Because of the Internet, or because we’ve acquired some kind of maturity vis-à-vis the mass media, celebrities’ social role has changed in recent years. It’s not that they’re less interesting but now we demand greater transparency.
Consequently, many have rediscovered art’s ancient function as a public conscience and they use their media leverage for social purposes. An example? Madonna; who is not only still the greatest pop icon of our time, but also the one most committed to the fight for human rights, as demonstrated by her frequent public statements, her humanitarian work in Malawi and her recent project Secretprojectrevolution and Art For Freedom.
Secretprojectrevolution is a short film co-directed with Steven Klein. It calls for a “Love revolution […] a revolution of independent thought, of having your own opinion and not giving a damn about what people say”.
The movie has an autobiographical slant and reflects the many battles against stereotyping that Madonna has fought in her life. “How can you create art without becoming involved?”, says Miss Ciccone. “I like to compare myself to Frida Kahlo: everything she did was a self-portrait”.
The movie was intended as the advertising campaign for her lingerie range, but Secretprojectrevolution turned into a manifesto against oppression. It is founded on a sensuous, noir choreography featuring scenes of masochism shot in the labyrinth of rooms of a former prison in Buenos Aires.
Madonna alternately plays the roles of prisoner and torturer, accompanied by political messages about control and punishment. “Sometimes we are the victims of oppression, other times we imprison ourselves”, she says. “The movie is an example of the paradoxical world we live in”.
Art For Freedom is the next stage on from the movie. It is a digital platform in association with Vice Media that hosts videos, photos, illustrations and documentation of performances addressing intolerance and persecution. “There was a time when art reflected what was happening in society”, she proceeds, pensively. “Artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Richard Pryor or Jean-Luc Godard made political statements through their art”. The object of Art For Freedom is “to encourage people to believe that we can bring about change in the world through art” and a cry of protest against the commoditization of creativity.
Her greatest source of inspiration is the writer and activist James Baldwin, who has spoken at length of an artist’s responsibility in society. “By allowing ourselves to be consumed by corporate branding, worrying about having the approval of others and promoting only what is acceptable and popular, we destroy our art and everything about it that’s unique”, Madonna states.
At the start of her career, in New York, she belonged to the East Village artistic community and she was friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, who addressed social issues through art in a direct way, as do many artists in Art For Freedom. “Hanging out with Keith and Jean-Michel deeply influenced me”, she recalls. “Their approach to art was aimed at making it accessible to people, in the subway, on the street. It wasn’t elitist, you didn’t have to pay for it, go to a museum or gallery or frequent rich people, you could be anyone”.
Art For Freedom fights stereotypes, bigotry and discrimination, and promotes civil rights and the acceptance of diversity. “There are enemies, tyrants, fascists and dictators, people who destroy other people’s lives or take away their freedom: like Putin or the president of Venezuela”, the star continues, fervently. “In actual fact, the enemy is inside us. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we constantly discriminate against and judge others. So the first thing we have to change is ourselves. All the great leaders said that, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy and Nelson Mandela”.
After P*ssy Riot’s arrest, Madonna gave a speech defending gay rights at her show in St Petersburg in 2012. Eighty-seven people were arrested that evening and the star was fined one million dollars. Other times she’s been booed, censored and threatened with death, but nothing stops her. “I’m willing to sacrifice all in the name of human rights”, she declares, “apart from my children”.
Her next album will be connected with Art For Freedom. And we can expect to see her increasingly involved and committed. “I have no choice. At this point, there’s no turning back. This is my role in the world, my work as an artist. I have a voice and I have to use it”.
Far from the walls of museums, which a growing number of pop stars aspire to cross, Madonna’s statements and her resolve echo the words of Baldwin. They are meant for other artists in the hope of awakening them to their potential as agents, if they so wish, of social change and leaders of a more democratic, civilized society.
© L’Uomo Vogue