Catching up with... Frank Weij

Frank Weij started his PhD project, funded by the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research (NWO), at ERMeCC in September 2015.Together with Dr. Pauwke Berkers, Dr. Jiska Engelbert and Prof. dr. Koen van Eijck he conducts research on the intersection between art and politics. “I’m looking at artists that produce political artworks or activist art. These artists often face many struggles in doing that, because arts and politics do not mix easily.”

Frank has been working with Dr. Pauwke Berkers, Dr. Jiska Engelbert and Prof. dr. Koen van Eijck since 2014 to build up to this project on the ‘geopolitics of artivism’. This process has greatly developed his interest and passion for this topic.

He explains that political artists often have a hard time when doing their work. “On the one hand they operate in a field of art, and they have to adhere to all kinds of artistic hierarchies and criteria. On the other hand, they also operate in the political field a little bit because they make political art - but there it’s more about a logic of representation.”

“Artists producing political art face constraints in the art field because critics and gatekeepers don’t easily attribute to them artistic status. Meanwhile, inside the political field, they often are put away as ‘just artists’- not really activists and not really legitimate political actors. It shows that arts and politics do not mix easily.”

Frank explains that these circumstances result in a lot of artists who try to separate both. “You have celebrities from popular culture, who on the one hand are an artist, but also take a public role in the public sphere by standing for some kind of political cause. They try to separate these two roles, in order to not alienate fans or to damage their artistic status.”

However, Frank decided to investigate artists that do not separate between the two. “I am looking at how artistic gatekeepers, like critics, attribute artistic qualities to these kinds of artists, or ‘artivists’ as they are now sometimes called, but also how people in mainstream society view them and talk about them. I use more traditional methods such as interviews and content analysis, but also very innovative and computational ones by looking at social media data to see how people in mainstream society talk about these kinds of artists.”

Contrast in political activism in art

The research project aims to capture the struggle politically engaged artists face. “What we see is that politically engaged art is getting more attention. For example, governments expect from artists to be a bit more societally or politically engaged. They give subsidy more easily if you can show that you are engaged with society in some way. But at the same time this is difficult for their artistic status, because in that established field they don’t easily attribute artistic status if you are too political or too controversial. Western art fields have become relatively autonomous fields. At the same time, we see these non-Western cases that get away with being very explicitly political, and still receive some attention in the art world and a lot of attention in Western media and mainstream society. I think that that will be one interesting contrast that my research can show.”

He therefore looks at Western and non-Western cases. “For our case studies we selected well-known and lesser known artists, like for example Hans Haacke, Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot, but also Erdem Gunduz from Turkey and Jafar Panahi from Iran. The non-Western cases have in common that the artists faced legal repercussions, while the Western artists struggle to be heard outside of the arts field.”


Coming up

At the end of August, Frank will be attending the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle to present the newest work. Although the paper is more of a side project, it relates to the development of the research instruments for collecting and analyzing data on social media. “I have collected YouTube comments on three of Pussy Riot’s videos of their punk performances in public spaces in Russia to protest against Putin and various human rights issues. We analysed how YouTube users talk about Pussy Riot and what kind of topics they take away from that protest in talking about that in everyday life on new media platforms.”

The paper shows interesting findings on the discussion of the protests. “In the case of Pussy Riot you see that that they (Western Youtube-users) very quickly discuss not so much the protests but more the geopolitical level in which the protests have taken place. They don’t really engage with what is being protested about or the musical performances through which the protests are conveyed, but they talk about the prosecution of Pussy Riots members, their representation of people in Russia and a lot about Putin vs. Obama, or Russia vs. United States, even though there is nothing really about the US in the protests themselves.”


If you are interested in Frank’s research, the below publication and upcoming paper by Frank and his colleagues are recommended for you to read:

  • Weij F, Berkers P & Engelbert J. (2015) Western solidarity with Pussy Riot and the twittering of cosmopolitan selves. International Journal of Consumer Studies 39(5): 489-494.
  • The politics of musical activism: Western YouTube reception of Pussy Riot’s punk performances. Under review.
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Photo:a.powers-fudyma from West Palm Beach, U.S.A. - The Prayer, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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