The Power of Art in Society
All societies and cultures, have limits on what is acceptable behavior and what is allowable in the way of personal expression, yet the arts remain a relatively free space in which to create more complicated forms of public interaction. The world is open to integration and interpretation more than ever before and the effect that art has on us as individuals and as a society is now reaching beyond the borders of any given culture. Mass communication -- via television, the Internet, and cinema, along with cultural syncretism and networking between nations and even continents, has enabled us as human beings to see beyond ourselves and our own boundaries.
Art can have an impact on consciousness. It allows for ways of looking at and thinking about life that may not be tolerated in the social and political paradigm of a given society. The freedom to converse and reflect allows artists to bring public attention to areas of concern. Art and artists can - and do - make contributions that help focus awareness on needed social changes. This is not to say that art is highly effective as a mode of direct political action. It isn't! It functions best as a site where personal critical consciousness can be developed, and is one area where the preconditions of direct political involvement are formed. To see art not as a product but as a process of value finding, is a currently new evaluation of aesthetic effect.
Recent art theory and criticism reflects a shift of emphasis from the object to the experience of the viewer. Always before the object fit into theoretical emphasis and formal content. Now there is a suggestion that art can, through intimate identification, create empathy. This means art that challenges the viewer not just visually or through the intellect, but through their whole emotional, spiritual, ethical, intuitive and psychological being. To find empathy, requires us to reach beyond our differences to a point of shared humanity.
Art communicates on a much deeper level than the written word and can challenge and encourage critical thinking. Certain types of art can also be used to build awareness within a society about given issues, but it must do so from a place of affinity for and with the viewer. Art that empowers the viewer immerses both the artist and the audience in a conversation where subjectivity is tested, and agreement sought. It requires artwork that respects the personal dimensions of resistance to transformation that each of us have within us, and which can help build community by presenting shared experiences, including difficulties or suffering, in such a way that empathy for self and others is created.
Empathy begins with the self reaching out to another self, an underlying dynamic of feeling that becomes the source of activism. As an artist who addresses issues regarding children, I have often reflected on how my work relates to the idea of "artist as activist." My intention in my creative process is to catch attention by creating a visual dialog that the viewer can intimately identify with. The challenge for me as an artist is to go beyond the internal barriers that separate us from each other. What I want is for my art to act as a "reflection of self" in such a way that it awakens a glimmer of understanding and compassion both for the "child within" and - by extension - for children everywhere. I approach my work not as a politician, or as a social worker, but only as a mother, and an artist interested in drawing attention to children’s issues.
My challenge as an artist has been to make art that is aesthetically beautiful and yet socially meaningful; my challenge as an activist has been to make a positive difference for children. I have traveled with my art work, meeting with government officials in Africa, South America, and Russia, acting as a catalyst for change and becoming an active participant in International non-profit efforts. I trust art’s transformative power, and all of the connotations about the beauty of art that goes with it. To bestow beauty with social relevance has been my challenge and it serves more than just the physical characteristics of a work of art. Beauty does not reside in any object but in the experience one has with it. Beauty is a quality of a social interaction. I want to suggest that we consider beauty to be a measure of experience that leads us to one another - a quality of the transformative experience that awakens the unconscious and grasps human solidarity.
Artists are myth makers and we participate with everyone else in the social construction of reality. Collectively we seek meaning. The complex matrices of beliefs, symbols, and words provide us with individuality and collectively with identity. Beyond the gallery system, art has an integrative role with the larger community and our environment. Art that challenges current "positions" and belief structures, expands the context that gives value to social and environmental factors. Contemporary artists who create responsibly, are reaching beyond the limits of personal accomplishment.
Art is emerging as a tool that is deliberately and consciously used by certain artists who are interested in contributing toward a greater understanding between people. It may help in bringing about - at least in a small way - a greater understanding of the dynamics of cultural and social paradigms. Art is another means of helping people see and better understand the dynamics of our world and how human consciousness impacts it at every level. I think that Herman Melville puts it beautifully when he says: "We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results."