Art is not a beast of burden for good intentions

May 2007 -

Joost Smiers on Culture and Development

Humans have an uncontrollable urge to sing, tell or write down stories, translate their fantasy into images, and dramatize their experiences or feelings. Art is the bundled imagery. Very little encouragement is needed to get people singing, dancing, telling or enacting. The challenge is keeping this under control. It is that simple.

And yet it is not as simple as it appears. Every society has its own contexts within which various types of art emerge or could emerge. For example, a certain work might only be appreciated or tolerated if it is the work of professionals. In one culture it is perfectly natural for people who are sitting together to sing or dance; other cultures would never even think of doing so, or turn to the discotheque for their musical pleasure.

Certain market constellations or dominant religious convictions can prevent certain types of artistic work from getting attention, even forcing them to the periphery of society. An enlightened society that takes fundamental human rights seriously wants to bring forth the greatest possible diversity of expression and communication. Thus the premise is to prohibit as little as possible. At the same time, that society's politics can contribute to the actual existence of that diversity of expression and communication, including by means of financial support or by correcting the market if certain forces are too dominant, e.g. by regulating competition.

And then, in a manner of speaking, may hundreds of artistic flowers blossom! The idea behind this concept of freedom for the arts is that we like to wait and see what artists will produce. We do not force intentions on them in advance. Yet there are numerous societies and contexts in which people want the work of some artists to serve a specific goal. To support religious meetings, for example. The goal may be educational: perhaps educational resources are an easier channel for transferring knowledge and insight than more traditional types of education. The arts can contribute to initiating and guiding complicated development processes, in which people must experience significant changes to - hopefully – improve their economic or social circumstances.

What we must be careful of doing is considering the arts a beast of burden for transporting the many – good – intentions. Art will never benefit from being instrumentally used, and no useful objective can ever be served by powerless art.

Joost Smiers is the author of Arts Under Pressure. Promoting Cultural Diversity in the Age of Globalization (London, Zed Books)