Grain of Sand | Art and civil society – new perspectives and new narratives

Didn’t the famous Danish thinker and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once say: “It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things that it cannot understand …”

Art can therefore help us understand the world around us and gives us a unique opportunity to examine how artists view the world around them. For centuries, artists have left impressions of their world on rock paintings, stone sculpture and other mediums. Today these ancient artworks help us understand the bygone worlds of the Egyptian pharaohs, the Inca rulers or even Harold Bluetooth of Denmark.

Fast forward to the modern day, and artistic expressions still find themselves on our street walls as graffiti, as the artist is compelled to comment on the world around them. Other artistic expressions are commercialised and hung inside art galleries or the walls of someone who can afford them. Either way, art is still saying something about the society we live in.

On December 25, I taught a class in Aarhus on how civil society can use art to understand what people are thinking and therefore help direct their civil efforts in an efficient manner. The conference was organised by Civilsamfund i Udvikling (CISU), the mother organisation for Danish civil society, and was attended by hundreds.

Of course, not all art forms are of use to society. But some art forms rise to the occasion and question the status quo and therefore can not be ignored.
For instance, during apartheid in South Africa, a little known housemaid began to sing about the conditions of black South Africans under apartheid. Her name was Miriam Makeba.

“Everybody now admits that apartheid was wrong, and all I did was tell the people who wanted to know where I come from how we lived in South Africa,” Makeba famously said. “I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I cant do anything about that.”

Back in Makeba’s day, there was no internet and no Twitter. It took longer than today for news to travel around the world, but Makeba toured the whole world with her band, telling people about the condition of her people through music. Because she dared to tell this story, she was exiled from South Africa for nearly three decades.

Makeba’s songs give a quick and detailed lecture about South Africa during her time, more so than most modern day history books on the subject. Her songs and lyrics take us to the very heart of apartheid.

Without a doubt, civil society can not afford to ignore Makeba’s songs. Nor can they afford to ignore Pussy Riot in today’s Russia. Civil society can not ignore Nina Simone, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan or Fela Kuti.

These artists all have something to say, but does society listen and take heed of their message? Many artists scream while others whisper, but does society listen? It is easy to dismiss an artist as crazy or weird, but can civil society afford to ignore the message from the arts? Art can challenge our meanings, reflect our thinking and improve our understanding.

Even the non-commercial art-forms
that are created to express, without regret,
the graffiti on our walls!
The funny pictures on our
Facebook walls!
the paintings in our caves
the unknown painter, lone poet,
singer, photographer,
All have something to say!

So I say to the civil society:
Look to the arts! For there you shall
find many answers and questions.
Look to the arts, for there you will
see the ailment in society!
Look to the arts, for there you may
find the cure!
Look to the arts, for there you will
discover what society is thinking!
Look to the arts, for there you will
find both questions and answers.