Art is Community Development: Michelle Sanders

Michelle Sanders, Lecturer in Creative Arts and Community Development at Eastern College Australia, reflects on art as community development.

A sad fact is that since the entrance of sin and brokenness, injustice is a part of our world. Jesus came to fix brokenness, to heal injustice, to reconcile, to restore. So where does art fit into this? What’s the role of art in justice?

Art has never been too far away from social justice. If you look at the history of social movements you will see that art and media have always played a role, from political posters to the songs that stir the hearts of the people. Wherever people are oppressed or united in a common struggle, someone will voice strong feelings through art. They write songs, design buttons, make films, perform theatre and paint paintings. Art is no longer merely to be seen and consumed.

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Art has been used as a means to record history, shape culture, stir up imagination, to bring about social transformation. Art is a medium to create awareness, educate and build community. It can also be a catalyst to engage community members to take action around a social issue. Art speaks all languages and crosses all social boundaries.

Scientists are the ones that deliver facts, but it’s the artist that stirs passion. Good art is created from passion. When artists are passionate about injustice or marginalization or persecution it spills over into their work. Artists are able to expose what they stand against or why particular situations are wrong without having to get into a debate or argument. It is a voice that is hard to silence.

Artists have often been considered the visionaries, radicals, provokers of issues and wrongs of society.  Artists who are followers of Christ are often at ease with living on the margins, challenging ideas of living comfortably. They question; they challenge the status quo. They see beauty, they observe life, they find stillness and a place of creativity that is meaningful. They learn to look for God, they are sensitive to where He is at work revealing Himself and bringing hope. They notice where the kingdom is breaking in. It’s what artists are looking for.

In many ways the artist’s role is to disturb the way we see and perceive our culture. They disturb everything by questioning and mirroring what they see.

While there are many effective tools to achieve social justice from litigation to advocacy to demonstration, often it is an image or a story that draws you in.  Change can happen in parliament, at a community meeting and in the streets, but it can also be sparked in a painting or a photograph.

The arts can be a powerful path toward creating change. They have a unique capacity to raise awareness, and meet people where they are, giving a voice to the voiceless. Through film, theatre, photography, paintings we can create powerful pictures of the conditions in which people live and work, and of their struggle to find solutions.

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Art is a form of questioning. The artist has to question to create. The result may be quite valuable to social conversation. But art is the most powerful weapon available to change perceptions because it uses symbolism and imagery. It has capacity to communicate to the emotions.  Not only does it communicate, but it touches something deep within the person creating it. The biggest resource we have is our own personal experiences, our stories, our life-skills, and our creativity. Acting on imagination is an act of faith, and the ability to see possibilities despite a negative picture is a gift. All of which, essentially, defines art as community development.

Find out more about studying Art and Community Development at Eastern College Australia.


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