The role and responsibility of the arts

Posted by Erik Takeshita, Dec 10, 2015 0 comments

“The arts are like a little black dress; right for every occasion, but one size doesn’t fit all.” - Commander Moira McGuire, Clinical care coordinator; Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Jamie Bennett, President of ArtPlace America, recently shared this missive with me and I couldn’t agree more. The arts are unique in their capacity to inspire, motivate, connect, give voice, and, all in all, lead to great things.  And, to quote another great source, Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” 

Both of these concepts were highlighted for me at the recent “New Community Visions Initiative Forum” hosted by Americans for the Arts in St. Paul:  that the arts—like the little black dress – can have an incredible impact in any number of other sectors, such as mental health, community organizing or community economic development; and with such great power, we as artists and others employing arts-based approaches, must wield our power with great responsibility. 

I was trained as a ceramic artist and at one point I wasn’t half bad.  While certain skills I have as ceramic artists are applicable to work I do working with communities, I need to recognize when I am working outside the studio, I have to bring an entirely different mindset and skill set to bear.  As Michael Rohd, the facilitator for the New Community Visions Forum has noted, there is a fundamental difference between “social practice” art and “civic practice” (see http://howlround.com/translations-the-distinction-between-social-civic-practice-and-why-i-find-it-useful). It is critical for artists working across sectors, with and in communities to recognize and understand how their practice may need to change when working in different contexts.  

As a potter - assuming I don’t use lead-based glazes for pottery that people are going to use to eat, am careful when firing a kiln so it doesn’t explode, etc. - there are minimal opportunities for me to do harm to others in pursuing my art.  However, when artists pursue work in and with communities, there are very real opportunities for us to do harm.  For example, in community development, there are too many unfortunate examples where artists have led physical and economic regeneration of a community only to see that success undermined by the unintended consequence of displacing residents and businesses; a process commonly referred to as “gentrification.”  As artists, we need to understand and appreciate that we have great power – power that can result in good or bad, regardless of our intentions.  If artists “drop into” a community and impose our vision or will onto others, it can have disastrous results.

To be clear, I believe artists are uniquely positioned to help build solutions to some of the “wicked problems” facing our societies today and artists should absolutely use our powers to improve communities where ever we can.  We simply need to recognize that different situations may require us to bring to bear different approaches and skills.  While art may be “perfect for every occasion,” one-size doesn’t fit all and what might be appropriate in one context may not be ethical in another.  We also must acknowledge that while we have the power to good, we can also do great harm.  As artists wielding the powerful tool of creation, we must act with great responsibility.  We must be cognizant of the power dynamics and our own rank, power and privilege, especially when working in and with communities that are not our own.  In short, when we do work that involves and impacts people, we must develop, cultivate and hold ourselves and one another accountable to “standards of practice” for ethical behavior, the first of which, I would suggest, should be to “do no harm.” 

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