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Art, cultural citizenship, and resistance

Human Rights . . . Here & There
|Written By Sonya Nigam
Art, cultural citizenship, and resistance

As a lawyer, when I hear about human rights abuses my reflex is to seek legal solutions through criminal prosecution, a more human-rights-positive approach to interpretations of laws and regulations, and, when all else fails, new legislation. However, over the past year or two, I keep bumping into things that bring my attention to another form of resistance that is perhaps more accessible and more democratic — art.

As noted by Lindsay Weedon of the Canadian Human Rights Museum: “Art and human rights are often interconnected in interesting ways. Art can be used as a means of expression about human rights issues; it can raise awareness about human rights violations and inspire people to act; and it is inherently a human rights tool as art embodies freedom of expression.”

And art is more than that.

We use artistic media to describe the world to ourselves through our tactile senses and mind. Literature and poetry, paintings, films, theatre, music, and dance speak to us and evoke our emotions. We express our identity and our traditional culture through art. We create and we dialogue. Art is an educator and a healer.

Art offers a space of communication and resistance that reflects our culture and experiences in the societies we live in. Is our society open or closed? What topics can be discussed? What is taboo? How do these rules vary from one place to another, and what does this tell us about the cultural complexity and diversity on our planet? Art is both a medium of creative expression and a mirror of humanity within which we seek to reflect ourselves, see ourselves, and ultimately know ourselves better.

When outside of state control, art can is by its very nature subversive. It presents one person’s point of view, not the view of the herd. Although it can be critical of public policy, its focus is the human experience and human emotion.

Researchers like Christian Poirier have noted the relationship between the state and art has changed over the years, from a top-down state-sponsored approach to a bottom-up citizen-initiated one, driven in large part by new digital media. Anyone now can create art and distribute it through the Internet.

At the recent Canadian Commission for UNESCO annual general meeting, a panel explored the notion of cultural citizenship. Simon Brault, CEO of the National Theatre School of Canada and vice president of the Canada Council for the Arts, offered the idea that cultural spaces can provide everyone, including vulnerable and marginalized people, opportunities to express themselves and contribute to cultural dialogue. They can engage as makers of culture rather than consumers of mass-produced culture.

In this way the funding of arts and culture can promote democracy and social inclusion. While national cultural policies often focus on the creation of common spaces for sharing culture, in fact, we don’t live in one common space. There is a question of scale. Countries should be modest and see what is happening in cities and develop policies that support culture where it happens.

An example of the impact art can have is the photo A Final Embrace from the recent building collapse in Bangladesh. I include it because I thought it said so much more than all of the commentary about Joe Fresh and the state of the garment industry.

Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes cultural rights as a human right indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality. Article 27 (1) states: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

In 1958, the Welsh academic Raymond Williams wrote “Culture is Ordinary.” It is an entertaining and thought-provoking piece. Here is a longish, but well worth reading, excerpt:

“Culture is ordinary: That is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions, and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land. The growing society is there, yet it is also made and remade in every individual mind. The making of a mind is, first, the slow learning of shapes, purposes, and meanings, so that work, observation and communication are possible. The, second, but equal in importance, is the testing of these in experience, the making of new observations, comparisons, and meanings. A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested. These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds, and we see through them the nature of a culture: that is always both traditional and creative; that it is both the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings. . . . Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind.”

So, how do you engage with culture? What is the art that you are listening to and watching telling you about yourself and your neighbourhood, city, country, and other places? Do you use art to escape, to take a break, and if so from what? Where do you see the arguments, debates, and amendments?

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