continued from previous post,  Organisations need to change but so do artists

For the first post in this extended book review click here.

How arts and artists can and do contribute significantly to positive change

The idea that the artist’s only job is to make things to hang on a wall or put on a pedestal is rapidly becoming old news.

Contrary to the thought that artists are grown ups who make vast amounts of money (or starve in garrets) by playing around making art ‘that my 3 year old could do’, artists through their training in creative process and experience develop important skills.  And these areas of expertise are actually vital to remedying the problems our society is in.

Intellect, logic, and rational thinking have led to the imbalance and breakdown of many of our systems.
In his book,  A whole new mind, Daniel Pink argues that a quiet revolution is now taking place where the right-brained skills of pattern recognition, empathy, design, meaning, play, etc  will be the tools used to build a more humane and sustainable future. Artists and other creative thinkers are in demand from corporations, government agencies, healthcare, education, to help them think outside the usual parameters of their systems, and in so doing, help renew and vitalise them.

Why artists?
Artists continually ask, ‘What could we change here? Why not try this? ‘

The artist’s core expertise is to improve on the previous state.

The creative process starts when a question or problem is posed, it progresses when the artist sets out for a basically unknown goal, making mistakes and correcting course until a solution is reached. In these explorations they hit on new insights and solutions which couldn’t have been found within the situation that produced them. Also, because artists operate outside organisations and professions, they are free of the preconceptions which so often limit creative thinking in those places.  This is why artists working, for example, with people with dementia, often get surprising results (lucid moments, deep contacts), with individuals whom the professionals have given up on.

Because the nature of the arts is to speak to the hearts of people, and to go past prejudices and conceptions, they are effective in bridge building between cultures and conflicting nations. They speak to the parts we have in common as humans and bypass debate and argument. So they bring people together in a common space with universal language of song, colour, play, and story.

When artists  run  projects in prisons, school rooms, or hospitals, these places and the people in them are left more vitalised than before the artists came. Arts enliven society and enable people to access their own creative abilities to begin to solve their own problems.

So the arts are vital to building healthy communities and healing damaged ones.  I’ll expand on the community building aspect of the arts in the next and last post about the book.

continued from previous post, The arts have a crucial role to play Part 2

Organisations need to change, but so do artists

By their nature, organisations and systems  don’t support change- they are designed to perpetuate ‘the same’, (‘We have always done it like this’), and will fight to stay as they are. As a result they atrophy and begin to break down- look at the banks, healthcare systems, education etc.

The problems these structures are facing can’t be solved from within the same paradigm that caused them, that is why creative thinking is needed and artists are being called on by every organisation imaginable from corporations to government bodies, healthcare institutions, prisons, and school systems. Artists bring the essence of creative practice to areas like these where it can make a difference.

One of the most important points in the book is that it isn’t just the system that needs to change in order to bring arts into a central role where it can do its transformative work, but artists too need to re-define their contribution and position.

Bert Mulder is a Dutch innovative thinker lecturer, author, futurologist, and information technologist. In Chapter 26, Between Grace and Fear he challenges us artists to get off our position of, ‘Oh, I’m just on the fringes and all these external factors (subsidy cuts, attitude toward artists, organisational difficulties, government policies) are against me getting work and making an income’. Mulder:

So, you see yourselves at the edges of society. But I was in the Welford School (UK) yesterday talking to a teacher and she said,

“Well, we had the national curriculum and we were all dying from it. It was horrible. So, we said we can’t go on like this anymore. Then we had a couple of artists coming in and all of a sudden, the artists said, ‘We will just start and ask the kids what they want to do’.”

The kids came up with ideas, which actually  deeply changed her view of what a child is.
For the first time, she noticed that kids can do much more than she ever envisioned. It actually transformed her notion, as an educator of what a child is.

How is it that you have to bring artists into the educational system to bring about that kind of transformation?

And when artists bring about that kind of transformation in education, in business, in the care sector, and in democracy in the larger civil society, how are you (artists) dealing with it?

Is that a responsibility or do you still think that you’re at the edges of society…

Maybe I’m projecting onto you more than you want or more than you are able to respond to.
That could be a problem, because this need in society will be filled. If you don’t fill it, somebody else will, but not with the same kind of quality.

– Bert Mulder, from Between Grace and Fear.

Mulder goes on to say that artists need to take responsibility, for themselves, their work, their communities, and be intentional and committed.

In the 60s and 70s art activism was mostly in the form of political protest- think of John Lennon and Yoko Ono televised in their hotel bed in New York protesting war. Actions like these were mostly one-off isolated gestures. Our times call for a different kind of art activism.

Artists need to invest their time and energy in their cause and commit to it. They need to form relationships with individuals and organisations  related to that cause. And finally, to be effective, they need to embed themselves in the community where they want to see the positive change happen.

The new art activism engages people and provides a context for them to take action, making, creating and giving voice to their vision. Creativity becomes a tool to improve on the context, giving a gift to it, not using it for one’s own brilliant agenda (M.Matanovic). It is definitely about art in service to.

But the real message is that if we artists don’t take ourselves and our work seriously, no one else will either.

continued from previous post,     The arts have a crucial role to play   Part 1    Between Grace and Fear

Recently my plea for valuing arts as essential tools for healing and positive change has been strengthened significantly by the book, Between Grace and Fear, the role of the arts in a time of change, by William Cleveland and Patricia Shifferd.
This series of posts attempts to present the main themes running through the book.

Expanding the definition of ‘artist’

Art schools are preparing artists for a world that no longer exists- ie the independent artist living exclusively from her work.

1% of artists in the Netherlands are able to survive financially from their work.


Not only schools, but artists need to think more broadly about how professional arts training can be applied. There is a new definition of ‘artist’ emerging exemplified mainly though not exclusively by many 20-40 year olds working now- the hybrid artist worker who combines many skills in order to enable others to source their own creativity.

Young artists are gravitating toward an art that matters- a more socially engaged application of their creative skills. Jonathan Harris is my favourite example of this. His TED talks on emotions and the web is also worth seeing.

In a recent round table I attended on arts and dementia care, my colleague healthcare artists also commented how being an artist isn’t enough these days. To do our work within the healthcare system we need more skills, those of : diplomat, administrator, group leader, organiser, etc.

In this new way of thinking about artists, artists are appreciated as professionals of the creative process who can bring these skills into other disciplines to help energise and renew them.

In a larger context, as professionals of culture, artists are meaning creators. Through their stories, dance, music, painting, theatre etc. , they create new and hopeful narratives to help people move forward positively in times of change. I’ll leave it here for now, but for concrete examples of projects read the book.  Or see my blog posts on Lily Yeh or Milenko Matanovic.

In most Western countries, the arts are having a hard time.  Especially in the current financial crisis, the arts are viewed as non-essential. And the funding that is available goes to areas that are seen as more urgent like education and healthcare (oh, and—football and huge sports spectacles like the Olympics!!!- we’re talking about billions here, of government, industrial, and private funds).

In Holland where I live,  most people find the arts irrelevant to their daily lives. One Dutch right-wing politician recently wrote off all of human art and culture as  ‘a leftist hobby’. This slogan was gleefully picked up by the media, and is indicative of a fundamental mistrust of the arts that is alive in a large segment of the population. Granted, the contemporary art business hasn’t done a lot to encourage trust.

For many of us in the arts sector, though,  the budget cuts aren’t what hurt the most,  it’s the open attitude of contempt toward the arts and artists underlying them.
And, as destructive to the arts as this, is the total absorption of art into the consumer system, so that art’s value has come to be defined exclusively in financial terms.

The consequence of these conditions is that the real value of art to a human society is lost, both in the sense of being lost, as well as negated.

But what is that intrinsic worth of art, what do the arts do that makes them valuable in themselves?

What are the arguments for declaring arts and artist’s right to exist, for supporting them morally and financially, and locating them in a central rather than marginal role in the lives of the community?

This has been a vital question for most my life as an artist. And recently my plea for valuing arts as essential tools for healing and positive change has gotten a real shot of support from the book, Between Grace and Fear, the role of the arts in a time of change, by William Cleveland and Patricia Shifferd.
It is a collection of 30 interviews with highly credentialed professionals including social theorists and scholars, philanthropists, scientists, theologians, artists, community development-, and community arts activists.

The people interviewed were asked what, if any role, the arts have in bringing about a just and sustainable society.
This series of posts attempts to present the main themes running through the interviews. I’ve divided them into the following categories:

  • Expanding the definition of ‘artist’
  • Organisations need to change but so do artists
  • How artists contribute to positive change
  • The arts and community building

to be continued