Can art make a difference in this crazy world?

painting by Joy Gerrard at the RHA gallery
From “Shot Crowd”, an exhibition of paintings and video by Joy Gerrard at the RHA

Well it is crazy. And getting crazier and more dangerous every day. But I want to tell you about an art exhibition that’s on at the moment. Black and white paintings – mostly large – scenes of mass protests taken from newspapers or the internet, images of dense crowds viewed from above, from tall buildings or from police helicopters, perhaps.

The Arab Spring, “Black Lives Matter”, Anti-Trump demonstrations – all part of our recent history – but then I wondered: what does she think of all this? Is she ‘for’ or ‘against’ or is she simply observing?

Someone else might say that it doesn’t matter, it’s just art – but it matters to me! I knew a fella once, he’d make art videos of all the marches – but he never took part. I used to see him standing up on plinth with his camera as we marched by. Where did he really stand, I wondered?

Joy Gerrard at the RHA
Detail from a painting by Joy Gerrard

But I’m talking about the wonderful paintings by Joy Gerrard in Shot Crowd at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin at the moment. I was very taken by them. And when I think about it, how they deliberately choose the ‘helicopter view’, I imagine she wanted to portray that sinister feeling of being under constant surveillance.

The paintings are Japanese black ink on linen. See the detail above, the water based ink mixed to different consistencies from transparent washes to solid black, her brushwork quite free and loose, perhaps to emphasise the humanity of the scene and to subvert the threatening atmosphere in some way.

And there’s also a video and this is what really caught my attention. Hard to describe, it’s like a model of an empty city and then thousands of ball bearings start pouring in from one side until the ‘city’ is completely taken over by them. (Actually, they’re not ball bearings, Joy tells me, they are shot or shot gun pellets, collected by emptying shot gun cartridges). The pellets finally come to a halt and  there’s silence for a moment before the pellets start running again, away to the other side, until the city is deserted again.

Video, Joy Gerrard
Still from video in “Shot Crowd”, an exhibition by Joy Gerrard at the RHA

And so it continues endlessly. I imagine the creator tilting the ‘city’ from side to side to make the pellets roll, some hidden hand controlling the situation, allowing the ‘people’ to run wild for a while but containing them within certain limits and ultimately, maintaining absolute power over them. Scary thought.

Scary times. But could an art video change anything? I believe it can. It can raise awareness; it can move an audience and make them think. And that’s crucial in today’s world. What do you think?




  1. Looking at the examples you’ve provided brings to my mind the kinetic energy in the works of Brion Gysin and le Brocquy. The image from the video reminds that while a city’s infrastructure may be imposing, it’s nothing without it’s people. Fascinating art.


  2. Good thoughts Eoin. The question whether art can make a difference has been central for me for a long time. I am an avid promoter of socially engaged art- one where improving the quality of life is most important, and not whether it will sell or not.

    But I’ve grown away even from that stance, though I admire many artists who really are making a difference by consciousness raising through good, innovative honest, clever and well executed projects. Fritz Haeg comes to mind. And Lily Yeh. Milenko Matanovich, etc. But I’m not into art as propaganda. It has to come from a real and intimate place of caring, meaning creation, and skillfulness of execution.

    For me, the question is more like this? Am I using my life and skills to stand up for what I hold most dear?Years ago, one Dutch art/culture minister went into a debate about devastating budget cuts, that she knew she would lose abominably. But she said in an interview, ‘If I don’t go in there and make a stand for the arts, then I will never be able to live with myself. How will I tell my children that I didn’t at least try?’.

    So that is more where I am coming from when it comes to art making a difference. If you feel you need to say something and don’t say it, you won’t make a difference. Art needs to make a difference in your own life first, I think.

    When I’m painting, I don’t think about all of this. But I do try to make work that is ‘true’. And hopefully that quality, the best I have to offer, will communicate to others, and perhaps provide a bit of hope, comfort, humor or relief in a too violent, too difficult world.
    cheers, Sarah


  3. Looks like a fabulous show, and yes, I agree that art has the power to change us. Works addressing the complexities of life are bound to make me ask questions and contemplate my response to them; even “just pretty” stuff can have meaning and affect my point of view. No matter how small or inconsequential I think I am I know that what I say and do affects others, for good or ill, and it makes me acutely aware of how easily others’ thoughts and deeds have their effects on me, in turn.


  4. “Poetry makes nothing happen”. Unfortunately, I think the art comes after the event, and it will reach those who are open to it.

    The idea of the helicopter view makes me think of Aboriginal art here in Australia which shows the world as if seen from a very high plane – the dots of waterholes, the faint lines of rivers, the shading of the country as it moves from rock to earth and slope to flat. How did they have that way of seeing?


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