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Revealing Art's Social Potential

By Sanders I. Bernstein, Crimson Staff Writer

It’s only been a few centuries since art has become a thing apart from the rest of the social world. It is only in our modern bourgeois society that we’ve exiled artistic product to hermetic galleries and museums, when dance has been marginalized to the stage, and literature to the privacy of one’s bedroom. It wasn’t so long ago that art was profoundly social in character, when the retelling of stories brought the whole tribe together, when depicting played a central role in religious rites, when dance was the act that taught man how to work and live in synchrony.

OK, yes, I’ll admit, it was pretty long ago when dancing around the campfire equipped us to hunt down our dinner in concert, but not so long ago that it should seem perfectly natural for us that art plays so small a social role, that it has become a superficial structure, layered on top of “real” material existence. In fact, I could argue that art, in its original form, is social in character. It’s only the bizarre processes of modernization that have distorted art into something individual.

But art has not lost all of its social character. Its production does continue to take place in the heart of our society, in the center of our cities. This art is not merely a commodity of pleasure, to be bartered and sold on the market, to be consumed by those with the money to buy it. No, the public here, like that of the original, natural forms of art, is the surrounding community. There’s performance art, which takes place in the public sphere. Some of it is like that of Improv Everywhere, which occurs just for the pleasurable (if perplexing) spectacle. Other performance art is like that of Tehching Hsieh, which is profoundly political and aims to effect a change in its audience’s consciousness. But the art that I’m writing here about is more than just performance, it is performative. I’m writing about the art that transformed Bogota, Colombia from a capital of corruption and crime into a city with crime and murder rates lower than neighboring South American metropolises. I’m writing about “Cultural Agency.”

Cultural agency is the philosophy, most notably espoused by Harvard Professor Doris Sommer, that every person has the power to change the culture in which he lives. It is embodied in Bogota’s successful plan of rehabilitating respect for its law by replacing traffic cops with mimes. It is the motivating idea behind giving photographic cameras to the poverty-stricken children in the bombed-out Gaza Strip and in Rio de Jainero’s slums. It is the force behind the writing workshops for the homeless that take place here in Cambridge itself. Cultural agency posits that by having the opportunity to get involved with art, whether it is the opportunity to interact with performing mimes, to take photographs of one’s experiences, or to record and create one’s stories, one can assert control of one’s own life and change the flow of the world.

In these instances, art is profoundly social. It is geared toward social change: the processes of creation generate a populace of self-aware individuals and their product stands as a powerful witness to the current state of their society. It is a dual movement that works on the individual and society at the same time. It is a mode of thinking about art that does not alienate the artist from his society or his product from that world. Rather, it recognizes the inextricable link between the two.

One can argue that art is frivolous, that it should be the last thing that the homeless and poor are concerned about. But the truth is that they are interested. They do come to the writing workshop table on Friday and they do return the next, with stories written down or with tales to recount out loud. They find something there in the process, what it is exactly, I would not presume to say. All I know is what I see: they do pick up the cameras and go out and take pictures.

Art, as understood through the lens of cultural agency, has great social potential. It is merely about restoring art’s position to the center of our society, making the arts available to all and consumable by all, handing out cameras and laptops so that anyone can post his photograph online, can publish his novel for the enjoyment of anyone and everyone. Yes, that is a dream, but it is not so far from becoming reality. The day is not so far away when we will be able to have an art that is woven within the fabric of our social reality. It’s only a matter of us beginning to sew, beginning to mend the distance that we impose all too often between art and society by making our own art, however we can. —Columnist Sanders I. Bernstein can be reached at

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