Art for social change – it’s time to acknowledge Artists as mainstream change agents

In a world where inertia, indifference and active vested resistance rule in conversations about critical and enduring social and environmental challenges, Art increasingly offers promise as a powerful change agent. Importantly its potential is rooted in the science of psychology and should therefore be pursued and utilised with the confidence that an evidence based scientific approach encompasses.

Social psychologist Julian Rappaport in research titled the Art of Social Change provides valuable insights into this psychology. He characterises the tools available to Artists irrespective of their method or the medium as stories and storytelling.

He says ‘as a practical matter, our knowledge of psychological processes adds up to this conclusion: stories are powerful resources... stories are psychologically (and therefore politically) powerful for at least three reasons: (a) They create memory,…, (b) they create meaning and emotion, and (c) they create identity.’

Stairway-art-Zest-Events-Southern-Cross-Station-Melbourne

He continues ‘stories are also powerful because they create identity. Identity is a central construct in psychology. The internal sense of “who I am” not just now, but who I will be, or what Markus and Nurius (1986) call “possible selves” is influenced by storytelling. This is true, in part, because stories mimic the ways we actually experience the world as sequential, woven interrelationships experienced in real time. stories about our people, our community, and our settings are particularly powerful vehicles to influence our possible selves, as ultimately our behavior is propelled by these internalized and appropriated images.’

Unfortunately the reality for most people, particularly those who are culturally, economically or socially disadvantaged or with mental and physical disabilities; is that the only stories available to them are dominant cultural narratives. Dominant cultural narratives are the perspectives perpetrated by the rich and powerful designed to maintain existing political and cultural systems and structures for their own political or financial benefit. Examples might include large merchant and retail banks (too big to fail), the coal industry (generating lots of jobs and wealth for Australia) and large food retail chains (the fresh food myth).

Artists are powerful and can contribute to social change by telling alternative stories and helping people discover, create, and make available to each other alternative narratives. Artists can be useful to disadvantaged people who have limited power or resources by serving as amplifiers of their voices. Artists can listen to and then write, paint, sing or otherwise craft stories about what these people have to say. Artists can challenge dominant cultural narratives in ways that most cannot.

pen and ink drawing, woman at rally

There is increasing evidence that Art for social change and innovation is becoming a mainstream tool. For instance in North America there are several tertiary institutions offering qualifications that equip people to apply Art for social innovation and as a change agent. Here are a few excerpts from my research:

‘Design for Social Innovation is an emerging discipline that works at a systems level, shifting cultures, igniting collective creativity, and realising the kind of transformational opportunities for business and society that we need most right now.’

‘Against a backdrop of practical and ethical concerns, and in contexts both local and global, we will explore the arts as catalysts for change in a wide range of settings…’

‘Socially engaged art can ignite outrage and demands for change, and/or provide a platform for reflection, collaboration, and building community. It can focus on the residents of a single city block, or reach out to a global audience.’

‘There is no discipline that nurtures and sparks the cognitive ability to imagine, and unleashes creativity and innovation, more than arts and culture. There is no approach that breaks barriers, connects across cultural differences, and engages our shared values more than arts and culture. There is no investment that connects us to each other, moves us to action, and strengthens our ability to make collective choices more than arts and culture.’

In Australia, Artists have long been active social commentators. In a recent acknowledgement of the important role that Artists have to play, environmental activist group Land Water Future organised a panel discussion titled ‘Art at the heart: bringing music and art into your campaign’ as a part of their multi day Beyond Coal and Gas conference held in the upper Hunter Valley in early April 2016. Prominent activist and event organiser Nell Schofield says that ‘Art has the power to engage and communicate with audiences in ways that other media do not’.

Musician Tim Hollo who chaired the panel discussion wrote in 2015 (The role of the creative industries in climate change action) ‘the Arts can assist through their long practice of bringing issues to public attention in such a way as to recruit and mobilise support for action, building identity amongst people in a way that helps create and maintain a strong movement for change.’

Hollo referenced economist Professor Tim Jackson whose statement perhaps sums up best how Art and Artists fit into the overall social change process: ‘It’s clear that any attempt to change people’s lives must… speak a language people understand. Science can sketch the nature of the problem. Technology can facilitate the solutions. Economics can point out the costs and the benefits. Art engages the soul… Art looks like the perfect addition to our instruments of change.’

Two Artists I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the last decade, Jenny McCracken and Anton Pulvirenti are particularly involved on both an individual and professional level. Anton can often be spotted at rallies and environmental events in and around Sydney, quietly capturing the happenings as an artwork (the pen & ink drawing above is an example). These stories once captured are shared widely via social media and become alternative narratives. Jenny and Anton have also been involved in many professional Art initiatives for social change. For instance in 2013 Jenny worked with the City of Melbourne and Heart Foundation on the #putaspringinyourstep health campaign at Southern Cross station in Melbourne (see the image in this post). This year Anton has been working with NSW Health executives using interactive Visual Minutes to help them frame their long term health strategies and objectives.

While many of us regard Art as an important part of our cultural lives, it’s now time to acknowledge that Artists are powerful and influential people and we should be encouraging and supporting them to solve our most pressing social and environmental challenges. The use of Art may well be the most powerful weapon we have available for driving awareness and social change.

(Originally published as a LinkedIn Post April 2016 by Craig Healey)
 
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