53 Million Artists: Reclaiming what it means to be an ‘artist’

I-am-an-Artist.WebLogo253 Million Artists is an action research project and social movement that is both about and emerging out of everyday life. 53 Million Artists seeks to address constraining attitudes, practices and behaviours of the monotonous everyday to incite people to be more engaged and imaginative through harnessing creative agency.

By suggesting a range of ‘creative challenges’ (from photography to going on a walk), participants are encouraged to upload a post describing their experience, with a photo or video if they wish to, onto the 53 Million Artists website. This straightforward process has been captured in the following instructions: “Make time. Do Stuff. Think about it. Share it.” By making an intervention, we are critiquing institutional discrimination on a societal level, and the everyday habits on an individual level that reinforce the status quo, though promoting creative practice as force of for the potential transformation of everyday life.

53 Million Artists was created by two former arts organisations leaders who were frustrated with the direction in which the ‘the arts’ was going. One of them took time out from her everyday job and dedicated time to ‘creative challenges’ set by family, friends and co-workers. It was during this time of ‘defamiliarisation’ (Lefebvre, 1991a) that she was re-enchanted with art and recognised herself as an artist who had lost her creative disposition and tendencies. Perceiving art as a universal human capacity, rather than belonging to the gifted few she worked with in her everyday job, she sought to establish a movement that would inspire the whole population of England (53 million) to identify as artists and experience the personal transformation of everyday life that had so profoundly affected her.

Creating a platform and campaign to communicate this message has brought on board a team of helpers, as well as researchers to record and analyse the development and success of this movement. As the name suggests, the focus is on being an artist, rather than the artwork. As such, the slogan “just do it” is significant in simply encouraging people to challenge themselves and do something different from their everyday life, without focusing on the result and whether it is ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ or not.

The project asks the simple question, what would life be like if we spent more of our time and energies living as artists – seeing, hearing, and feeling the world more deeply? The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre argued against the separation of art from life and the general fragmentation of human activities in favour of a revolutionary aesthetics of humanist Marxism. He interpreted Marx as expounding a particular artful or aesthetic disposition:

He imagines a society in which everyone would rediscover the spontaneity of natural life and its initial creative drive, and perceive the world through the eyes of an artist, enjoy the sensuous through the eyes of a painter, the ears of a musician and the language of a poet. Once superseded, art would be reabsorbed into an everyday which had been metamorphosed by its fusion with what had hitherto been kept external to it.

It is through this re-absorption or ‘re-habituation’ of art into everyday life, through initiatives such as 53 Million Artists, that dis-alienation can be achieved and lead to human flourishing and thus a transformation of everyday life.

53Million Artists is a practical, applied, theoretical, lived, everyday initiative and communication with a growing public. At a grassroots level, 53 Million Artists has made an intervention at two work organizations based in London, and run workshops, during the four-month pilot phase. The next stage of the project will be expanded to reach a greater diversity of people in terms of age and background as well as geographically, by going into schools, prisons, residential homes, hospitals, businesses and so on. At a national level, it is hoped the project will continue to stimulate conversations and debates about what ‘art’ is and what it means to be an artist.

In the pilot phase, resisting and reclaiming terms such as ‘art’, ‘artist’, and ‘creative’ has been somewhat achieved by calling attention to the privileging of this discourse by pre-existing, occluded or invisible structures and institutions, in what we have identified as ‘artism’.

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