Why the Arts in Community Engagement?

“What is art?” A common query, drawing lively conversations, but rarely a consensus. However, much more attainable is a mutually satisfying answer to the question, “Why is art?” In terms of the fine arts, what is their role in society? Is it entertainment? Political statements? Self-expression? Do they help us in practical or measurable ways, or are they just an accessory? From a quick glance through history, tracing the thread of the fine arts, there are countless examples of the fine arts uniquely benefiting humans of every culture in a myriad of ways.

Through their use of beauty, story, and metaphor, the arts reflect meaning and the human experience, particularly as it relates to emotion and thus have the distinct ability to open locked doors of the heart, making transformation possible. The arts foster empathy, show life through another’s eyes, connect generations, and strengthen our sense of community, they challenge individuals to grow in their knowledge of themselves and to access a greater percentage of our souls. The arts ask and explore questions about the common human experience, hold a mirror up to society, and provide shared experiences. The arts serve as a communication tool for abstract concepts and difficult issues. They teach, challenge, inspire, reveal truth, reflect values, and stretch boundaries. The arts help us know we are not alone. In short, the arts help us to become better versions of ourselves.

However, what if each generation only minimally has taken advantage of what art can do to help humanity thrive? In today’s American society, the arts are valued as integral to our culture but are largely underutilized as vehicles for a specific good. What if we were given language to recognize and articulate measurable ways the arts help both artists and audiences? What if artists intentionally harnessed the arts’ many life-giving qualities and purposes to target tough issues in our communities? What if art became more of a tool and a necessity than an after-thought and a luxury?

Today, leaders want their communities to flourish, and local artists want to make a difference in a tangible way. When these two visions collide, local needs can be addressed meaningfully, impacting the community powerfully. A powerful example of this is in the work of pioneer artist/activist Augusto Boal, who innovated collaborative, drama-centered tools for social action. Boal’s tools explore the common human experience, facilitate dialogue, build empathy, and ultimately strengthen community cohesiveness and corporate hope in visible, sustainable change. The potential for further development of similar tools in all the fine arts is limitless.

Awaken Creative Institute recognizes that there is a multitude of factors that contribute to any one area of felt need and that the work of one artist, or even a whole network of artists, will most likely hit upon but one aspect of the fight. Nevertheless, we believe it is worth the effort and that artists need to contribute to their communities in this way, as integral members of society with a unique set of weapons.

Author: Lesa Brown

Date: November 16, 2020