|Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937|
If art is long then those of us working in community development, advocating for social justice, or seeking sustainable futures, cannot ignore its power. Art can inspire. Art can be a learning aid. Art can send a message. Art can unleash our creative talents. Let’s use it.
The use of the arts in social change movements has a long and proud history. One of the earliest examples of activist theatre, for instance, dates to 425 BC when Aristophanes play, Acharnians, was performed at the Athenian Lenaia. More recently we have seen the development of guerrilla theatre, emerging especially from within the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
This highly public, in-your-face, form of theatre brought the anti-war message into the public sphere perhaps more than any other medium did. It could not be ignored. Guerrilla theatre struck a chord not only for those who witnessed it, but also for for those who performed – most of whom were not actors in the traditional sense.
In another art form Picasso’s Guernica is one of the most recognisable paintings in the world. The painting is an indictment of the use of warfare in resolving differences.1 Painting too has been taken to the streets, and street walls. Who can dismiss the impact that Banksy has had on our awareness of consumerism, globalisation, and corporate misdeeds?
Musically there have been artists moved by a desire to create music that ranges from anti-war anthems such as Buffy Saint-Marie’s Universal Soldier through to those, like John Lennon, imagining better worlds. More recently, the current shootings of black people in the US have spawned dozens of rap, hip-hop and other protest songs.
Literature too has been a favoured medium by many that would seek a more socially just world, or warn against techno-corporate takeovers of our lives. Books such as 1984, Brave New World, Animal Farm, and The Dispossessed, come to mind.
But art and social commentary does not, and should not, start and stop with the professionals. Those of us working in social movements can use art just as creatively and usefully as those for whom it is their livelihood.
Guerrilla theatre has already been alluded to, but even within our collective learning endeavours using art can have great power. We can use paint, collage, movement, role-playing, songs, poetry, drums, clapping, chanting, or story-telling to explore our understandings and create visions of the futures that we want for ourselves and our grandchildren.
Indeed, the more we use the arts the more we tap into creative sources and intuitions that we did not know we had. We can all be creative and artistic. We may not pen a tune that will rise to the top of the hit parade, we may not paint a portrait that hangs in the Louvre, and we may not write the bestseller reviewed by Oprah. But we all have some degree of creativity within us. For some it may be a few words of a poem, for others it may a splash of colour on a poster, and others it may be a particular dance that evokes connection with the earth.
For those facilitating social action groups it is important to remember that everyone is different and that we have differing learning styles and differing ways of expressing what we feel and think. The greater the variety of methods used the better.
Art is definitely long. Art is also able to change the world.
1. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica hangs in Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain. It was painted in 1937. Widely recognised as one of the world’s most powerful and moving anti-war paintings, it is huge, measuring 3.49 metres in height and 7.76 metres in length. Picasso is believed to have painted it in response to the bombing of Guernica, a village in the Basque region of Spain by German and Italian planes.