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Can the arts change the world?

A scene from Jean Rouch's Petit à petit
7 Jan 2018
4 min read

We launch our 2018 annual theme, The Art of Change, by speaking to some of the artists from our programme to find out how they see art as a vehicle of change. 

One of the most fundamental questions when thinking about the value of the arts is: do they really make a difference?

This is something we, and the artists we work with, will be addressing throughout 2018 with The Art of Change season. We’ll be considering topics including whether art and artists really can bring about change; how does culture hold up a mirror to a changing society; and what impact does society have on art? To open proceedings, we asked a group of artists one question: can art make a change? Interestingly, not everyone agreed…

Jacob Sam-La Rose, Poet, performer and founder of Barbican Young Poets

‘Through Barbican Young Poets and other programmes I’ve run, I’ve seen young people find themselves through poetry. I’ve seen it save young people’s lives, in terms of the direction they were taking before they got into creative practice. They’ve found different ways of being, and in considering different perspectives, broadened their thinking in new ways. As a result, that’s impacted the decisions they then went on to make.

I’ve seen young people find themselves through poetry

One student I remember was at school in east London and at risk of failing out of education. After working with poet Nick Makoha they came out of the other side of the programme as an A* student. They went from almost failing school to really succeeding in an academic way, because of poetry. These schemes are a life programme. Poetry enables you to approach your life from a different perspective that goes beyond just working with verse or getting ideas down. There’s all this transformative thinking that happens, and that’s an important part of something like Barbican Young Poets. It’s not just a workshop, it’s a community programme – it brings together people from different backgrounds, both culturally and where they come from in terms of their poetry or spoken arts.’

Rhiannon Faith, Artistic Director

If you’re given that platform…you have a responsibility to try to help humans, and to try to make a change

‘In preparing Smack That (a conversation), we worked with a group of 30 women who’d survived abusive relationships. Four of them stayed with us through the whole three months we were at Essex charity, Safer Places, and they really became the soul of the show. Along with three dance artists who had also experienced abusive relationships, we came together to make a change and to talk about the issue. Doing the show has been transformative for the women involved. They would tell you about the confidence they now have, and the impact that reflecting on their journey has had on them. The process has been very cathartic for them: talking about what happened to them and how they survived it; how some days they’d take a step forward and other days a step back; and how society let them down. ‘But it’s not just had an impact on the women involved, it’s also had the effect of raising awareness of the issue in the wider community. By performing the work, we’ve made people more conscious of the problem, and in some ways made it easier to talk about. For me, dance-theatre gives you more opportunity to place social issues into a work. If you’re given that platform – and the space and the funding – you have a responsibility to try to help humans, and to try to make a change.’

Chris Steele-Perkins, Photographer

‘I don’t rate art’s ability to create change. I think it celebrates, records and sometimes symbolises change, rather than generating it. Change happens through the accretions of effort and error by all of humankind and the outcomes are essentially random, though with the wisdom of hindsight change may appear to be causal. From the earliest days, visual art has been used to record, from the animals painted in caves, right through the canon of Western art. Painting has recorded battles, new rulers, monuments; it’s told stories and myths, and bolstered religious and political beliefs.

I think [art] celebrates, records and sometimes symbolises change, rather than generating it

When photography and film emerged they were put to the same uses, but widened the base of subject matter to include the poor and dispossessed, a microbe or the galaxy. Throughout history, art has responded to change, not made change. As still images some photographs can acquire symbolic status when they are distilled from the flux and fixed in the memory to resonate there. Consider these two symbols of the futility of war: Picasso’s Guernica, and Philip Jones-Griffith’s photograph of a wounded Vietnamese woman with a fully bandaged face. Both images are powerful, both record a tragedy, both are works of art. Wars continue, the innocent suffer, and art continues to be made. Nothing changes.’

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