Can art make a difference? : LUSENET : Public Art : One Thread

Having for the past 15 years worked within art and a social context, I find myself up against a brick wall. I with other artists have worked within the care sector using involvment in the arts as a tool to promote greater involvement of the individual in their own communities. Over the years I have widened my practice, moving from making artwork, to making programmes which work within the system to create change. This has often involved working with people who have been in long term hospital care (mental health and learning disability) and combining their skills or issues with the skills of an artist to effect change. This has worked on several levels but I now find myself facing issues which I am not sure the art can have an effect on. In Scotland policies such as community care and social inclusion have led to an opening up of service provision, offering the individual the opportunity to take an equal part in any arts opportunity or social oopportunity on offer. In reality this means that many people with highter support needs are excluded from any involvement at all. For example, a group of women living in a rural location, all who have learnoing disabilities face regular 'abuse' from their day and residential care provider. I watch their situation, finding it hard to put into words their actual abuse, I only know that they get out infrequently, are taunted by staff and are restricted by finance - their main service provider is a private company. I have started to complain on their behalf but realise that their plight is only the tip of the iceberg. there are many other people in Scotland in a similar situation. So how can art make a difference...I don't want them to make pictures. I want to draw attention to the situation. Does anyone know of organisations which work within this social context. I have heard of the work of Wochen Klasur and admire the work of Suzanne Lacy and realise it is work of this nature that I need to encourage. Has anyone any info?

-- Alison Stirling (, April 02, 2001


Dear Alison,

I notice no one has responded to you for several weeks, perhaps because people have ben sending personal letters of advice... but perhaps because your question is so large and hard to address in the context of anonymous text... Your tone sounds like someone who wants to change a system that will not change, and you are fundamentally frustrated with the social conditions around you... but what you are saying is very different from that: You say that you want to "draw attention to the situation..."

You also mention that you have expanded into "making programmes... to creat change." Are these programmes something very different from you art? Are they not your art, to you, in your mind?

I'm not quite sure what the brick wall is you mention: whether it is the social circumstance you are dealing with, or traditional definitions of the boundaries of art... but, I'll bet you could articulate yourself a good sledgehammer.

Yours, Lex

-- lEX bHAGAT (, April 23, 2001.

Dear Lex,

Many thanks for responding to my posted text. You are in fact the first and only person to reply.

Perhaps I should make clearer the situation. My 'art' work is to create programmes which in some way make change within social environments - i.e. working around hospital closeure programmes and work with in particularly difficult social situations. Up until now I have placed artists within a situation in which they facilitate an individual or group in the making of artworks. More recently I have begun to work with artists asking them to collaborate with individuals in the making of an art work, based on mutual interests. Within this context the situations that the people we work with live within often hinders the process in fact it overshadows it, making the making of a joint artwork an often futile proceedure. For the individual and the artist this work is of importance but in a wider sense it does not impact in a way which could draw attention to the poor conditions in which they are living. These people have severe mental health problems and/or severe learning disabilities, and have little or no voice within their communities. Do I continue to work in a way in which the individual gets a small glimpse of other possibilities (funding allows limited contact only) through present practice or do I widen the work asking the artist to respond to the wider social issues in an attempt to draw attention to the situation.

Perhaps if I give an example of one particular situation or brick wall then that would best illustrate. In one small workshop we work with a group of elderly women. All have lived for a long time in instituional care, all have survived that situation and are living in the same home in the community. As a result of their previous lives all have some form of mental health problem in additon to their learning disability. Their home is owned and run by a private company. The staff in the house are unskilled and underpaid. Because the company is there to make money the women lives are based around cash saving -ie they are allowed a set amount of tea bags and in some cases no money to spend on themselves. Because of lack of money, or company penny pinching the day service they receive is very limited which results in the women spending all their time in the house. They don't get out that much and staffing levels often mean that other people from other houses run by the same company spend time in their small house to save money on staff costs. In order to control the women, who are very upset by their situation they are controlled by drugs. They are stuck in the house, they start screaming then they are drugged. We try to work withibn this situation offering the women arts opportunities outside their home. They come occassionally but if the staff can't be bothered they often don't come at all. If they 'misbehave' because they are stuck inside all the time they are punished by not being allowed to come. After a stretched period of time one person attends classes and now all the other women stay at home. Now the question is within this context can art make a difference? What should that art be. I realise that I am gradually coming to the conclusion that it can make a difference but the artists role within that is to find a way to articulate the issue. By drawing attention to this situation and many, many others like it then it may be possible to make a difference. Hence my interest in the work of Suzanne Lacy.

If you have any thoughts on this I would be pleased to hear them.


-- Alison (, April 24, 2001.

I am not familiar with the work of Suzanne Lacy and therefore find myself in the position of offering an inappropriate or irrelavent response to your question "can art make a difference". As sophomoric as it may seem to ask it, the question "what is art" (in the context of your work as you are discussing it here), seems to need an answer so that your question "can it make a difference" will make sense. As an example of the value of arriving at some conventional (cultural) definition for the question "what is art" I offer the following: I am responding to you because when I typed in "discussions on art" I was hoping to find some intersetting and well considered points of view as to what art is. My opinion of "what is art" runs something like this:............. I have an interest in any subject matter that is (relative to the context from which it springs) magnificently coherent in its design and execution. For me the object or event that is a manefestaion of a sustained and coherent effort, undertaken with skill and passion, by a human being, is a work of art. The effort to create such an event or object is the pursuit of art, and the body of work that includes all of these objects or events is ART. At what point something rises to the level of a work of art is of course a matter of opinion. I also realizize that this bit of rambeling has little to do with your question, except (in along winded way) to make the point that your question is not that clear (to me at least) partly because of the ambiguity of the word art. It seems that most humans be they troubled, confused, impaired, depressed, stupid or smart REACT to the manefestation of a a design executed with monumental effort, skill, coherence, and passion. I suspect that the people you are aiming to help are more easily (by that I mean more readily)impressed by, and appreciative of, real works of art than the folks trying to help them. I also suspect that there efforts at producing some beautiful object or solutions are more in context, more honest, and more passionate (therefore more artistic) than those who are overseeing them. The overseers are the one that need training in art. They are bogged down. They do not so easily see the potential for beauty in their efforts. It is very honorable of you to try so ernestly to improve the lives of these folks you are working with. It seems from what you have related here that the social instituitions and the cultural itself are what need assistance, rehabilitation, and art education. I ran into you on the web accidentally and could not help but respond. I hope no offence is taken. Good luck in your efforts.

-- joe waltman (, May 05, 2001.

Excellent Question. No easy answer. Since two months have passed since you first posed this I wonder what solutions you have come up with. It sounds like part of your question comes from frustration that not more people were attending your sessions, whether because of institutional problems or because the women didn't find it urgent enough to overcome the difficulties in getting there.

I worked for two years in El salvador for a Human Rights organization as a "Communicador Social", which meant going to live in rural communities that had or were experiencing major human rights abuses , and then try to bring to light those problems, using a process of painting murals and making documentary videos with the participation of residents of those communities. I think one needs to have alot of faith in your process and realize that you won't always be able to measure your results objectively. The other is to think like a community organizer and assess if what your doing is effectively meeting the needs of the community your working for/ with.

I recently did a major public artwork here in Boston involving video projections on Boston City Hall. It tries to address the housing crisis here which is resulting in homelessness and displacement of thousands and thousands of people. If your interested you can see our website at

-- John Ewing (, July 07, 2001.

Hey all...

Check out WW3 Arts in Action @ - it's an independent collective of artists dedicated to using art work as a voice for peace in the face of endless war, and to protest injustices such as corporate globalization, economic colonialism, and the growth of the prison industry. They utilize diverse expressions: murals, banners, posters, illustrations and street theater, in conjunction with direct action strategies, to communicate our message with optimal impact.

Plus check out Protest Records @ - exists for musicians, poets and artists... music to express LOVE + LIBERTY in the face of greed, sexism, racism, hate-crime and war... FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT - all songs and designs on the site are free to share, not to sell...

...Amor y Paz - Savannah Skye

-- Savannah Skye (, November 30, 2003.

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