Step Up 4: Can Art Change Culture?

The movie choice this weekend was Step Up Revolution. I went expecting the standard light fare I’ve come to expect from the series: forbidden love, separation of the classes, expression through dance, and out-of-this-world choreography. The movie delivered all that, but I was broadsided by a larger more important message about culture.

Movie PosterAs an artist, this movie said so much to me. A hundred random thoughts continue to reverberate through my brain making it hard to think, to articulate what I took away. What this movie demonstrated really well through dance is also happening in music, in publishing, in art.

There’s this grassroots underground revolution that people outside the arts may not be aware of. These indie artists are shaking their fists at the gate-keepers and are using modern marketing tools to take their art to new audiences. Art previously considered less valuable went unseen before iTunes, Youtube, WordPress and Amazon. And the established gate-keepers of each discipline – be they gallery owners, music execs, publishers, or dance companies – recognize and see value in this underground art (after all, it’s these innovators who push the envelope and force change) but at the same time view these indies as unknown, uncontrollable commodities.

Artists want two things: opportunity and favor. They want the opportunity to put their art before an audience and have that art judged on its own merit not some historical, sometimes stuffy, arbitrary list of rules and etiquette.

But great art, great artists, strive to do more than entertain, to beguile – they have something to say.

Who Is The MOB?

The MOB, as the dance crew in the movie calls themselves, is out to make a name for themselves doing flash mobs and posting the videos on Youtube. They combine graphic art with music mixing and the kind of explosive dancing that fires people up. I think this is such an important part of creating. Success as an artist seems heavily reliant on taking an old idea and making it new again.

Some great examples that come to mind are the Lizzie Bennet Diaries – a vlog adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice taking an old story and making it new again through social media. The Piano Guys are a Youtube sensation – who knew the cello and piano would see such a revival – by writing scores to popular tracks (see The Cello Wars) these guys and their crew have made classical music fresh and exciting to a younger generation, inspired teens to train and study the art.

“Enough with performance art, it’s time for protest art.”

This next level of art is so often missed or skipped. They create fabulous art and build an audience through hard work and social media guerrilla marketing – but the difference between great art, and art that creates culture is the message behind the art. All the great artists were great because they had something to say – and yes, some were ahead of their time and their social commentary only recognized after their deaths. I’ve had so many people say to me, “Why do they still force kids to read Shakespeare?” Why? Because Shakespeare has as much to say to people today as he did to his own contemporaries. Art has always been a vehicle for social change, social commentary – but the art must come first not the message.

“Art is our way to shout, our way to say we exist – listen up.”

Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making writes that change affecting culture begins locally: “All culture making is local. Every cultural good, whether a new word, law, recipe, song or gadget, begins with a small group of people – and not just a relatively small group but an absolutely small group. No matter how many it goes on to affect, culture always starts small. And this means that no matter how complex and extensive the cultural system you may consider, the only way it will be changed is by an absolutely small group of people who innovate and create a new cultural good.”

The MOB becomes disheartened when a developer decides to raze their community seen as a slum to build another luxury hotel. They had no voice, they were a community of individuals without resources. That’s when they realized that as The MOB they could use the platform they already had as dancers to say something important about themselves, their community, their art, and their own value. They weren’t just a bunch of throw-away kids, a nuisance or public disturbance – they had something important to say, value to offer, and instead of just imitating the existing culture they created a new cultural good. The media in the movie called The MOB a “cultural phenomenon.”

This principle is expanded upon in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point with his law of the 3 – 12 – 120. The innovation begins very small, with two or three people, then expands to a close group – the12, which then requires investment by a larger but still small group – the 120. This is played out in the arts repeatedly and was recreated with good effect in the movie.

But when does art change culture? Gladwell puts forward this idea in the afterward to The Tipping Point in the 2nd edition: “On playing fields and battlegrounds, challenges that would be daunting and impossible if faced alone are suddenly possible when tackled in a close-knit group. The people haven’t changed, but the way in which the task appears to them has.”

So What

Judging by the fact that on opening weekend there were 8 other people in the theatre, it doesn’t look like this movie will be as successful as previous versions. However, I think everyone should watch this movie to see how important art is to the fabric of every culture, and how possible it is to change something as intangible and impossible as culture – but there’s a second equally important message. It’s love for the art, and respect for those doing the art, that become the leavening in the recipe of success. The movie ably demonstrates the power to create culture, and have your message summarily dismissed at the same time. When love stops being the reason for creating the art, when your message is not one of building up but tearing down, you lose the respect of your audience and other artists – and whatever message you have is easily dismissed.

This message is why I’m so passionate about WANA (We Are Not Alone) and support the WANA Mama Kristen Lamb’s Love Revolution. As an individual artist, a lone writer, I see the task of using my art to say anything important as insurmountable almost. But when I join with other artists (of a variety of disciplines) both traditional and indie, a small group who builds up and supports art through love and mutual respect things can happen – and when that message reaches a small but larger group who understands the message, who are passionate about the message, word of mouth takes over and maybe, just maybe, something impossible becomes possible and culture is affected and changed for the better. In the movie, they affected a small change – but were given the opportunity to find favor with a larger audience and see their message grow.

Do you think artists (of any discipline) are culture changers? Can you think of a work of art whose message affected culture and changed things? Do you agree that artists are culture innovators?


  1. says

    So wonderfully stated Lisa. Very powerful. I am off to check it out tonight with my BFF and am now looking forward to seeing it more than I was previously. I think I’ll be as impassioned and inspired as you are.
    I think any artist can be a culture changer and that they are culture innovators. Sometimes immediately, sometime long after they are gone. It’s about helping people open their minds, see things differently, a new perspective, a new idea, a new creation. It’s powerful and the possibilities are endless!
    Natalie Hartford recently posted…How far would you go to spoil your furbaby?

    • says

      Thanks, Natalie. I worked really hard on that post – glad my point came through. Love to hear what you think after you see it.

  2. says

    Wonderful post, Lisa. In my day job I am a cultural sociologist, so I feel very strongly about the link between the arts (however broadly you wish to define them) and cultural change. I’ve just started following the story of Pussy Riot, a female punk band in Russia that has been challenging the government through the use of music. Three of its members have recently been arrested, and it is believed that the government, as well as the church, views them as a threat. (You can read more about it here:

    The arts have long been used as a vehicle to spark social change, usually in conjunction with larger movements. I think of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance in the US, with the vibrant community of Black writers, poets, musicians, and performers providing an alternative discourse about Black identity and politics, one that functioned as a useful counterpoint to the legal actions being taken against segregation and Jim Crow laws by civil rights organizations like the NAACP. I think of the British street artist, Banksy; of the early 90s female punk bands in the US and the”grrl zines” they created to give women a space in which to participate in music and self-expression; of science fiction author Octavia Butler and her ability to create worlds that force readers to consider issues of oppression, social difference, and inequality from a perspective that departs from the traditional white, male, privileged voice that dominates in sci-fi.

    The arts are SO important for providing a venue for people from all backgrounds to engage in social issues. I think it’s most definitely a love of the art, combined with a passion for change and making a difference, that are so pivotal.
    Lena Corazon recently posted…ROW80: Settling in, and Random Photos of Ostriches

    • says

      Those are great examples, Lena. Thanks for sharing. I replied to this once and it’s disappeared. Strange. I agree, the arts are vital. Definitely worth fighting to keep in our schools.

  3. Wendy Nelles says

    Good post, good points. You’ve obviously done a lot of reading and research about these issues.

    Just would have liked to see you also state that you are also passionate about The Word Guild, because we are very much trying to do similar things for over 10 years now in a Canadian context.

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