Art As Action
In thinking about art’s power to generate social change, it is useful to have a broad vision of what constitutes the arts because the very ubiquity of art means it can generate change while we watch a film, as well as we when walk down the street experiencing the arrangement of the greenery. While music, dance, photography, literature, painting and sculpture, architecture and theatre are likely to fit most understandings of “the arts,” a broader definition would also include textiles, ceremonial artifacts, orature, adornment, basketry, house painting, scarification, gardens, food ways and other everyday aspects of our lives.
This broad definition positions art at the center of our experience—in our homes, our workplaces, our spaces of spiritual rejuvenation—rather than on the periphery in museums, on theatrical stages, or in movie houses. Of course, museums and theatres are important venues for sharing art, but they represent only a fraction of the art being made.
Art changes lives in very particular ways. The psychological changes that art generates are necessary for the development of strong communities. Cognitive neuroscientists Daniel Ansari and Aaron L. Berkowitz have determined that creativity can be taught. Art, then, is not solely the rarefied province of those born with talent, but it is available to all of us who are willing to open to its possibilities. Professor Modesto Amegago believes that the colonial devaluation of African-based knowledges damaged the socio-political fabric. In An African Music and Dance Curriculum Model: Performing Arts in Education, Amegago has proposed an extensive re-organization of Ghanaian secondary and university education that gives primacy to the arts as a tool for brightening many aspects of Ghanaian life. In this way, Amegago is putting into practice the science that Ansari and Berkowitz have identified.
Many art forms require improvisation, organization, collaboration—all necessary ingredients for healthy societies. The ability to improvise a solo on the xylophone-like gyl or to blend an unexpected drop of cassava paste into an indigo textile pattern directly relates to the ability to create alternative governance structures, to devise innovative classrooms, to make an everyday reality beyond what is already known. Improvisation cracks open static well-worn choices to reveal new ways of being. The skill required to organize the right number and quality of reeds into a basket for transporting produce or a pallet for sleeping is connected to the ability to differentiate the needs of one community from another, to incorporate patience into the work ethic, to connect the utilitarian with elements of beauty and grace. The collaboration that undergirds the work of a theatre ensemble is precisely the multi-pronged talent needed for managing a successful business, negotiating difficult family conversations, and managing competing community interests. Inherent in art are the principles and tools for enriching our lives. Creativity begats creativity.
Professor Brene Brown notes additional ways that art enhances social structures by identifying the relationship between art and vulnerability. Without vulnerability, Brown asserts, we cannot access empathy—and it is empathy that allows for a deep and profound realization of human connection. Whether the art we experience is a carved spoon, a spoken word rant, a water vessel, or an annual ritual through the streets of a city, each is an assertion of identity, a reflection of a particular time and place, and an opening into the vibrations that humans share. Not only is the artist vulnerable in this sharing, but the viewers or audiences serve as witnesses and co-creators making them also exposed, unguarded and therefore empathetic and pliable. Art’s ability to create vulnerability predisposes us toward our common humanity, thereby making us not weak, but infinitely strong.
In addition to the essential internal changes that art creates, art also provides livelihoods for artists, and enhances local economies. Arts industries have the potential for keeping skilled citizens, particularly youth, in local communities rather than seeking international career destinations. Activist Wangari Maathai was committed to the botanical art of planting trees not only for the enrichment of the air and the soil, but also for the economic benefits to those doing the planting. Arts environments encourage entrepreneurship and attract other businesses to the area. The tailor and his or her trainees need convenient places for workday meals and nearby shops to buy cloth. Performance companies thrive in locations where there are nearby printing shops that can generate their publicity, and bars and cafes where performers and patrons can socialize after productions.
What if artists were asked to consider contentious issues such as child brides, intractable problems such as potable water, and global issues such as ecological erosion? What might their strength in improvisation, organization and collaboration yield? Politicians and business persons have been running nations for centuries while economic disparities widen, ethnocentric violence continues, and ecological devastation is looming on the horizon. It is now time to pursue uncharted territory. Let artists use their skills and training to provide a new set of roads for humanity to follow.
The next installment of “Art as Action,” will focus on the role art plays in examining and strengthening the lives of African women. We welcome your feedback to our series, and about the work of artists fostering social change across the African continent.
About the author:
Dr. Jones is an artist/scholar, and an Associate Professor of Performance Studies in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department (AADS) at the University of Texas at Austin and widely recognized for her insightful writings on the power of art.