Why Art is Important?

The societal value of art stretches its wings far and wide. It can be used as a tool to understand ourselves and us as human beings. Art can be suggestions, thoughts and questions which more often than not speculate about human nature and our environment. It’s societal value also includes bringing people together, sharing ideas, making people think and allowing them to be critical or in disagreement. Art can inspire and escalate the feeling of being able to have effect, to ponder and point out things that may be done otherwise. 

“If you serve someone spinach that is cooked the way it should be, no one notices or remembers that they have eaten spinach. Whereas if you burn it, it shocks their taste-buds and they become immediately aware that it is burned spinach and they gain new insights into the characteristics of spinach, cooking, etc.” 

Jean Dubuffet’s words are still relevant today, to draw attention to things it is good to isolate them and present them in a new light. Art offers this platform for us to experiment with our thoughts and to put them forward for other minds to interact with. It does not have to be perfect, without error, because it is the mistakes that move us. 

We learn by doing, through our experience and by reflecting on them. Participatory art or total installations, where the participants or viewers are within the artwork offers them a platform or a chance where they can with their actions affect and interact with the work. The artworks will adapt and change depending on the participants movements and actions. Being a part of the work will enable the participants/viewers to gain a deeper insight of the artwork and submit something new to it. By opening conversations between viewers and artworks it can have a bigger and broader effect. 

In 2020 the artist duo Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson exhibited the show In Search for Magic: A Proposal for a New Constitution for the Republic of Iceland in Reykjavík Art Museum. The exhibition was a collaboration with all kinds of different musicians, artists and activists that consisted of a composition and a large textile installation with banners that were written on. The collaboration included composing music to the “Proposal for a New Constitution for the Republic of Iceland,” written in 2011. Approved by the population in a public referendum in 2012 it still hasn’t been accepted and implemented by the Parliament. The text written on the banners were from letters, ballot papers and other things which have been received by the Parliament since then. They were isolated and presented on a much larger scale. In that way, by isolating, enlarging and putting them in a new context, it begins the process of making jurisdiction visible, mediated through the relationships between materials, disciplines and people. The exhibition ended up moving out of the museum and onto the streets where people gathered and walked with the banners towards the Parliament and protested. Through the artwork a unification was created that revived the claims of a new Constitution.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have throughout their works contemplated memories, of both the individual and the collective. The memories of our society, our history, consists of many personal memories, and memorials to personal memories. If we didn’t have any there would be no history of personal life. 

In many cases art deals with the personal and through these narratives we can try to understand each other. Art offers ways for us to understand ourselves, as individuals and as a society, through personal stories of others. In Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s installations they invite the visitors to put themselves into the narrative of their work. The visitors are within the work, inside of it, and being there, they can try to understand it’s memory. 

The essences of both Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson and Ilya & Emilia Kabakov works lies in a form of solidarity. In the case of Libia & Ólafur they invite other people to collaborate with them on a subject concerning the population which they isolate and put it in a new context, enlarged. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov works concern the memory, the personal, and presented through installations which the viewers can try to understand, as communal.

Being able to see other people’s ideas and being able to share your own is precious and that is what art can offer. The spinach is burnt and we are forced to see things in a new light. 

Art as means of communicating ideas

When people talk about communication they are often referring to verbal communication, written communication or even body language. However there is an enormous amount of information communicated to us by visual means; through advertisement, design and art. We read images just as much as we read language. Road signs are a great example of a standardized visual language, but even those images can take on a completely different meaning when put in a different context. Visual language is a powerful and potent way of communicating ideas to rally people together. It is important for artists and designers to understand this because images can certainly be utilized in a context that the creator wholeheartedly disagrees with. 

A good example of this is Pepe the frog, a character from a 2005 comic called Boy’s Club by Matt Furie. In the original comic books Pepe is a minor character that mostly hangs around, gets high and plays video games. In 2008 Pepe became a popular meme on 4chan and tumblr, and slowly gained notoriety as a meme mostly used by the extreme right. In 2016 Pepe was classified by the anti-defamation league as a hate symbol associated with white supremacy. Furie, Pepes creator, was horrified and tried to sue various organizations for using Pepe in nefarious campaigns, before eventually killing the character off in his comic books as a symbolic opposition to the ideas Pepe had come to represent. 

A good contrast to the non-political work of Matt Furie being turned into a hate symbol is the overtly political art of Banksy. Banksy is very well known for making strong political statements through his art. He uses striking visuals to make works that are hard to misread. His style is unmistakable and so is the message. Through his art he has criticized fascism, consumerism, imperialism and authoritarianism. The reason that his artworks are so effective in communicating his ideas might be that he uses visual language that we know. In his anti-war works he uses the peace symbol, flowers, white doves, little girls, rifles, bombs and men in modern army uniforms. These are all strong images that have very clear associations in our minds and Banksy utilizes that to the fullest to make clear statements about the modern world. 

An image is worth a thousand words, so it can be tricky to create an image that tells the story you want it to tell. Often people use text as a key; a base for the viewer to understand the image. Text can both add to and draw away from the complexity of the work. If the text is overly descriptive the viewer might not take the time to read into the image. If it is too vague it risks making the work too open and the viewer might read something completely different into the work.

In comic books we see the mediums of written and visual communication coming together to tell the whole story. Neither the text or the images can tell the whole story by itself, they rely on each other to give the reader the whole story. This interplay of text and images gives creators a chance to make more complex and precise statements than you can with text or images only. You can even make the visual language and the text have opposing meanings to create tension. The visuals add a new dimension to the text.

Visual language is an important part of our day to day communications. Unlike words there is no thesaurus and the meaning of symbols and images can change over time. It is the job of artists to be aware of the meaning images have, follow their shifting meaning and last but not least be a part of the moulding of what an image means. Artists and designers can use visual language to create intricate stories, and sometimes, when they do so to a great effect they shift the meaning of the image in the mind of the public.

Non-formal education in arts as a tool to raise awareness

In the fast-changing world, modern technology has affected education and the way people express themselves and communicate with others tremendously. It is safe to argue that one of the side effects of this development is that people consume more entertainment than before at the same time as news and knowledge becomes less and less reliable. Therefore, it can be even more important than ever that educators, citizens and societies as whole adapt the educational system in order to maintain healthy and knowledge based democracies.

In recent years non-formal education has proven to be an important tool to increase youth participation around the globe. The European Union stresses the importance of this form of an educational process as an important factor for young people, both to: broaden their skills’ set in order to gain full potential as autonomous members of the society, and also to: broaden their horizon in order to participate in the fast changing global society. Furthermore, it is believed that the future of education is connected to this form of learner-centred educational process. However, this is not a new concept but a process that has always been a part of human society in some way, that was most likely even more integrated into the daily lives of people in pre-literate societies.

The Council of Europe defines non-formal education as the educative process that occurs in structured activities outside the formal educational sector, such as in youth organizations, sport clubs or in any kind of programme where young people meet and practice some kind of an activity together. By definition, that refers to all the educational processes that take place within groups where people come together and practice different art forms, such as drama, music, poetry or visual art. Such programmes are designed to increase participants’ skillset, present them with new tools – or allow them to develop their own tools which can empower them to gain more independence which encourages them to more participation, that can for example be by reflecting in a group on social issues that can in continuation serve as a pathway to raise awareness.

 Having established the importance of non-formal education, in order for the educational process to serve its purpose, by definition it needs to have some structure. The Council of Europe stresses that non-formal education should be, among other things, accessible and learner-centred. In this educational form, the organizer’s role is to establish a creative environment where participants are able to communicate and can feel free to express their opinions and visions without any prejudice. In that sense, art can serve as a powerful tool for both expression and communication. This setting can serve as a powerful tool for the participants to reflect on social issues with their collective knowledge and moreover develop tools that they can use to raise awareness.

Well-structured art-based workshops can therefore serve as an influential approach in non-formal education, by creating a space for slow and deep communication. In order to develop that kind of environment, that is both learner-centred and accessible, the methodology of peer-to-peer learning has shown to be very effective (that is an established methodology in all youth-work within the European Union). Peer-to-peer learning references a learning process where the organizer and participants are equals. All act both as teachers and students and thereby, are equal members of the group and the learning process. In that kind of a setting participants are empowered to speak their mind and explore different ways of expression. This kind of an environment can only be created if the group in whole decides on some ground rules so that the peers are aware of what is expected of them and moreover know what to expect from others.

In preliterate societies, before schools became institutionalized, all knowledge sharing was by non-formal education. In modern days, technology has given knowledge its own life, where it gets harder and harder for schools to serve their purpose with the aim to maintain healthy and knowledge based democracies. Therefore non-formal education can serve as a powerful form for knowledge sharing by first hand, and raise awareness of issues that exist within their societies in a peer-to-peer learning setting. In order to respond to the fast-changing world, unconventional ways of communication and expression via any kind of artform can serve as a powerful tool. Art allows groups to develop their own dialogue to reflect on social issues where participants can be encouraged to take initiative to explore different tools for their expression. This method can be effective to raise awareness in a way that formal institutions cannot do. 

Art as a tool for voices to reach out

The usual way of people describing art is a painting on a wall or an odd performance that is hard to understand, placed in a fancy, white gallery. However, art is all around 

us. Everything we do can be related to art. Art is how we dress and how we talk. Art is how we write, how we sing and how we scream. Art is dance moves. Art is the way we love and the way we hate. Art is the way we think and the way we feel. Art is our past and our future. Art is how we express ourselves. Art is our dreams and our beliefs. Art is our personality. Art is how we connect to other people and how we connect to ourselves. Art is a high function of our being, a door for thoughts to pass from unseen to the seen. It’s the source of our dreams and it opens our minds. Therefore art is a perfect tool to help people to deal with their emotions because it is a great way to express emotions without words. Art helps with processing complex feelings and to find relief.

I want to start my thoughts and wonderings with one little story about a man and a donkey. The story is a chapter called “The Artist” from the book “Religion Of Man”. The book was written by the Bengali writer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. In the chapter he talks about when he was traveling with his friend in the streets of Peking. Then out of nowhere  his friend suddenly exclaimed with a vehement enthusiasm: “Look, here is a donkey!” At first Tagore didn’t understand, he didn’t understand the reason why his friend liked this donkey so much, it was just an ordinary donkey. But then he started to think. His friend did not treat the donkey like everyone else, he did not treat it with a cheap knowledge but could see it afresh and recognise it as real.

The only evidence of truth in art exists when it compels us to say “I see”. We can see everything in life as new. When we allow us to see that we allow us to be creative. Being allowed to be creative means that you have an outlet to use your imagination. Also to express your feelings and emotions. This freedom alone lays the foundation for other benefits. Art, no matter whether you choose to create it yourself or simply observe and enjoy it, is a relaxing and inspiring activity for many people. However, the particular benefits of artistic expression go much further than relaxation and enjoyment.

You can say that art and mental health work well together because using art together with mental health can have positive connections. Art therapy, also known as expressive therapy, uses art as a means of communication and lets people explore and express their emotions and thoughts. Artistic activities such as sculpting, painting, drawing and performing are known to lower stress levels and promote mental calmness. It takes your mind off everything  and provides a relaxing distraction. Therefore it is very important for your inner self and feelings to forget yourself from time to time, feel the moment and just breathe. If we do that we make room for creative thoughts and hopefully we get them out. Also the benefits of enjoying the moment we learn how to focus on our passions for the things we are doing at the time. You learn that the season of joy comes only if you withstand the hard season.

Talking about focusing on our passions for the things we are doing at the time, then sketching is a great way to fade away into your head. When you sketch, you work your imagination a lot more starting from a picture, and little words suddenly come along with. The more you look into the picture the more you think and the more your imaginary world expands. Everywhere I go I take my sketchbook with me. It is very important to me because my sketch book is where I set my mind free and it’s where I can leave everything that is going on in my head and my soul.

The sketchbook soaks the emotions and feelings from the artist into the pages, like paper soaked in ink. This is how the artist can create a mysterious world which the artist alone knows. His world grows in the book until it is so big that it needs to show itself. Then the world breaks through the pages, out of the sketchbook and into everyday life, and is open for other people to see it and to feel it. The voice of the artist has reached out. 

This educational resource was produced with the financial support of the European Union within Erasmus+ Programme. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the Asociación Socio-Cultural VerdeSur Alcalá and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.