formula for what constitutes “social justice art.” The book’s political vagueness potentially contributes to the sort of tokenistic “branding” and window dressing that is often draped over arts education in our atrociously racist and unequal society.  Labels and “new” pedagogical approaches can serve to distract us from the real issues at hand. “Social justice art” and art activist teaching approaches also, as far as I can tell, do not emphasize any depth of instruction in history and politics. Instead such approaches offer a vague, watered down progressivism and little critical appraisal of how such politics may be inadvertently propping up the current system of oppression in the United States.

The book’s political vagueness potentially contributes to the sort of tokenistic “branding” and window dressing that is often draped over arts education in our atrociously racist and unequal society.  Labels and “new” pedagogical approaches can serve to distract us from the real issues at hand.

…Politically problematic is the fact that, as a niche pedagogy, social justice education is increasingly ghettoized. Social justice education programming is directed mostly toward black students and other demographic groups that are marginalized and are victims of economic injustice and racism. “Social justice education” has become a new code with which organizations or educators can communicate a desire to be more “equitable” or culturally and socially responsive, but without necessarily taking concrete steps to address actual instances of inequality.  It’s one thing to brand one’s programming “social justice education,” and quite another to fight segregation in the schools, recruit and promote more black, Latino and women arts educators and artists, or encourage students to study not only liberal or reformist critiques of capitalism but revolutionary ones as well.  Rigorous, uncensored instruction in history and politics in our schools might actually better equip students to fight oppression; social justice education seems to present a “safer” alternative that instead asks students to focus on their own personal experience and to view social change as largely a question of their own level of “awareness” and personal attitudes….It turns the lens inward, to one’s personal experience of oppression, instead of giving young people the political tools, confidence and historical knowledge they need to analyze and address such issues in a meaningful way that can reveal what is—the concrete bases of oppression and economic exploitation.

It’s one thing to brand one’s programming “social justice education,” and quite another to fight segregation in the schools, recruit and promote more black, Latino and women arts educators and artists, or encourage students to study not only liberal or reformist critiques of capitalism but revolutionary ones as well.  

…Indeed, the more time we spend talking about how socially aware and active we and our students are, the less time we spend learning about actual historical events that got us here, or examining current material conditions in the U.S.—Who lives where? Why are our public schools still separate and unequal? Why do racist cops shoot black people with impunity? There are other answers to these questions besides the standard liberal, pacifist, pro-Democratic Party response that we need to “reform the system” or get people to “change their thinking” or “empower” our young people. Material conditions do not change because of people’s thinking; they change when people have the actual means, power and understanding with which to change the material conditions behind their oppression.

The full article is now available for free pdf download

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