Fighting Corruption With Art: Successfully Raising Public Awareness

Art is “one of the best societal mediators of difficult messages — it has always created a bridge between the comprehension and the expression of critical problems in society.” So declares the 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference’s website, which organized an art program against corruption. In keeping with that sentiment, last September the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT) organized a “museum of corruption,” a temporary exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre intended to raise public awareness about the extent and costs of corruption. Thailand is not the first country to undertake such an initiative. Museums of corruption (actual museums, not just temporary exhibitions) already exist in Paraguay, Ukraine and the United States, and many other enterprises that use art as a tool for anticorruption education and action are flourishing worldwide. For instance, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa has recently launched a hip hop video against corruption in Liberia, while the Inter-American Development Bank organized a cartoon contest to promote awareness and understanding of the corruption phenomenon and its harm to development. More recently, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain called upon poets and intellectuals to write against corruption. Other major players in the anticorruption field that have organized artistic projects include Transparency International (see here and here) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In additions to these institutionalized artistic anti-corruption projects, several countries have witnessed spontaneous public art displays – in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all – to promote awareness and solidarity in fighting corruption (see for example in Afghanistan and South Africa).

Understandably, some are skeptical of these initiatives, arguing that museums and temporary exhibitions are not the right forum to communicate on corruption (this was one of the criticisms of the Thai museum of corruption). One might worry that expressing anticorruption messages through cartoons and popular music won’t lead people to take the message seriously enough. (This would also be true when the artistic initiative takes a more humorous approach, as is the case for many of the anticorruption cartoons, as well as New York’s corruption museum.) And of course, nobody thinks that art initiatives on their own are enough. Yet while artistic initiatives will not by themselves solve the issue of corruption, these initiatives are not just a fad or a gimmick or a distraction. Indeed, there’s quite a bit of research indicating that these programs can be quite effective in raising public awareness on corruption.

First of all, general studies on the impact of art on society (not specific to corruption) support the claim that both participation in artistic projects and the experience of art as an audience member can promote economic prosperity (see here and here), improve academic performance and student discipline (see here), help accomplish important community goals (see here and here), and improve physical and psychological well-being (see here and here). Although some have questioned the methodology of theses studies, their results are nonetheless evidence that art can be a powerful communication tool, one that affects how we think and act.

Second, art that is entertaining as well as informative can be especially effective in reaching younger generations. In 2006, Amnesty International carried out a study that showed that concerts, festivals, and social media were among the best ways to reach out to young people (between the ages of 14 and 25). (Some anticorruption art initiatives can even reach younger children, as Blair Glencorse, Director of the Accountability Lab Liberia, has highlighted.) This role of art in raising awareness among young people is especially important given that studies show that engaging young generations is essential to anticorruption efforts, because of the fact that young people are generally more open to social change and political transformation.

Third, it’s worth keeping in mind that artistic initiatives such as song, drawing, or theater are particularly useful in countries where a significant part of the population is illiterate. Visual arts, drama, and music are among the most appropriate ways to communicate important messages in these circumstances. The same is true in counties where the majority of the population is rural, and even those who are literate might not have easy access to print media. In addition, art can cut across a number of potential barriers such as language and culture. For instance, an organization named Seeds Theater Group (sponsored by United Nations Volunteers) is doing remarkable outreach work to the illiterate populations of Papua New Guinea, using theater as a communication instrument to increase the level of knowledge and understanding of important social and development issues.

Art, in all its forms, has proven to be an efficient communication tool. Anticorruption initiatives should use it more often to insure the message reach their audience. Art’s efficiency in raising public awareness of corruption should not be underestimated or dismissed as a sideshow. Indeed, art—visual arts, songs, drama, poetry—can deliver messages faster, and reach a larger number of people, than can long, dry speeches or straight news reporting or advocacy.

11 thoughts on “Fighting Corruption With Art: Successfully Raising Public Awareness

  1. Where corruption is still a taboo, artistic expression of corruption could be a tool to break that taboo. This is similar to Mr Condom’s (from Thailand) work helping to break taboo on the use of contraceptives and promotion of sex education. By the way there is close similarity between corruption and sex. Both take place in privacy, done by consenting adults.

  2. I’m amazed at what an incredible collection of anticorruption art there is! The IACC’s list of resources alone is eye-opening, and I’m thinking I’ll have to plan a trip to at least one of those museums. Your second and third points both both convincingly portray how art can help expand the reach of anticorruption awareness. It seems like, in addition to awareness-raising, art also has the potential to increase a personal sense of engagement with or emotional reaction to such issues (in addition to the benefits mentioned in your first point). While an increased level of personal engagement would be a difficult thing to measure, it could make a particular difference where civil society acts as one of the or the major force to combat corruption. That is, after I see and/or participate in a play or after I am angered by a visual portrayal of bribery and theft, do you think I might be more likely to participate in a protest or other movement against corrupt actors?

    • You are de are raising a very interesting point.
      When researching, I came across a number of studies stressing that participation in artistic projects is very beneficial in terms of crime prevention and rehabilitation in general. However, I did not encounter any studies on the particular question of whether individual would be more likely to participate in a protest or other movement against corrupt actors is they had participated or attended to one of these artistic initiatives. It is probably because such initiatives are still very new and their full and precise effect is still to be assessed. My guess is that if people’s awareness to corruption issues is raised, they would be more likely to protest actively.

      • That idea was purely speculative on my part, but it does seem plausible, particularly if participation in artistic projects makes individuals feel more a part of other groups or efforts. A corollary might be that protest movements, for example, could deliberately create opportunities for artistic projects to encourage participation and group dynamics. If, as you say, art has been shown to benefit crime prevention, perhaps such projects could be a way to increase the feeling of productivity from such movements while staying non-violent.

  3. This shows how important methods of communications are in conveying message and initiating social change. I agree that art is a common platform used by many anticorruption authorities to cultivate awareness on corruption-related issues. I also agree that art is particularly effective in engaging the young generation. In Indonesia, for example, many young activists are inspired by the works of artists, poets, and writers (one of the most prominent ones was Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who worked on various corruption-related books and nominated several times for Nobel Prize in Literature).

  4. Intriguing subject. Like Kait, I too am surprised to learn just how many anticorruption art initiatives there are! My initial reaction to your third point was to be concerned that it seemed unlikely many of these efforts would reach people who are rural and/or illiterate–might they only reach urban elites?–but you enumeration of the various forms art can take was an immediate counterpoint to that. Any one particular piece of art in a particular media might not reach everyone, but that’s fine; perhaps another form will. Perhaps one of the good things about art is that the many forms it can take mean different pieces can be created for different audiences.

    I’d be curious to know just how effective efforts to reach the populace tend to be, and how effective the artworks themselves are in changing people’s minds and activities. Art can play an important part in social change, but there’s a difficult balancing act that has to be maintained: go too far and something will seem inauthentic, preachy, or “cheesy.” If the art is tapping into an existing reservoir of frustration with corruption, and perhaps indicating a route of action, then perhaps that hurdle isn’t so great; if, on the other hand, it seems like it’s out of touch or unresponsive to people’s day-to-day needs, it might not connect or result in much change.

  5. Given how valuable art can be in raising awareness, and in light of the work you described in Papua New Guinea, I wonder what additional efforts anticorruption organizations and advocates can undertake to make sure that the largest possible audience has the opportunity to see such impactful pieces. The internet, of course, seems like the optimal way to spread artistic works, but it will be less effective where internet access is less common. Another approach might be to co-opt such art for advertising campaigns, and here I am thinking of bus stops, buses, billboards, and other mediums. Of course, it is harder to spread things like songs or theater through advertising, but for paintings, pictures, cartoons, even sculpture (for which a picture can be taken and capture at least some of the effect), one way for anticorruption advocates to amplify the impact of the artwork you describe would be to turn it in to advertising for mass consumption.

    Admittedly, there are potential drawbacks to converting artistic expression in to advertising (though maybe Don Draper would disagree). For one, some might argue that advertising, by its nature of being forced upon the viewer is less impactful than art which the viewer comes to by choice. Second, in societies where advertising is common, ads based on corruption-related art may have a muted affect from being part of a cacophony of advertising, as opposed to a single voice in an artistic performance or exhibit.

    What are your thoughts on whether using this art in advertising campaigns is a good idea?

    • This post is fascinating and you and Nathan both get to the idea that there are simply so many, different kinds of art. Nathan, to your point about advertising (I might say “educating”) in the public space: I actually think that the fact that images are forced upon the viewer is a particularly positive, powerful aspect of an artistic campaign. This feature is especially important for a campaign targeting a problem like corruption, which, as Narayan points out, is inherently hidden and private. I loved Sarah’s point that art occupies the “physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all.” It’s really hard to ignore. I am reminded of a time I was in a Tanzanian post office and saw a mural that depicted a postal worker refusing a bribe from a customer – I have no idea whether or not this mural “worked” but I remember thinking that the display would make it extremely awkward to offer or receive a bribe in that post office. All parties involved would have to act in a manner blatantly and publicly condemned. Much of the lasting art for mass consumption would be pretty cheap to install and I think well worth it!

  6. Pingback: Fighting Corruption With Art: Successfully Raising Public Awareness | Anti Corruption Digest

  7. In the midst of the onslaught of news about corrupt actors acting corruptly, this post is a breadth of fresh air. I’m intrigued by the idea of art, of beauty, coming out of all of the pain corruption causes. I believe you are right that art has staying power other mediums don’t. After all, when I think Guernica, I think Picasso first, before I think of the terrible specifics of what happened there. And I think that the interactive nature of art — the idea that you are making, living, reinterpreting something — is very powerful. While the lawyers and policymakers on this blog may value black words on a white page above much else (and I certainly put myself in that category), not everyone else will or should. By including art in learning about and fighting corruption, we bring it to a winder audience and (potentially) democratize it.

    Another point, which you address in passing but don’t focus on as much, is the power of art as protest, especially when other forms of protest aren’t available. The protest songs of enslaved persons in the Pre-Civil War American South immediately spring to my mind, but I imagine there are countless other examples. Do you think anticorruption art is more powerful as a retrospective teaching tool (like a museum would be) or as a prospective tool for fighting ongoing corruption?

    • I agree with Courtney that this post was a breath of fresh air. As the post highlights, art and creativity can spring from social issues, and while the possibility of that emergence doesn’t transform social issues into something desirable, it’s easy to forget about that relationship, so I appreciated that this post underscored that link. To the extent that art can democratize awareness of certain issues–particularly those that may be, by nature or circumstance, harder to galvanize support around–I think its own relationship to law, advocacy, and policy becomes clearer, especially when linked through engagement and protest. Like Courtney, I’d love to hear what you think about the prospective/retrospective nature of art. I think I’m of the view that anti-corruption art, even when historically based, has prospective and current instrumental value, as do the contemporary or theoretical forms such as the hip-hop video and IADB cartoon contest. That said, contemporary art seems to have particularly powerful pull, because its creation itself can generate immediate government reaction. This post made me think about Ai Weiwei and his focus on corruption, among other political and human rights issues. In his case, the Chinese government’s response underscores the scope of the challenge corruption poses to its continued legitimacy, and through a pattern of actions and reactions of the actors involved, Ai Weiwei’s art has fostered an ongoing conversation on governance, the breadth of which highlights corruption’s potential reach.

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