Yes, Art and Culture Can Change the World

Added on by Adam Horowitz.

Originally published in GOOD Magazine — March 23, 2016

Last year, at a holiday party in Albuquerque, I struck up a conversation with a Vietnam veteran named Soule. Soule was relatively new to the city, returning to civilization after spending three decades of near-solitude in a remote Alaskan town, where he could process his experiences of war.

Soule has a gentle presence; when he voices resentment over his involvement in Vietnam, it doesn’t come across as biting anger so much as deep tragedy. He tells me that whenever someone finds out he’s a vet and says, “Thank you for service,” he responds, “Don’t thank me. I didn’t serve; I was used.” 

Over the course of our conversation, Soule identified three things that make military life so appealing—for a time. There’s the call to action/adventure—the rush of purpose, the sense that you have a critical role to play. There’s the solidarity; Soule explained that there are “only three people in the Army: you, the guy to your right, and the guy to your left.” And, there’s the flow. When you’re in combat, when your life is on the line, mind and body conspire to make you remarkably present and focused.

I marveled at Soule’s succinct articulation of these most basic of desires. Don’t we all yearn for a call to action and to experience solidarity and flow? The longing for purpose and belonging is among our most fundamental human characteristics. So, how do we create a society that channels that longing toward love rather than violence? How do we harness these impulses to connect rather than to exclude, to create rather than to destroy?

I think of the summer I spent working with a theater group in Denmark, alongside 70 others from nearly 35 countries. We all brought our own songs and stories and wove these many languages and cultural traditions into a single performance. 

In flow and solidarity, we paraded this performance across the country, creating sites of cultural barter where any group could join us in creative expression. Kindergarten classrooms met us with their songs. A nurses’ union on strike shared their marches and chants. Fishermen presented their knots and ditties, and motorcycle clubs created elaborate choreographies. Immigrants watched from balconies until finally joining us in the streets.

Through this and dozens of other collaborative projects I’ve witnessed the power of shared creative experiences to activate purpose, connection, and a sense of agency. When people feel seen, when they know that their stories and imaginations matter, they are more likely to engage in civic life and work across differences to address the issues of our day.

Creatively addressing our vast social, environmental, and economic crises and injustices is indeed a profound call to action, and one that requires that we cultivate social imagination—the capacity to conceive of what might be in our society. What public programs, civic rituals, and community institutions might we imagine that align our desire for belonging with our highest democratic ideals of equity, participation, and justice? 

I imagine a future where there are cultural centers in every town, arts bodegas on every city block, and a Culture Corps bringing creative engagement to hospitals, schools, prisons, libraries, and beyond. I see story circles held in public places, parades welcoming refugees, and neighborhood artists-in-residence issuing creative calls to action that create opportunities for anyone to experience solidarity and flow.

I see abundant creative and expressive programs for returning veterans, offering an important step toward psychological and emotional healing, so that vets like Soule don’t feel they have to choose 30 years of solitude. I see a future where social imagination is actively cultivated in the public sphere and where the power of storytelling as a vehicle for healing and social change is deeply embedded and embodied in our institutions.

Art and culture are our most powerful and under-tapped resources for social change. At the people-powered U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, we’re building an army of Citizen Artists dedicated to creating a world rooted in empathy, equity, and social imagination. As with any army, there’s you, the person to your left, and the person to your right, but ours are weapons of mass creation—pens and paintbrushes, instruments and song. You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen or an artist to enlist as a Citizen Artist, just someone who wants to join with others in solidarity and flow, leveraging the power of our collective creativity to build a more just world.