The Arts as Society’s Podium for Expression

December 8, 2015

Holoscenes, a performance and installation piece by artist Lars Jan, at Miami Dade College, in Miami. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
Holoscenes, a performance and installation piece by artist Lars Jan, at Miami Dade College, in Miami. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

There’s no use denying it — everyone’s mind is on the dangerous state of our world, most particularly the incomprehensible violence that seems to beset us. No matter where you stand on political issues, the anxiety that grips our world is palpable and assaults us daily.

annmarie1-150x150Still, I can’t help but think about the many ways the arts offer people not only an alternative context for understanding, reconciling our differences and informing public policy, but ways to express emotion and illuminate fervent belief far more deeply than the pernicious rhetoric that dins our ears. I think, too, of how art builds community and bridges, and encourages empathy and healthy discourse.

Here are two examples that relate to climate change and police practices, respectively.

  • This weekend The New York Times highlighted the work of artist Lars Jan at Art Basel in Miami (elevation 6’ above sea level) where his performance piece, Holoscenes (above), attempts to make people “feel climate change in their guts, rather than just understand it.” Performers in a cubelike aquarium deal with water levels rising and falling randomly while they perform certain mundane tasks. Adapting to one’s constantly changing environment is particularly relevant in Miami where city officials must address its shrinking coastline as a result of rising sea levels.
  • Earlier this year students In Westfield, NJ took on the subject of law enforcement and police brutality with art work that included some disturbing graphic images. The project went viral on social media prompting concern that respect for law enforcement officials was not being encouraged. The superintendent of schools, taking note that it had prompted more than 3,000 diverse responses, contextualized the lesson explaining that students (perhaps the entire community) were being taught the critical need to consider multiple sides of an issue.

We all remember John Lennon (who was murdered 35 years ago on Dec. 8, 1980) and his wistful Imagine, his chant to Give Peace a Chance, his mantra All You Need is Love, and the infamous Bed-In with Yoko Ono protesting the Vietnam War (well, some of us remember that). In composition and performance, art confronts controversial topics, provokes discussion, and even seeks remedies by engaging people in the art making.  Here are two examples that take gun violence head-on.


  • In the city of Culiacán, in northwestern Mexico, artist Pedro Reyes started a campaign to collect guns and melt them down into shovel heads, which would then be used to plant trees. The community donated 1,527 guns, which were publically crushed by a steamroller and melted down.  For trading in their weapons, people received electronics or household appliances.
  • In portraits composed of ammunition and installations utilizing an AK-47, arguably the world’s most recognizable assault rifle, British artist Carl McCrow’s work deliberately aims to sensationalize the weapons, much like the way gun violence is sensationalized in the media. His One Less Gun charity has as its central goal to destroy one gun for every piece of ammunition or gun used in his artwork.

It’s naïve and unrealistic to believe that art will solve these issues, but it’s similarly indisputable that art’s inherently expressive nature and transformative power will be part of how society will in the future remember the ways in which we dealt with contentious subjects.  For arts advocates it’s yet one more way to reinforce to policymakers the value of the arts to public discourse and how the arts in a variety of forms and media provide creative ways to engage citizens in processing our world, reframing controversy, permitting dissention, and discovering ways to peacefully coexist.

 Ann Marie Miller is the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at ArtPride New Jersey and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog. Email her at Click here to visit ArtPride’s website.