April 22, 2024

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Art as Opportunity and Obligation

by Doris Sommer

The current “United Nations Guidelines on Safer Cities” take a new and welcome peoplecentered approach to improving urban life. Until recently, safety was generally understood as security and pursued in top-down strategies of policing and infrastructure. The visual effect of the new document adds participatory arts to the agenda for urban safety; but there is yet no verbal link between art-making and safety. The Guidelines show pictures of collective arts that reduce violence but don’t comment on what the arts do for safety. A brightly painted barrio,ii graffiti murals, hip hop singers, break dancers, and a gender balanced drumming band all appear as decoration, it seems, rather than illustration. iii This is a costly blind spot.
It is a curable oversight, if we focus on what participatory arts do and ask why arts work to make cities safer. Entertainment is different from art; it can be enjoyed passively.iv But the dynamic youth who will build or ravage our cities either actively participate in civic life or they reject it. v And rejection can lead to violence, which simmers during the lockdown and has already exploded in the United States after police brutality. Our opportunity and obligation is to redirect youthful energy – we cannot extinguish it – toward art-making. Policing and punishment alone have not worked well, nor has single-minded investment in infrastructure. A people-centered approach can close the short circuit between high investments and low results, through cost-effective investments in art. Why? A short answer is that the arts can include everyone.vi For our purposes, let us prefer the definition of art as the process of making and thinking about non-violent interventions in materials and practices. Another definition of art would favor a focus on products to be collected or otherwise consumed. vii But recognizing art as process shows how participation and inclusion go together. This connection between participation and inclusion structures UNESCO’s broad-based program in arts education and entrepreneurship, “Towards 2030: Creativity Matters for Sustainable Development.”viii Who is an artist and who an interpreter? Potentially all of us, to follow Friedrich Schiller who wrote Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man in 1794. That was during the Terror of the French Revolution. Its shock value at the time was perhaps greater than our current pandemic and social upheavals. Slyly, he asks, whether art may be an untimely topic for violent times. His answer is bold and compelling: Without art nothing changes. Humanity spirals into more violence, death, and despair.ix Art is the name of change itself. It rejects inherited paradigms and it dares to experiment with new arrangements. If social science understands culture as a system of shared beliefs and practices – Raymond Williams observed in Keywords – artists and humanists understand culture differently. It is confrontation with paradigms.x Schiller’s passionate call to action is to outsmart violence by breaking from habit and using frustration as a fuel to make something new, a surprise move, an unexpected creation that gives the maker a sense of autonomy and that stops the enemy in his tracks. This is trial and error – the way science works. And Schiller counts on our natural faculty to be creative. We have a drive to play, a Spieltrieb in his newly minted word. When we recognize the human condition as creative – which is evident precisely in under-resourced areas where people recycle and make-do – art is understood as a vital activity in which we all participate. Framing creativity as everyday resourcefulness to alter materials and relationships acknowledges the dignity of all people. Dignity follows from making, because the artist is not a victim. Artists know that they have options and that they make decisions, even inside difficult constraints. This sense of autonomy and freedom within constraints is basic to citizenship. People feel proud of their creations and they respect beautiful things that others make. “Beauty was acting like a guardsman,” Mayor Edi Rama knew, “where municipal police, or the state itself, were missing.”xi He invited citizens to deliberate about color and design to paint bright colors over old grey buildings. Even beautiful patrimonies of art, architecture, and monuments are there to be used. They offer historical continuity with precious urban spaces that link the past with the future. During the present COVID19 restrictions on movement, digital programing has bought these sites of cultural heritage to an expanded virtual public.xii Making autonomous choices through artistic practice channels the frustrations that many young people feel in our overcrowded and under-resourced neighborhoods. Through art they can provoke and criticize in non-violent ways. “Symbolic violence” is another name for art and a pathway around the real thing. Knowing that one has options in the process of making art is also a route beyond feeling emotionally stuck, a predicament typical of trauma. xiii Art therapy is an almost redundant concept. We can therefore promote safer cities through social inclusion, healing, and development, by recognizing all people as potential artists and co-creators. Vanguards: There are good examples of participatory arts as practices that co-construct safer cities. Think of Antanas Mockus who was elected Mayor of Bogotá when many people had given up on the violent and chaotic capital of Colombia. How did he respond in 1995 when his Secretary of Culture said that there was nothing to be done, that it was time to bring out the clowns? Mockus took the jab like an artist, as a joke, with intentional naïveté. Clowns, he replied, was a good idea. He hired 20 pantomime artists to replace 20 corrupt traffic police. The results were hilarious at the expense of rule breakers, so pedestrians and drivers came to recognize traffic lights and cross-walks as props for public performance. 

When traffic deaths reduced by over 50% in the first year, the “yes we can” spirit went after drug traffickers too. Over the Mayor’s two terms in office, homicides dropped by 70% and tax income tripled to finance infrastructure and education. Citizens on the public streets learned to be active stakeholders of their city, not passive or resentful wards. Another Latin American leader of broad based participatory art is musician Gilberto Gil, Brazil’s Minister of Culture from 2003 -2008. He pioneered “Pontos de cultura” that integrated local, national and global cultural policies.xiv Gil identified the creativity of everyday artists who generate social collectives and local pride to engage otherwise restless youth. Bottom up initiatives became the focus for top-down policies of inclusion and support. Municipal and regional grants for musicians, poets, painters, performers, etc., throughout the country were modest, but they came with substantial public recognition for participatory art as the pulse of the Brazilian people. An alternative approach to bottom up arts is the national program of classical music education in Venezuela. El Sistema opens up an elite tradition to invite in the country’s poorest children. Not all will be professional musicians, but they learn discipline and the pleasures of sounding good together, which prepares them for a range of occupations. xv Related to this project is the civic success of classical music played at the ground level in the newly invigorated opera culture of Palermo, Italy. Deputy Mayor Adham Darawsha leads arts-based social inclusion programs for new immigrants in the complicated city once infamous as Mafia headquarters. For example, a Children’s Chorus performs in the spectacular Massimo Opera House and in productions transported on wagons to play in formerly Mafia-infested districts of the city. Pontos de cultura at the grass roots and el Sistema along with opera in the streets. Both local and international arts achieve social inclusion and have become models for violence prevention. xvi These initiatives have a family resemblance to Franklin Roosevelt’s arts projects during the WPA recovery from the Great Depression, except that Roosevelt considered art a profession, not a human condition. Pragmatist John Dewey – Schiller’s disciple – had nevertheless counseled the president to connect the dots between art-making and civic education. Art as Education: Dewey knew that education is the key to social inclusion. He also knew that education needed art. Except for the redistribution of wealth through good taxation policies – very difficult to achieve in most countries – education is the only leveler of social inequities, according to Thomas Piketty.xvii We have today an enormous opportunity for social inclusion if we articulate public education with general public policy through the arts. Humanist education includes creativity and interpretation. It deters crime, not only by training students in marketable 21st century skills, but also by promoting curiosity, judgment, enjoyment, and a love of the world.xviii As artists, students manipulate material without trashing it. As interpreters, they step back, reflect, listen, and communicate.xix The combination of engaging and reflecting is fundamental to active citizenship. John Dewey put the roles together to seal his argument in Art as Experience. xx Elite families often pay for creative, project based, education while poor families have little choice but to send their children to public schools where classrooms follow military order and discourage questions. Do the poor learn differently from the rich? This implied assumption has perpetuated exclusionary and hostile environments on both sides. It has dissuaded ruling classes from including the popular base among the co-constructors of safe cities. The mention of Antanas Mockus, Edi Rama, Gilberto Gil, and Adham Darawsha may inspire you to identify more public sector promoters of participatory arts for social inclusion. Perhaps you will be one of them. Participation generates autonomy, collaboration, pride of place and therefore supports safer cities. It will be important, however, to distinguish projects that engage people as co-artists from those that employ people to execute a prepared design. Cocreators defend their work; laborers may have no stake in the product.xxi This is true for the design of infrastructure among other arts.xxii It makes sense to co-design public and private structures, because even well-intentioned investments can backfire in resentment and vandalism, as if to say: You cannot decide for us. Applied expertise requires humanist training to ask and listen as well as to communicate. Some authorities may worry that collective decision making can derail expert advice; all the more reason for broad-based creative and rigorous education that will prepare organic intellectuals to engage responsibly with experts. Other authorities may dismiss the arts altogether at times like these, when art seems like a luxury reserved for the future. Send them to Schiller and to Dewey. As for participation in the range of arts beyond design of habitat, consider the economic advantages for tourism once we equalize access to creativity and education. Everyday arts along with the education to manage projects will multiply the offer of local attractions and will keep tourists eager to visit and revisit a variety of destinations. This is a gambit we can make with Pontos de cultura. Even destinations that may be off-limit security risks become navigable with grass-roots guides. The “Museo Popular” in Siloé, Cali comes to mind. It is a home damaged by decades of civil war in a neighborhood that is vulnerable on good days and downright dangerous on others. But the “curator” and resident David Gómez gives guided tours of the wreckage and guarantees the safety of his many visitors, students, scholars, and other outsiders who come to learn local history from expert participant observers. David’s authority and the respect he earns are better safeguards than any armed and underpaid policeman who harbors ambivalent loyalties.xxii

Mannheim, Germany, a UNESCO Creative City, has a comparable experience with a crimeridden neighborhood. When policing and punishment failed to make it safe, the city tried installing an arts kiosk. It dispensed musical instruments and art supplies to local youth. To the surprise and delight of city government, it worked to reduce crime, substantially. xxiv Worldwide, exclusions by race and social class confirm unconscionable disparities as the rates of contagion and death multiply 6 or 7 fold among marginalized people. This backdrop to the brutality of U.S police and the riots that responded demand urgent attention, to put out fires, to supply food, medical care, even as we confront the impossibility to de-densify most poor neighborhoods. But, for safer cities in the future, we will have to address the practices that perpetuate exclusion and that stoke resentment and violence. Cultural change is necessary and urgent, especially for decision makers whose paternalist paradigms continue to backfire. Either people will be partners in change or they will be refusniks. Public space is the scene of community arts. Ideally, it is where people of all genders, ages, religions, and social standing meet as equals. This means both the open areas of squares, plazas, sports fields, parks, community gardens and the public facilities of libraries, schools, clinics and community centers. Where facilities don’t exist, the street can take on this convening role. Here, collective creativity can turn impoverished spaces into an open air theatre, or stage for music, and a dancefloor. xxv Consider the grass-roots Afro Reggae Group in Rio de Janeiro that altered the way police were perceived by an unruly favela, through hip hop and graffiti. In Soweto, young people have turned deserted areas into hip hop safety zones and hangouts (Slaghuis, Graveside, Dungeon Shack) xxvi for Sunday cyphers, similar to those in the Comuna 13, Medellin, where youth arts turned a crime ridden no-go area into a safe and welcoming tourist attraction. This is the option for safety on the street. Without arts to occupy them, streets can be mean. The lockdown of normal lives is an unbidden opportunity to reflect on existing practices and to explore others. On reflection, a reason for the short circuit that disconnects substantial inputs from anticipated results is the conceptual error of working for “target populations.” The work misfires because people refuse to be targets. They much prefer to be co-creators of projects that affect them. This critique of paternalism coincides with the “40 Days Safety Challenge.” The Challenge addresses “citizens who take the responsibility to coproduce safety in their localities – in schools, on streets, in neighborhoods.” Forty days, the literal meaning of quarantine, can be an incubator like Noah’s Ark. Let us dedicate September and October to promoting participatory arts and education in the spirit of Pontos de cultura. A call for proposals to promote participatory arts can stimulate the kinds of self-sustaining collective projects that 40 days promotes.


i With grateful acknowledgment of advice and contributions by Cecilia Anderson, Eric Apelgren, Juma Assiago, Denise Bax, Eric Corijn, Adham Darawsha, Rainer Kern, Jordi Pascual, Sipho Sithole, and Ege Yldirim.
iihttps://www.bbc.com/mundo/video_fotos/2015/08/150819_fotos_mexico_pachuca_las_palmitas_mural_ng “El proyecto “Pachuca se pinta” desarrollado por el colectivo de artistas Germen Crew y financiado por el gobierno local, pretende aprovechar la transformación del espacio público del barrio para facilitar la integración de sus residentes…Además de crear el mural más grande de México, la iniciativa logró bajar sustancialmente los índices de criminalidad.”
iii https://unhabitat.org/united-nations-system-wide-guidelines-on-safer-cities-and-human-settlements About the first illustration: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/01/mexico-pachuca-mural-las-palmitas-public-art “I never thought we would have such a big impact,” said Gomez, a tattooed and goateed former gang member who turned his life around when he rededicated himself to  graffiti art and muralism. “Before, he said, Las Palmitas was a sketchy area where people avoided going out after dark or interacting with each other. But as the project neared its final stages, you saw people talking to each other more and children hanging out on the steep stairways that cut through the neighborhood.”
iv Erich Fromm identified the “receptive orientation” of character with boredom, resentfully waiting for the world to satisfy ones needs. See Erich Fromm, Man For Himself. (Canada: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1947). also Michael Schreiner, “How to Cure Boredom” Existential Psychology, March 17, 2015 https://evolutioncounseling.com/how-to-cure-boredom/
v In his essay on “The emerging lessons from COVID-19 on vulnerability and safety,” Jaideep Gupte makes a similar point. “Planners, designers and municipal administrators need to treat the police and emergency services as equal stakeholders.”v We should add educators, artists, and community leaders. Example of standard approach to infrastructure, Antioquia, http://www.eafit.edu.co/centros/urbam/proyectos/Paginas/proyectos.aspx
vi Doris Sommer The Work of Art in the World: Civic agency and Public Humanities (Duke UP, 2014)
vii Pier Luigi Sacco, “Culture 3.0: The impact of culture on social and economic development, & how to measure it” https://ec.europa.eu/assets/jrc/events/20131024-cci/20131024-cci-sacco.pdf
viii See Denise Bax’s work in the report. https://en.unesco.org/creativity/sites/creativity/files/sessions/10igc-inf5_brochure_ifcd_en_2.pdf
ix Friedrich Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1794; Letter #2. See: Schiller, F., & Weiss, J. (1845). The aesthetic letters, essays, and the philosophical letters of Schiller: Tr. Boston: C. C. Little and J. Brown.
x Raymond Williams “Prologue,” Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, (1985) (Rev. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. UNESCO collapses these definitions in Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001), Culture is “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or a social group that encompasses art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.
xi Ted talk https://www.ted.com/talks/edi_rama_take_back_your_city_with_paint/transcript#t-314276 5:14)
xii The International Council on Monuments and Sites, ICOMOS, https://www.icomos.org/en/about-icomos/mission-and-vision/mission-and-vision is a global NGO known as an Advisory Body to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. It also supports national and local governments in safeguarding the heritage place-based assets, through its 100+ national committees and 30+ scientific committees. Historic buildings as well as parks, streets and markets together construct a pillar of safety in our cities. Thanks to Ege Yildirim for this contribution (D.S.)
xiii Yael Danieli, “Massive Trauma and The Healing Role of Reparative Justice” in Ferstman, C., Goetz, M., & Stephens, A. (2009). Reparations for victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity: Systems in place and systems in the making. Leiden ; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.Pages: 41–77 “Competence (through one’s own strength and/ or the support of others), coupled with an awareness of options, can provide the basis of hope in recovery from traumatisation.” p. 54
xiv Ariel Nunes, “Pontos de cultural ” construção e de integração das políticas locais, nacionais e globais.” http://www.casaruibarbosa.gov.br/dados/DOC/palestras/Politicas_Culturais/II_Seminario_Internacional/FCRB_ArielNunes_Pontos_de_cultura_e_os_novos_paradigmas_das_politicas_publicas_culturais.pdf
See also https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontos_de_Cultura
xv https://search.yahoo.com/search?fr=mcafee&type=E214US105G0&p=el+sistema+music
xvi Alvaro Restrepo, Artistic Director of El colegio del cuerpo in Cartagena, Colombia, is a particular and eloquent example: “Talent is when we discover the reasons to be in this world and live according to these. But above all, talent is a deep desire for personal transformation, and by doing it we transform those around us.”
xvii Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard UP, 2014)
xviii 21st Century skills are humanistic: Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration, Communication.
xix Kristen Ostherr, “Humanities as Essential Services,” Inside Higher Ed, May 21, 2020
xx John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1937. Concluding words: “We lay hold of the full import of a work of art only as we go through in our own vital processes the processes the artist went through in producing the work. It is the critic’s privilege to share in the promotion of this active process. His condemnation is that he so often arrests it.”
xxi Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, famously distinguished between satisfying work and repetitive slavish labor.
xxii See “Fernando Castillo: The Aesthetics of Integration.: Chilean architect turned mayor who invites the town to alter his design: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osFRwDbN0_s
xxiii https://www.qhubocali.com/con-la-gente/la-casa-de-los-recuerdos/
xxiv Thanks to Rainer Kern for this contribution.
xxv Thanks to Cecilia Andersson for the note on public space.
xxvii “Intervening with Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence: A Global Perspective” © World Health Organization 2003 by Emily F Rothman, MS+ Alexander Butchart, PhD* Magdalena Cerdá, MPH
xxviii https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2019/nov/02/athletic-bilbao-proud-journey-win-beyond-ball-games
xxix Watkins, S. Craig. (2005). Hip-Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston. Beacon Press
xxx Bynoe, Yvonne. Stand & Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip-Hop Culture. Brooklyn, New York. Soft Skull Press, 2004.
xxxi Perry, I. (2006). Prophets of the hood: Politics and poetics in hip-hop. Durham & London. Duke University Press.
xxxii Sithole, Sipho (2017). Triangular Relationships between Commerce, Politics and Hip-hop. The Role of Hip-hop in influencing the Socio-Economic and Political Landscape in Contemporary Society. A PhD Thesis (Wits University).
xxxiii Sithole, Sipho (2017). Triangular Relationships between Commerce, Politics and Hip-hop. Thanks to Dr. Sithole for this hip-hop review (D.S.).
xxxiv Thanks to Eric Corijn for these points.
xxxv Jordi Pascual has been tracking the history of discussions and research on arts interventions. His conclusion is that it is time to act on them.
xxxvi Thanks to Eric Apelgren for this connection between city government and cultural agencies. connection.


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