The Artist’s Role in Social Change

MB-Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation

Socially engaged art could change the way we view political discourse.

An exhibit on “The School of Panamerican Unrest” by Pablo Helguera was recently featured at the AD&A Museum at UC Santa Barbara, as a part of the “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” show. The artwork is visually comprised of a tent-like yellow schoolhouse with a bell hanging at the top. The material of the work, though, is not visual – it is human interaction.

“The School of Panamerican Unrest” was a tour of the Western Hemisphere, with Helguera traveling to locations from Alaska all the way to Chile. At each of the locations he visited, he set up the schoolhouse and held workshops, ringing a bell to call the community to participate. Each workshop consisted of individuals engaging in open dialogue with one another about issues that matter most to their particular communities including their respective fears, concerns, goals, aspirations, as well as characteristics of pride. Helguera would write down key parts of the discussion to draw up a document called a Panamerican Address summarizing the group’s discussion. The address would then be presented to its home city in a formal ceremony. In this way, Helguera quite literally created space for social and political discussion in every community he visited.MB-ADA UCSB

“The School of Panamerican Unrest” thus transcends art – in the way that it creates space for dialogue, it becomes a mobile socio-political entity shining a spotlight on “unrest,” on all of the issues the participants are passionate about. If these communities move forward using their Panamerican Addresses as a foundation or framework upon which to build their ideal societies, then the act of creating these addresses – and therefore participating in this artwork – is also the act of creating social change. Community members can bring their Panamerican Address to their local government, use it to identify community problems, and then create plans to fix them. At the very least, these addresses have the potential to bring attention to lesser-known issues and start conversations about them, which can be incredibly impactful.

The results of Helguera’s exhibit – not only in the Panamerican Addresses, but also in Helguera’s blog posts about the people and places he encountered on his voyage – are powerful. They serve as a testament to the influence that emotional connection has in advancing political causes. The key to fighting inequality and achieving social justice could be as simple as sharing experiences, talking to one other, and practicing empathy. Helguera’s work creates space to do just that, both in the workshops themselves and in the AD&A’s exhibit. “The School of Panamerican Unrest” goes beyond the one-dimensional framework of “educating others” – it creates opportunities for people to both learn and teach, to grow through conversing and listening, and to engage. In creating new forms through which to discuss social justice, more people will become engaged in not only art, but political issues as well. Art has the potential to embody the intersection of the personal and the political, as it encourages compassion, appreciation, and understanding.

Art speaks a language that everyone understands, in that it allows the public to experience different perspectives in a more personal way. To use art, music, and literature as political vehicles could change the way we think about difference and politics, and eliminate the fear and avoidance that too often accompany political discussion. Step one is to catalyze conversation; socially engaged art is the answer.

-Monique Bolsajian, Library Special Research Collections Intern

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