A Possible Future: Exploring Social Artistry

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By: Marianna Schultz

Image: Keiko Honda

What is social artistry? The phrase felt grand and abstract the first time I heard it. The second time, as the words begin to sink in, a few ideas of what the term might mean begin to surface. Maybe social artistry is an art based on social media. Or art that people make together, or art centered on social issues. Certain artists come to mind; popular, iconic characters like Banksy and Andy Warhol, known for their focuses on pop-culture and relatable social themes. These preconceptions were soon dissolved as I delved into the world of social artistry this week.

There isn’t just one result for the definition of social artistry. A simple Google search seems to push one individual to the forefront of the movement: Dr. Jean Houston. Her website describes her as a “scholar, philosopher and researcher in Human Capacities.” Her Wikipedia page describes her as an author and lecturer involved with starting the human potential movement. On the website of the Jean Houston Foundation, which she founded, the term social artistry is trademarked and described as “the art of enhancing human capacities in the light of social complexity. It seeks to bring new ways of thinking, being and doing to social challenges in the world.” On the website of Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, co-editors of the book Learning in Landscapes of Practice, social artists are described as people who “can create social spaces where meaningful learning can take place where people are inspired to learn together and to act as learning citizens.” The ideals of social artistry have even been adopted by UNESCO in their 2010 Seoul Agenda, which aims to “realize the full potential of high-quality arts education to positively renew educational systems, to achieve crucial social and cultural objectives, and ultimately to benefit children, youth and life-long learners of all ages.”

This basic explanation of the term reveals social artistry as a few things to me. It focuses on people rather than a product, or on the process of creating art rather than creating a masterpiece. It seems that social artistry doesn’t just examine the environment it inhabits, it is shaped by it. Though these definitions can clarify some practicalities about the term, there are still questions to be answered. What do these social spaces look like, who are the artists, what social challenges are they tackling and how?

Daniel Lalande, is the founder and president of Give a Hand, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to funding programs that support marginalized and low-income communities. In an interview with Partners for Youth Empowerment, Lalande believes that this space for change starts with “allowing, understanding, and nurturing from within,” which will then affect change in a “ripple effect.” One of the programs associated with Give a Hand is Fotokids. By providing photography equipment and instruction to children in Guatemala, the organization aims for participants to gain both employable skills and a sense of self-exploration through the development of their art. When children in these communities are uplifted, this begins to affect change on an intergenerational level for years to come.

In the way that anyone can become an artist, anyone can also become a social artist. Art is not limited to those privileged enough to have an education in the field or expensive tools to create with. An example that is familiar to many communities is the community garden. A community garden brings together people in a certain area like a neighbourhood, centers on the solving of a problem, and incorporates a creative element in the planting, growing, and appreciation of food and plants of such a garden. Another accessible example is the creation of protest signs. Here is something that is commonly done in groups, focuses on the social issue of the protest at hand, and requires creativity in the imagination of a particular slogan and image. Though artfulness may not always be the initial focus, social artistry often creeps in ways that often aren’t intentional or identified.

In a similar way, artists that can be identified as social artists can form without agenda or any goal than to bring people together in order to better some aspect of the world. Social artists often cite the importance of a leadership position, but this does not necessarily mean that the leader needs to be a person trained in social artistry, simply a person who is able and willing to take the initiative to organize a space in which creativity and problem-solving are welcome and encouraged. The label can be applied to many people, who may be aware of the ideals of social artistry or not.

Take Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish activist who inspires the world to think differently and creatively, all from the perspective of a teenager whose lens hadn’t been brought to the gaze of so many people in power before. Her passion for social justice on climate change led to what could even be considered as performance art when she sailed from England to the United States instead of taking a plane to avoid supporting the production of carbon emissions. Through this act, the activist made a statement on her views of the impact of planes, made an action worthy of spectacle, and continued to inspire a social group, however geographically diverse, with who her message resonates.
Each artist has their own purpose, but I think the question posed by the author, speaker and social artist Skye Burn hits at the heart of the problem that we should all be thinking about: “How can humanity create a world that works?” This question sounds fundamental not only to the values of social artistry but the climate of society as a whole. There’s an urgency in this question, as the period of trial and error seems like it can’t be afforded for much longer. Though sometimes it may feel like nothing is working, social artistry is here to expand our perceptions of the possibilities of hope around us.

A post by the Jean Houston Foundation paints an encouraging future, anticipating that “if the genius of so many cultures could be brought together, as is now happening, the current crisis of social breakdown and moral disorder can be transformed into the creative symbiosis of the coming world civilization.”

Social artistry is an essential and timely tool in our navigation of the world around us, especially in a period that is this distressing and uncertain for so many. The flexibility of the term is reflective of the current values of society, it makes it applicable to people from socio-economic levels, ages, and capabilities.

Art has always brought people together in a meaningful, productive and positive way, but when bestowed with the faith that it can be a powerful agent of social and political change, it takes on new potential. Though a single practice seems unlikely to change the world by itself, social artistry contains philosophies of collaboration and understanding that will be crucial on local and global levels in the coming years. It seems to affirm the idea that the first steps to the most important changes will start on such an attainable and interpersonal level, and that artistry will find a way into the places it hasn’t been welcomed before, spreading beauty as it goes.

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