Social Change in Art: A Battle Against "Virtue Signaling"

When DJ David Guetta streamed his "special record" dedicated to George Floyd, his performance seemed so incongruent to the current atmosphere that it drew harsh criticism. During his livestream, Guetta said, "This record is in honor of George Floyd…Shoutout to his family" as the beat swelled and the bass dropped with occasional Martin Luther King "I Have a Dream" samples in the background. He began dancing to the beat, which sounded more like something from a club than a sincere tribute. His intentions were positive, raising $670,000 for Covid-19 relief, but the song's tone and his introduction detracted from his actual contributions and was condemned as "virtue signaling."

In the digital age, art is easily labelled a "virtue signal" when ideas are endorsed over social media without actually sparking engagement—it's easy to share ideas you know will garner praise solely for the sake of garnering praise.

Yet there is incredible potential in art as an instrument of social change. In 2007, artist Wafaa Bilal confined himself to a small room in Chicago for 30 days. There was a bed, a desk, a computer, and a paintball gun. A small webcam attached to the gun live streamed the room to the web—any stranger on the internet could take control of the gun and fire. Bilal was shot 70,000 times and received over 80 million hits. Why would he choose to do this?

Bilal is a performance artist, and growing up in Iraq, he observed a duality between the two places in which he lived—the relative comfort of the United States and the warzone in Iraq. After his brother was killed in an airstrike, Bilal watched an interview with an American soldier who described his experience directing missile drones across the world. Observing the physical and emotional detachment of the soldier from his targets, Bilal decided to turn strangers on the internet into drone operators, giving them the choice to shoot him in this performance art piece. Through all of his pain, Bilal made a powerful statement about dehumanization, caused by impersonal interaction, through a method similar to civil disobedience movements.

Bilal's story is a testament to the power of art. As a student, Bilal was arrested for dissidence for producing works critical of Saddam Hussein. There is a reason why tyrannical governments suppress "dissident" artists like Bilal or blacklist certain authors—art has great power to effect change. Art provides a mirror for contemporary society and raises awareness for overlooked issues that are harder to face or reconcile. It instills values and provides a bridge from one isolated consciousness to another. However, there's a catch: it has to tailor to the public. Efforts towards social change become nothing without considering how they will be perceived by the community. Through the Internet, impersonal interaction unleashes enormous potential for public opinion, which could be either positive or critical.

As Guetta's piece shows, a good effort can be considered "virtue signaling" if misinterpreted by the audience. So how do artists walk the fine line of effecting change without coming across as insincere? There are many forms of effective artistic activism, many of which don't require its creator to get shot 70,000 times the way Bilal's did. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but there certainly are many ways in avoiding a tribute as poorly received as Guetta's. Artists could better correlate their message with their artistic decisions, whether it applies to genre, mood, or style: Guetta could easily have spoken more specifically about racial issues instead of issuing a series of trite generalizations. It would be incredibly beneficial to be conscious of public opinion and to use such opinions to one's advantage in emphasizing one's messages.

In the end though, art is deeply nuanced. It's hard to measure sincerity in an art piece. Maybe Guetta truly supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Maybe his EDM "shoutout to [George Floyd's] family" was an actual attempt to honor the Floyd family. However, in failing to consider public perception, Guetta's message was undermined. Without consideration of audience reaction, even the most sincere piece of artwork will, at the end of the day, fall victim to the immediate scrutiny of global netizens.

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