By James Pearson, Kigali Rwanda
“Art can’t fill potholes.” This declaration was spoken from the mouth of an American non-profit worker in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, during a discussion about art’s place in creating social change. Her point was that art doesn’t have a place. Not really.
Another expat, in defense of art, recounted an image she had seen: the deep, well-established potholes in a particularly poor neighborhood planted overnight with tall, fragrant, colorful flowers. It was not immediately clear, however, from the faces in the room, whether this image tipped the scales in art’s direction, or further incriminated it. [An aside: I’m going to hold the term ‘art’ very loosely here, so if you have deep convictions about what art is, or, more so, what it isn’t, this may be a frustrating read for you. Soldier on.]
Art has a fraught relationship with practicality. Any 18-year-old who has told his parents he’s going to be an actor can tell you so. This holds in the realm of social justice as well. There is much practical work to be done – many mouths to feed, slaves to free, paperwork to complete (especially paperwork!) – and rarely does art get its hands dirty, so to speak.
Nonetheless, art that addresses itself to issues of justice abounds. Is this only pretty posing? Are we just, to borrow a different criticism of art’s limitations, dancing about architecture?
Photographer and filmmaker, Adam Sjoberg, uses his art very practically. He works with non-profits and social businesses to tell the stories of their mission and impact, as well as the people and places who turn out better because of them. His clients include Warby Parker and TOMS, and when I spoke with him over email he had just returned from Asia, where he had filmed the story of a refugee for the organization Liberty in North Korea.
“For-profit companies like Warby Parker already recognize the profitability of well-branded, artfully crafted media and story-telling,” Sjoberg says. “It’s the profit that’s the practical part. There’s nothing like a good story well told to win attention and support and, thereby, customers or donors. It’s a tougher sell for non-profits,” he continues, “but in an era where we’re even saturated with the term ‘media-saturation,’ the importance of standout media is becoming ever more self- evident.”
Sjoberg touches on another use for art in the realm of justice, one not nearly so immediate as profit but potentially much more important. “I truly believe artists are prophets,” he says. Prophets (sometimes called shamans) are given an important place in nearly every human society in history. Their role is to retreat from their own society, to step outside of their culture and its dictates, and to intuit or receive some higher law or grander culture. The prophets then bring this revelation back and share it with their people, inviting them into a changed way of living. No matter the geography or the divinity, the pattern of the prophet remains the same: retreat, receive, return.
However, every return is followed by a struggle, because, invariably, the prophet’s new wisdom conflicts with the cultural status quo. It points out dark, pained places in the culture that had been accepted, and therefore rendered invisible, and it asks that they be recognized and removed. The prophet’s wisdom illuminates better ways, but it’s a unique aspect of prophecy that these better ways do not seem entirely new. Rather they can feel as if they had been there all along, waiting for the light.
Art is like prophecy. Art has the ability to get behind our arguments and to point to things in us that had been invisible, both the dark and the light. It can activate every part of our humanity, from quiet rationality to thumping emotion, and, in so doing, it can leave us with the sorts of new understandings that don’t seem entirely new, but rather fated somehow.
It is this prophetic quality of art that might be its most important when it comes to justice. Injustice is built upon humanity’s wrong understandings – our dark, pained, invisible beliefs. Art can point these out to us, thus rendering the invisible roots of injustice visible. It can recommend new ways, better ways.
This, I think, is why Martin Luther King, Jr. was so poetic: why he spoke of dreams and mountaintops and not just marches and laws. He knew America needed not only a leader, but also a prophet: not just rhetoric, but poetry. We needed art to help us to see our own injustice.
This is why the image of the flowers in the potholes was powerful after all. The artist didn’t fix the road, but, without argument, she showed a city its own negligence and offered it a better way.
*Article originally appeared in Issue no. 2 of deliberateLIFE Magazine. For more on Art's role in conflict mitigation and advocacy, download our second issue.