Arts and Culture

Why we need artists who strive for social change

Bringing art down to earth: Entrepreneurs focus on real-world challenges Image: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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Arts and Culture

If anything, art is . . . about morals, about our belief in humanity. Without that, there simply is no art.

Ai Weiwei

‘Art’ and ‘social’ are very broad terms, and a combination of the two increases their complexity many times over. ‘Art’ can range from an individual non-intentional attempt to a public political manifesto. ‘Social’, by definition, takes attitudes, behaviors, relations, interactions, interests, intentions and/or the needs of other people into account.

A parallel can be drawn with social entrepreneurship. The two terms are far from each other, and do not seemingly have much in common. But merging entrepreneurship with a social mission is seen as one potential route towards solutions to the most pressing social or environmental issues of today. Entrepreneurship is widely believed to have the greatest leverage, combining financial resources with a high level of innovation and knowledge of strategy, implementation and control. Over the past 40 years, a movement has emerged that balances self-interest with the common good, and financial sustainability with social evidence, innovation and implementation.

The ideal entrepreneurs and managers are now a mix of Richard Branson and Mother Teresa. According to the Schwab Foundation and Ashoka, the leading supporters of social entrepreneurship, there are now about 4,000 such hybrid personalities who have their heart in the right place and know how to use their brains and hands most effectively. A strong argument can be made for the success of this approach. The fact is that a lot of creative ideas have arisen; certainly millions of people have been helped. Here and there a system change has occurred. The prime examples are Wikipedia, Fair Trade and Microcredit.

Ebay, Tesla, AirBnB and Uber have also emerged from an initial social concern to open a global marketplace, as in the case of Ebay, that people from disadvantaged regions can access. Whether you believe this highly profitable company is working for social change is not up for debate here. These are simply examples that are often cited to show how innovative leaps can open up a market that can reach billions of people and bring a few billion dollars into corporate coffers.

But how about crossing Richard Branson with Picasso or Mozart? What mutual fertilization might arise if we seriously combined the good of art with the good of the economy? Is there any difference between 'art' and 'social art'?

How to define art for social change

Art for social change (ASC) differs from traditional artworks. It’s not a specific style, school or movement. ASC doesn’t need an institutional frame, a stage, a screen, a print, any sort of materials, actors and an audience. It defines a new social order, takes a different approach to engaging the public, uses new and different methodologies, and sets a new environment with a new aesthetics. Yet ASC shares with other art the objective of enhancing human interaction and development. It’s not a product; it’s a process for constructive social change. As a consequence, ASC follows a new approach of assessing social problems without aiming to solve them.

This positions artists in a new way. They and their art are no longer in the centre. Artists can be more accurately viewed as catalysts, building and maintaining a relationship with their audience. ASC relies more on the participatory or relational context than on the content.

Where does ASC take place?

ASC works with and for the community. It’s not symbolic. It acts in a real environment to find ways to enable social and/or political change. Each project reflects certain societal issues and involves the community in which the artwork takes place. In consequence, the artist/creator/producer is deeply identified with the topic, and develops a relationship with individuals, organizations and the environment. It’s impossible to create an ASC piece without deep engagement, empathy and collaboration with those who will be involved. The artist/producer/creator’s first task is to earn trust and to overcome the mental gaps between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. The community and environment are therefore not merely external influencers on a specific project - they are inherent characteristics.

There are no limits in terms of the environment. ASC can happen everywhere: on the street, in a garage, on a bus, in a hotel room. It can be displayed in a gallery, exhibited in a museum, broadcast by the media or transmitted through the web. ASC overcomes the boundaries of cultural institutions and instead acts where the music plays. As a result, it can reach a broader audience with a lower affinity for the arts, and less experience and knowledge in the field of culture.

The future of ASC

We all try to make the world a better place, mitigate social gaps and search for solutions for the common good. Social entrepreneurship brings added value to the economy, has entered educational establishments, and is discussed among politicians and covered in the media. Until now the power of art for social change has been underused; it hasn’t reached a level in our society where it begins to cross between sectors, and it is still distant to the majority of the population. This is not only a matter of a paywall. It’s the mindset or a lack of accessibility that prevents disadvantaged people from seeing the benefits of arts and culture. But it seems only a small intermediate section is missing in order to connect the arts with the community in a systemic way.

When the idea of social entrepreneurship evolved 30 to 40 years ago, the gaps between the for-profit and the not-for-profit world seemed to be insurmountable. The worlds of private interests and common good were disconnected, and the parties eyed each other with mistrust and suspicions.

Ten years ago, the term ‘social entrepreneur’ was completely unknown. It found an extension through the so-called social intrapreneurship, which considers those personalities who set a lever for social change within existing structures.

The wheel can now be turned further to ‘Artepreneurs’, a term that can refer to people who pursue their social mission through artistic means and create models that are innovative, scalable and measurable.

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