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The arts and humanities can serve as powerful instruments in uniting communities and advocating for social change.

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The arts and humanities can serve as powerful instruments in uniting communities and advocating for social change.

Seen by many as more of a luxury than a necessity, contemporary art has been increasingly relegated out of schools and cut from public funding. Now easily accessible through digital means and led by a charge of well-known contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst and Banksy—who use their works as a platform for activism, commentary, and protest—art is once again being repurposed as an agent of social change.

Neil Griffiths is the director of London’s Arts Emergency Service, an educational charity that works to support youth from underprivileged backgrounds who want to study and work in the arts. He is a firm believer in the power of art as a catalyst for progress. “There’s great inequality around the world—problems of terrorism, exploitation, harm to the environment,” Griffiths says. “But you can only solve them if you include everyone in answering those problems. The arts allow people to feel empowered and cultivate informed opinions and have debates. That’s how you answer all sorts of complex questions.”

A world without humanities

At Arts Emergency’s first public event at the Oxford Literary Festival, graphic novelist Alan Moore was asked a question about what a world without the arts might be like, and his answer was simple but poignant. “Without the humanities, all we have are the inhumanities,” he said.

Griffiths points to the dire situation in Syria and the recent tragedies in Paris and Kenya to help illustrate Moore’s point: “Humanities and arts only ever increase understanding between people of different backgrounds,” he explains.

But as Arts Emergency’s name would suggest, the world is facing a creative crisis of sorts. In the past few decades, we’ve seen a constant decline in government spending on arts and culture programs in schools and universities. And as long as young students keep feeling pressure to choose what society perceives to be more practical vocations, these programs will continue to be shortchanged, says Griffiths.

The absence of investment in art and imaginative capacity should be a concern for anyone wanting to remain relevant and competitive in the global innovation marketplace, cautions Eric Friedenwald-Fishman, creative director-president of the Metropolitan Group, in a 2011 editorial published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

“Our economy is moving from being manufacturing-based to being innovation-based. Are we fostering the imaginative capacity to compete?” Friedenwald-Fishman asks. “We are faced with cataclysmic food, fuel, and water issues if we do not address our reliance on a carbon economy. But are we sparking the creative thinking to find new technologies and new ways to work with nature?”

“For the last century, financial and institutional capital has been the priority leverage points for addressing society’s challenges. I deeply believe that, in the future, human, social, and creative capital will have the greatest impact. And this is where arts and culture are a necessity,” he concludes.

A Master Class in Art for Social Change

It is that type of impact that led Judith Marcuse, a dancer, producer, and choreographer, to become a longtime advocate of the art for social change movement (ASC). She believes if we are to solve these complex issues and innovate and make real change, then we’ve got to start using the right side of our brain, too.

“So many of the solutions we’re trying to find right now for sometimes complex and urgent problems, both globally and locally, require active imagination and the ability to envision,” Marcuse explains, “and the arts provide us with that capacity.”

Marcuse has dedicated her life to not-for-profit arts organizations since 1980, when she founded Judith Marcuse Projects, an arts company that works in the disciplines of dance, theater, music, film, and new media. The company’s aim is to create art that nurtures the voices of youth and adults on relevant social issues. “For me one of the most important aspects of art for social change is that it creates dialogue,” Marcuse says.

In 2008, she created the International Centre of Art for Social Change (ICASC), in partnership with Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. The center is the first in North America to integrate community engagement in art and social change, academic research and training, as well as professional development and global networking.

Marcuse is excited by the program and believes its existence offers further proof that people believe in the movement. “People want to make change,” she says. “A lot of people, especially young people, want to make that change by engaging their head, their heart, and their hands. And as the field expands into other sectors, I think there’s going to be more buy-in and more resources for people who want to do that kind of work.”

Griffiths also believes that arts education can serve as a source of empowerment. He and cofounder Josie Long know firsthand the challenges some of these kids face. And as university graduates who found success with their own arts and humanities degrees, they also wanted to show young people the benefits of higher education and all the possibilities offered by a creative degree. “We want these young people to know they are just as entitled as anybody else to study art,” Griffiths says. “It’s the people who have the least to lose that have the most to gain, and who can make the biggest changes.”

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