In just one month in 2020, we were brutally reminded of how quickly the world can change when the world essentially shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. During times like these, we might ask ourselves: when things feel like they are in freefall, what does art truly contribute to the world?
We’ve compiled some different ideas in order to shed light on this complex question. Art can have very tangible positive contributions to the world, although sometimes its value is hard to measure. In this article, we are going to go over some of the ways art can be an extraordinarily powerful and important force in today’s world.
Its Ability to Impact Communities
Many art projects have amazingly impressive impacts on different communities around the world. For example, let’s look at Artscape, a non-profit urban development organization founded by Tim Jones over three decades ago. Artscape has a number of functions, including managing multi-purpose creative spaces and community cultural hubs; over the years, it’s emerged into a powerful international organization. For example, Artscape has built 13 cultural venues and 235 units of affordable housing for artist-led families and has revitalized many neighborhoods through art-based initiatives.
Another example is the collaboration between Assemble, a London-based design group, and a neighborhood in Liverpool, England. Together, they created Granby Four Streets, which emerged from a multi-decade struggle to save housing from demolition. Together, they refurbished public spaces and cultivated a bustling area—this resulted in Assemble winning the prestigious Turner Prize in 2015, which was the first time a collective earned the title. Granby Four Streets, which brought together architects, artists, and locals to renovate a struggling neighborhood and give employment opportunities to the local population, is an inspiring example of art as a vehicle for positive community development.
Promotion of Social and Environmental Progress
Art can also be an effective way to address social and environmental issues.
For example, Andreas Heinecke founded Dialogue in
the Dark, which offers exhibitions and training in darkness, which in turn creates jobs for the blind. In order to do this, the exhibition has guides who are blind lead visitors through the darkness. This teaches visitors how to interact and navigate the world without sight, thus potentially changing their perceptions of disability. Over 7,000 blind people since 1988 have had jobs to make the exhibition happen, and more than 7 million people have attended the exhibition.
Our next example is in regard to the environment. There are many, many projects that use art as a vehicle to promote ecological issues, but let’s look at a specific artist named Mary Mattingly. From 2014–2017, she worked on WetLand, a floating sculpture that comprised an entire ecosystem and included a living, work, and performance space. It was built totally from urban waste streams and brought attention to the water waste system during the three years it existed, particularly through engaging with students. Most of Mattingly’s portfolio revolves around similar themes.
Inspiration in the Lives of Individuals
This section falls into the “hard to measure” thread but is nonetheless important while discussing art's role in society. It also loops into the inspirations for this article, one of which was a Ted Talk by R. Alan Brooks, a comic book artist from Atlanta, Georgia.
In order to discuss the role of art in dire situations, Brooks brings up that many dictators in history have been terrified of art. For example, in Nazi Germany, the majority of art was burned; in the USSR, Stalin ruthlessly censored artists. As Brooks notes, it’s because art has the power to change the world. He cites Leo Tolstoy here, whose book The Kingdom of God is Within You went on to profoundly influence Mahatma Gandhi, who in turn inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.
While these chains of events are hard to measure, they are inspiring and important to consider. As an artist, you don’t know exactly what someone might take away from your work. This ambiguity and the power of interpretation are what make art so beautiful.
In Conclusion: Arts Purpose in the World
Art is a complex and nuanced being. Its impact is undeniable, although hard to define—which is part of its power.
We continue to try and understand the impact of art, whether it's one person coming across one artwork by chance and changing the course of history or an artist initiating a large-scale urban development project. Either way, we know that art has been around for a long time and will continue to play a powerful role in our society.