The arts have been recognised to play an important role in peace-building. Artists and cultural facilitators are strengthening their practice by documenting and critically reflecting upon their own works. The arts can resolve conflict, difference and separation among societies.
Not only are artists trying to assess the role of art in peace-building, but conventional practitioners are also finding its value in mediation, facilitation, human rights advocacy and development. These practitioners agree that rational and traditional models of engagement are insufficient by themselves when it comes to resolving conflict and attaining peace.
Expressive forms of art for peace-building
The field of peace-building can incorporate various modes of expression, which makes the arts a valuable resource. Photography, instrumental musical works, drawing, painting, video, dancing, theatre, oral and literary forms of art are just a few examples of media that can aid peace-building.
Artists and communities can contribute to conflict resolution in all stages of the conflict cycle, through creative expression that bridges divides. Works of art that are inclusive and focus on transformation are often more engaging, therefore, inviting transformation to those that witness the artwork.
Collective works of art are participatory and focus on affirmation at the level of the community. This helps to transcend societal barriers as various creators participate in the realisation of the artwork. However, individual artists, musicians, directors and writers can also contribute to a more fair and less violent society through their works.
Unique aspects of the arts for peace-building
Art has certain qualities of attention and response that contribute to its aesthetic. Different cultures value different aesthetics and this influences the way in which societies approach art. Aesthetic experiences are deeply felt by humans and can facilitate engagement with nature and humanity.
This engagement arises from the reciprocity between the art being perceived and the perceptual capacity of the perceiver. Aesthetic connection with a work is the result of the interplay between the formal qualities of the artwork and the perceiver’s openness to receiving the nuances of the work; allowing the art to resonate within them.
Even when an artwork’s content is offensive, upsetting or painful, its formal qualities can force the perceiver to take action and face conditions that might usually be unbearable. Aesthetic experiences engage directly with the senses, emotions, spiritual and cognitive aspects of the perceiver.
These qualities of the arts present unique opportunities for individuals to learn from, engage with and connect to the artworks – all of which are central to peace-building. Engaging with the arts can restore and nurture humanity’s capacity for transformation and conflict resolution.
The ability to express oneself and create awareness of context is the first step to getting others to perceive an artist’s point of view or situation. Presenting alternative circumstances can allow the artist to change the perception of the viewer and invite them into the artist’s world. This can level the field and encourage dialogue that results in conflict resolution and peace-building.
Art breaks language barriers
Most conflict arises from misunderstanding; a language barrier is often the major contributor to this non-understanding between different societies. However, the arts can transcend language and allow for non-verbal communication.
Music, dance, photography and paintings can be appreciated by humans, regardless of what language they speak. In peace-building initiatives, the arts can embody reciprocity to encourage connectivity and mutual understanding. The arts can be used to facilitate engagement in a non-coercive manner that allows conflicting communities to address their differences.
In conflict regions around the world, the arts have been used in peace-building efforts to strengthen the campaigns of peacemakers through supporting and dignifying oppressed and exploited communities. By focussing on human rights in their works, artists have enabled cross-cultural communication between oppressors and the oppressed.
The arts also present an opportunity for conflicting parties to meet in a neutral, positive and creative context. Art can break down stereotypes and the barriers of mistrust between adversarial communities, paving the way for reconciliation and justice. It restores identity, meaning and hope to regions that were previously alienated and disrupted by conflict.
Challenges facing the arts in peace-building
While the arts have a profoundly positive role to play in peace-building, they also face several challenges. A team of researchers has been looking at the ways in which the arts run the risk of doing more harm to conflicting communities.
The first challenge is the role of the arts in propaganda, such as that used by Nazi Germany during World War II. Creative posters were distributed widely that depicted the allied forces as the source of evil, which encouraged many patriotic Germans to join the fight. Radio broadcasts were emitted across Germany with powerful language and speeches that were designed to legitimise and promote Nazi activities.
The arts can worsen divisions between adversarial groups if it is used to re-traumatise communities that have suffered severe violence at the hands of their enemies. Art should be used to heal, not to reopen old wounds.
The transformative power of the arts lies in artistic integrity; using the arts for the greater good of both communities while adhering to ethical standards. When artists allow their agenda to overpower their artistry, the potential of their work for peace-building is compromised.
These risks can be minimised through collaboration and careful consideration of the cultural nuances of each community in a conflict situation. If two artists from opposing societies can collaborate on a peace-building project, the chance of success is improved.
Solutions to various forms of conflict, whether political, religious, environmental or educational, will require creative approaches in the future. Arts-based peace-building initiatives can help communities to identify the source of conflict and to craft appropriate solutions for conflict resolution.