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The Artist and Social Transformation

May 10, 2011
Washington, DC

by Edward Norton, Member, President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities

Edward Norton speaking on the artist and social transformation at Fresh Angle: A Ford Forum on the Arts. Photo courtesy of the Ford Foundation

As we witness the tumultuous change sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, it is easy to overlook the role of art and artists in these movements. Yet one needs only to think about the recent imprisonment of Ai Wei Wei in China to be reminded that artists are often on the forefront of social agitation and transformation.

Last Wednesday, May 4, I participated in a Ford Foundation Fresh Angle panel discussion with fellow artists and activists Khalid Abdalla, Teddy Cruz, Ariel Dorfman, and Joy Mboya about “Artists on the Front Lines of Social Change.” Ai Wei Wei was, in fact, supposed to join us on the panel, but his arrest just weeks before made that impossible. His arrest also underlined the power of art and its capacity to threaten those invested in a repressive status quo.

We explored the timely subject of the role of the arts and the artist on political and social transformation. Moderated by Charlie Rose, the conversation was at times spirited and lofty, but it was more often grounded in hard-won insights, based on first-hand experience. Whether discussing the impact of the arts to give people who have been denied expression and political participation (in Eygpt, Chile, or Kenya) the tools to imagine a transformed state (as described by Abdalla, Mboya, and Dorfman), or the shifting role of the artist as chronicler, provocateur, historian, transgressor, assessor, political actor, or poet, the essential need of arts education was the thread that passed through our entire discussion.Dorfman said that “what you do not do today will not happen tomorrow.” He also evoked Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan poet who said “the love poems of today will be the basis of the constitutions of tomorrow.” Teddy Cruz asked that we examine how we form these new political frameworks; how do we move from poems to constitutions and to producing new institutions. As we sort out our priorities in these challenging economic times and make decisions about our future, these questions have trenchant meaning. If we do not fund the arts and arts education, we run the risk of eliminating the next generation of dynamic, creative social thinkers, scientists, mathematicians, and yes, politicians. Educating people in the act of creating is fundamental to our capacity to engage, to dynamically evolve, and to effect positive, social change or to renounce oppression and injustice when we see it. Art is not expendable.

A recent report by the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities (a committee on which I serve), Reinvesting in Arts Education, has hard data on the quantifiable, larger efficacy of the arts on economic and social development, growth, and revitalization. As arts activists, we must get serious about making that case to our policy makers and to the public at large.

You can access the complete Fresh Angle discussion here.

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