How Art Can Transform Societies

Many development practitioners and social theorists have noted that any development process has an important cultural component. Efforts to improve quality of life or reduce inequality, for instance, are inherently tied to local customs, values and social systems. Accordingly, research has found that culture can foster development as well as hinder development outcomes.

Thus, it is important that development planners take cultural considerations into account, as benevolent interventions made without attention to cultural conditions and factors may prove futile or even have unexpected adverse effects.

However, to date, research has provided less insight on how culture in the sense of visual, literary and performing arts can be linked to development. This connection was picked up by John Clammer, Visiting Professor at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), who focuses on the sociology of development and the sociology of culture as applied to development issues.

Transformational Art
Transformational Art

What inspired you to examine the relationship between art and development? This was a mixture of my own personal interest in the arts — some of which I have practiced! — and my commitment professionally to development studies. For a long time these existed as two separate spheres, until I began to think about how to bring them together. That was the genesis of my new book, and once I started to think about and research the idea, there turned out to be many links.

In the field of development, art tends to be seen as a by-product of society or, at best, merely instrumental for development processes. What potential do you think is missed with this kind of view? What impact do you hope that this book will have on the way art, culture and development are perceived? It is sadly true that art is seen as a by-product, but with a little more thought it becomes apparent that culture, including the arts, is the very medium in which we live much of our daily lives.

I am reminded of the wartime British minister who, when asked to cut spending on the arts during the war years, asked the very relevant question: “Then what are we fighting for?”. I think this is true for development, too ( What are we developing for? I hope that the book will illustrate some of the many ways in which this question can be answered — the enriching of life, expressions of identity, and many other things.

I think that a genuinely holistic understanding of development has to give as much attention to its cultural aspects as to its economic, political and technological ones. Infrastructure is not much use if there is nowhere to go with it!

Alongside promoting culture and development, you advocate for the development of culture. What does this entail? And why is it important? This is a key to the whole book. My concern was with many levels of development: the instrumental and educative role of the arts, the fact that the arts constitute much of the identity of a culture — its dance, architecture, painting and so forth — its role as therapy and as a peacemaking mechanism, and very much its role in empowerment, not only in relation to gender, but also for youth, for minorities, for refugees, and for other marginalized groups.

In particular I was interested in the ways in which creativity and imagination in one area — in this case the arts — spill over into other areas of what I have called “social creativity”: new thinking about issues such as environment, social inequalities, new family arrangements and many other possible areas. Refer to (this post) to read more.

You suggest that art can promote social inclusion and empowerment, or create economic opportunities and alleviate poverty, for example. Could you share some examples from the field of innovative approaches experimenting with art and development that demonstrate how culture can act as an agent of social change? There are many examples. I myself have been involved with artists from Kolkata working with tribal groups in remote areas of the state of Orissa. They have been stimulating local craft production as a means of poverty alleviation and as a way of addressing gender issues. Read this post for more on this topic.

The women who make the jewelery, which can be sold for a considerable profit in the boutiques of Kolkata and other urban centres, get to keep their income and devote it to their own activities and to supporting their children. The region witnesses rather extreme alcohol consumption among the men, who tend to use any extra income for their own purposes. But the craft promotion initiative brings income to women, gives them a sense of self-esteem and maintains artistic traditions within the community.