February 21, 2024

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Yes – the arts can help heal the world

A case for culture
Show & Tell
Give & Take

2020 was a year of radical reckoning. It was a time to think afresh. Crises like the pandemic provoke a dramatic reordering of priorities, as well as deep reflection and rethinking. The pandemic wake-up call triggered a dawning of humility as our collective hybris has been humbled and old certainties crumbled. It created both clarity and confusion as in the eye of the storm it is difficult to see ‘where next’ and how to get there. There seemed to be no blueprint as how to move forward.

Some think the old normal is an exotic destination but older urgencies remain, such as how the climate might collapse and how we calibrate a balance between the need to collaborate within a framework that allows for competition, which drives us forward to innovate so that we do not atrophy.

Yet it focused us on what really matters – the common good and public interest. It reminded us that ‘civilization is a thin film of order around the chaos of events. Most agree we are in the midst of a systemic crisis and that a business-as-usual approach will not work as our economic order and way of life is materially expansive, socially divisive and environmentally hostile. 

This pandemic crisis was a health one and an economic, social and crucially psychological one. It will still unfold in its fullness, yet the psychological one will be seared into our deeper consciousness. It has reminded us what we have lost, yet also let us glimpse a gateway to possible futures as for a short moment we saw the skies become clear and we could breath again. Crucially we lost the ability to be close again, it reminded us that we are social beings and that we need collective experiences – witness the virtual choirs or people singing on balconies. In any crisis there are opportunities in the challenges. 

This bigger necessary transformation is a cultural project as it is about how people and places think, plan and act and it is about values, mindset, attitudes and hearts, minds, skills and behaviour change. 

What drives transformation and systemic change as well as urgency? Typically, crisis is the most powerful catalyst. Disruptive technologies are another. Paradigm shift is a concept to be used sparingly, yet the digital turn and its capacity to simulate and virtualize experience is one. This accelerated what was already happening. We are all Zooming. It has changed our sense of space, place and time. The volume, velocity and variety of instantly available data streams combined with the ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ phenomenon changes how we perceive, experience and interact with the world. Our culture is digitaland it is the digital that shapes our culture. The digital is now like the air we breathe and the electricity that flows. This all requires cultural adjustment.

At times a global mood takes hold and spreads like a meme when it’s time has come, such as the acceptance of the ‘15-minute city’ idea, which focuses on the city of proximity and a return to the local. In that idea ecological thinking is embedded. Richly innovative places need to ride a paradox and be intensely local and intensely global. Cities need to connect internally and externally to foster accessibility, interaction and exchange. There is a need for ‘local buzz and global pipelines’.   

Transformations stem too from new concepts that act as a gathering cry and then guide thinking, strategies and actions. Think here of sustainability, feminism, co-creation, diversity, resilience or thinking culturally. Reframing has potential – when  waste is seen as a resource and focuses our mind on how a circular economy might operate. Or consider how knife crime is defined less as a crime and more as a disease or mental health problem we can reduce it to dramatic effect. Mission-oriented framing can a a forceful way to create a common goal and a gathering cry. This is the moonshot idea.

Culture is who we are as it highlights our distinctiveness, our identity and in relation to place our sense of belonging. Thus, the cultural perspective is a powerful and most insightful lens through which to look at the world. It helps explain what drives us and our motivations and why our economic and social life is as it is. By exploring the grain of culture opportunities and resources emerge as well as what the blockages and obstacles are. Creativity in turn shapes what we can become. How can culture in the narrower sense of the arts help navigate a world where the Zeitgeist is one of anxiety and people increasingly operate in echo chambers expressing often a doom-laden view of the world.  

Culture and creativity can address the faultlines, battlegrounds, paradoxes, drivers of change and strategic dilemmas our varying societies and cultures face. Faultlines are change processes that are so deep-seated, intractable and contentious that they shape our entire worldview. They determine our landscape of thinking and decisions across multiple dimensions and can be global in scope, affecting our broadest purposes and ends. They may create insoluble problems and permanent ideological battlefields. Even if they eventually solve themselves, such problems are likely to take a very long time to resolve – usually 50 years, 100 years or more. But we do not have time to address, for instance, the climate crisis. 

The three most important faultlines are the battles between environmental ethics and an economic rationality that is threatening life on earth or that between faith-based and secular worldviews with the former in danger of allowing varieties of religious fundamentalisms and the latter attempting to focus on fact and evidence when many are living in an alternative reality where facts do not count. Another is social cohesion whereby our levels of income inequality are rising and where a growing population, now nearing 8 billion people, is forcing us to live with incredible levels of diversity exacerbated by our ability to move from place to place.

This affects a mass of downstream decisions. Discussions and policy debates around faultlines often become battlegrounds because the nature of debate is intense and contested.  

These are core issues where arts projects and programmes and cultural institutions can have a powerful role to play. Why? Culture can heal as the arts and its embedded creativity can help create an open-minded culture that is more resilient and adaptable by shifting the dangerous dynamic we are living through. Think of any problem or opportunity and the arts can help. What other activity can better deal with dialogue between cultures, ethnic conflicts or allowing individuals to discover talents, to gain confidence, to become motivated, to change their mindset, to involve themselves in community or viscerally feel the need to act to heal our divide with nature. 

What is special about the culture or arts associated the singing, acting, writing, dancing, performing music, sculpting, painting, designing or drawing especially in relation to developing societies. Participating in the arts uses the imaginary realm to a degree that other disciplines do not such as sports or most of science. Those are more rule bound and precise. The distinction between the arts and writing a computer programme, engineering or sports is that the latter are ends in themselves, they do not change the way you perceive society, they tend to teach you something specific. 

This imagining process has wider benefits by forcing us to reflect, to develop original thought, to pose challenges and crucially to imagine that Planet B, which is where we need to get to. Turning that imagination into reality or something concrete is a creative act. Reinventing a society or nursing it through to the green transition is a creative act where involvement with the arts helps.

Engagement with arts combines stretching oneself and focusing, feeling the senses, expressing emotion. This can broaden horizons, convey meaning, with immediacy and or depth, it can help communicate iconically so you grasp things in one with immediacy, it can to symbolise complex ideas and emotions or encapsulate previously scattered thoughts, to anchor identity and to bond people to their community or by contrast to stun, to shock by depicting terrible images for social, moral, or thought-provoking reasons, to criticise or to create joy, to entertain, to be beautiful and the arts can even soothe the soul and promote popular morale. More broadly expression through the arts is a way of passing ideas and concepts on to later generations in a (somewhat) universal language.  

The best art works at a number of levels simultaneously. Art, and especially the making of art rather than just consuming, triggers activity in the mind and agitates it (and even the body), it arouses the senses. It is not a linear process, but as it happens associations and seemingly random intuitions and connections come forth. It is more unstructured, less step by step than scientific or technological procedure, it looks more for intuition, it is freer flowing. It resonates at a deeper level. At its best arts on occasion can lift into a higher plane beyond the day to day that people call spiritual.

Humans are largely driven by their sensory and emotional landscape in spite of centuries of developing scientific knowledge and logical, analytical, abstract and technical thought. They are not rational in a scientific sense, that does not mean they are irrational but rather a-rational. This is why all cultures develop the arts. As the arts can speak the language of the senses and feelings it has immense power that the ‘scientifically’ minded should understand and use as it can help them achieve their aims. There are hardly any other ways of tapping into this knowledge. In these ways participating in or consuming arts helps interpret reality and can provide leadership and vision. 

The out of the box, lateral thinking and use of imagination present in the arts is perhaps the most valuable thing the arts can offer other disciplines such as planning, engineering, social services or to the business community.

The arts, of course, happen in a place and place matters as never before, especially public space increasingly important given the pandemic. First, with their aesthetic focus the arts draw attention to quality, and beauty. They challenge us to ask: Is this beautiful? This should affect how urban design and architecture evolve. Second, the arts challenge us to ask questions about ourselves as a place. This should lead us to ask: ‘What kind of place do we want to be, say more eco-conscious,, and how should we get there?’ Arts programmes can challenge decision makers by undertaking uncomfortable projects that force leaders to debate and take a stand. For example, an arts project about or with migrants might make us look at our prejudices. Arts projects can empower people who have previously not expressed their views, so artists working with communities can in effect help consult people. For example, a community play devised with a local group can tell us much more than a typical political process. Finally arts projects can simply create enjoyment. A useful question to ask is: What is the problem and can a cultural approach help; can the arts help?  

Then the best of our past arts ends up in museums or cultural institutions and at their best these are mediators of dialogue. That aside the arts contribute to creating destinations, visitor attractions and help foster a city’s image as well as generating an economic impact, as do the best of the contemporary arts which are found in galleries, theatres, performance venues or bookshops.

In the end everything is about people and for people to contribute to society’s evolution it is best when we feel whole and have agency – think of the power of the arts here. Carol Ryff summarizes this well in six priorities that help develop psychological resilience. They are: how people are making use of their personal talents and potential (personal growth); the depth of connection they had in ties with significant others (positive relationships); whether they viewed themselves to be living in accord with their own personal convictions, in essence being themselves (autonomy); how well they were managing their life situations (environmental mastery); the extent to which people feel their lives have meaning, purpose, and direction (purpose in life); and the knowledge and acceptance they had of themselves, including awareness of personal limitations (self-acceptance).  

People who feel whole are more likely to want to be part of that story of cultural transformation where with their agency they can become shapers, makers and co-creators of their evolving cities, regions and countries. Ultimately it is storytelling we need – a story where we can all see the part we can play and where we act. And who are the best storytellers – artists.

Charles Landry


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