On Madonna's Art for Freedom: Why You Can't Change the World with a Tweet

Madonna's Art for Freedom project proves that social media is not a productive tool for activists who want to impact public policy and alleviate human rights violations.

There’s little doubt that social media has impacted the way individuals and institutions communicate, but few have accurately articulated precisely what this impact is.

If we are to assume that most people in first world countries communicate digitally and maintain some sort of interaction on social media (and recent statistics suggest that such an assumption is correct), then we have to consider the relevance of these virtual encounters. We have to investigate beyond the mere fact that “everyone is doing it”, and we must ultimately take a firm stance on the issue of social media’s potential to change all that is perceivably wrong with the world.

The question of social media’s relevance is paramount, because a number of prominent public figures have turned to social media in an effort to influence public policy. For the purposes of this article, I use pop superstar Madonna as a case study to argue that her political social media project, Art for Freedom, has failed to incite the global government action it seeks, and therefore illustrates social media’s inability to call attention to and alleviate human rights violations.

With Art for Freedom, Madonna is using her power and prestige in an attempt to make a global impact. The social media project is an online venue for artists to upload works that bring awareness to human rights violations. It began in 2013 September, after the release of Madonna’s short film #Secretprojectrevolution (see below), and since then, Madonna and VICE have partnered to manage the website.

In order to participate, artists must post their work on social media platforms like Twitter and tag their posts with #artforfreedom, or they can upload projects directly through ArtforFreedom.com. Each day, Madonna, VICE, and a guest curator look through the art works that are uploaded and feature one on the website that is deemed socially, culturally, and politically relevant. Moreover, Madonna donates $10,000 each month to a nonprofit organization of a featured artist’s choice.

While the art works are chosen by Madonna, VICE, or a celebrity guest curator (this month’s guest is Miley Cyrus, and past curators have been Katy Perry and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), the works themselves are created by lesser-known artists from around the world who want to make a difference.

On 17 April for example, Californian Richard J. Oliver’s The Ice Lake Swan was selected. Inspired by his son’s battle with William Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, Oliver’s piece hopes to “capture and express the fragile balance of life and the wonder and love that we can experience when we open ourselves with compassion towards each other.”

Nona’s One is radically different but similarly relevant. Chosen on 1 March, the YouTube upload is a music video that promotes peace and unity in Tokyo. Nona claims that the earthquake in 2011 brought the nation together, but recently they’ve been “quarrelling and arguing again over past mistakes.”

Some art works call for government action on a specific issue in a specific region, while others promote a more general vision of peace, compassion, and unity. Regardless of each artist’s intention, the user-friendly website is one of the first of its kind, in which a globally recognized celebrity uses social media as a virtual museum with a political purpose. Similar websites have existed before and continue to exist today, and Madonna certainly isn’t the only public figure to bring awareness to human rights violations, but it’s appropriate to suggest that she has found a creative, contemporary way to make a statement.

Despite this, however, Art For Freedom isn’t well-known to the general public.#Secretprojectrevolution has only garnered 1.1 million views on YouTube since 2013 September, and #artforfreedom is rarely a trending topic on social media. More tellingly, human rights violations continue to persist throughout the world, and artists like Jafar Panahi remain imprisoned for speaking out against their governments. Why hasn’t the project been more impactful, and what might this imply about social media’s potential as a political tool?

I believe that the project hasn’t been successful because its intention doesn’t appeal to the vast majority of social media users who seek instant, immediate distraction, nor does it fit into social media’s communicative mode that favors fleeting trending topics over sustained, contemplative discussion. In other words, the revolution Madonna wants social media users to join takes significant time, and it can’t sustain in social media’s constant state of content circulation.

As danah boyd, Scott Golder, and Gila Lotan argue, “Twitter’s value derives from the real-time nature of the conversations it supports.” ("Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter", by danah boyd, Scott Golder, Gilad Lotan, danahboyd.org, 2010 January 6) The core of this conversation, for the most part, is small talk and gossip. Users are more inclined to discuss the latest celebrity scandal or episode of Game of Thrones than ruminate on the injustices of the word. Thus, while Madonna’s goal with the project is certainly noble, it is ultimately misguided and doesn’t fully comprehend the communication practices of social media.

At best, Art for Freedom brings awareness to art works that inform about human rights violations. However, once a social media user stumbles upon an artwork that is uploaded to the website, it’s likely that he or she will move to the next trending topic of the day.

Perhaps we can theorize this social media practice as “scrolling through time”, in which users literally scroll through different content in order to pass the time, just as they would periodically check their Facebook timelines or Twitter feeds for the sake of it. On some level, there's an interest to know what’s happening on social media, but generally, social media users are more likely to check their accounts out of boredom or even habit.

There are certain social media optimists who will undoubtedly disagree with my observations and claim that I am a cynic who doesn’t grasp the full potential of digital technologies. To be fair, there are occasional exceptions, and sometimes social media is indeed a useful political weapon. For the most part, however, social media’s distracting, ephemeral nature renders it an inept political platform for human rights activists who seek long term solutions to many of the world’s problems.

Therefore, it’s imperative to stop perpetuating the myth that social media can impact public policy so that citizens interested in changing it can use more productive methods. In order to do so, it’s necessary to undermine the perceived significance of the tending topic.

The majority of marketers, businesspeople, entertainers, and media publications are on social media in pursuit of the trending topic. As Cynthia Boris writes on Marketing Pilgrim, “It’s important for marketers to keep up on trends because trends can help you catch the consumer’s eye.” ("Trending Topics? Google will now deliver them right to your inbox", 18 April 2014)

It’s appropriate to assume that Madonna, too, wanted the many human rights violations of the world to become trending topics on social media because she mistakenly believed that this kind of exposure would lead to global action. As a result, she created Art for Freedom to capture the attention of social media users who, by default, have extremely short attention spans that can’t be captured.

As many devoted human rights activists will attest, liberation rarely happens overnight and takes a lot of time, hard work, and courageous effort. It does not belong in the realm of social media because it demands full attention and cooperation from all participants. Madonna deserves credit for trying, but it’s more productive to consider other methods if we’re going to make a difference.

I’m not sure what these methods are, but Madonna’s Art for Freedom project proves, once and for all, that the big problems of the world will never be solved with a tweet.


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Photo courtesy of Matador Records

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