Why Is Art Important for Resilience?

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Feb 07, 2017
by Oscar Tollast
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Why Is Art Important for Resilience?

Global experts consider what do we mean by resilience, resistance and renewal - and what can the arts do to foster this? Participants at Session 573 The Art of Resilience take part in a warm-up exercise

Today's world is disrupted by manifold sources of shock, violence and conflict. The complexity and sheer speed of change are testing the limits of people, places and communities. Increasing social inequality, accelerating urbanization, unprecedented migration flows, rapidly evolving technologies and climate-related changes are generating physical, virtual, and cultural challenges that have no precedent in recent history. To add to the complexity, these trends are playing out against a backdrop of exceptionally low trust and widening polarization in societies worldwide.

In times of crisis, there is a tendency to look for means of resilience from the technological, scientific, and economic sectors. The role of arts and culture, however, has become a new source of inquiry, as is being discussed this February by Salzburg Global Seminar at the session The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal. 

As defined by Merriam-Webster, resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from stress. It's the notion of springing back into shape after being knocked down. In today's world of economic and political turmoil, being able to withstand the related shocks and stresses - for both individuals and societies-at-large - is more important than ever. 

Resilience can show itself in many forms - and the arts can help build it. To explore this topic, Salzburg Global Seminar has convened an international group of sixty practitioners and thinkers to explore the dynamic relationship between the arts, culture, and resilience. Coming from an wide array of backgrounds - from artists, cultural leaders, designers, architects and creative entrepreneurs to policymakers, environmentalists, urban planners, educators, anthropologists, sociologists, media experts, philanthropists, and community leaders - the participants in Salzburg have a wealth of experience in using the arts to tackle issues such as refugees and migration, urban upheaval and social injustice, post-conflict trauma, climate change, and loss of cultural heritage and threats to indigenous communities.

We share a few of their opening thoughts:

Artists are caught in the middle of conflict

There are several ways to respond to conflict and times of upheaval, including non-violent means, and "the arts have occupied a huge space in this area." The arts give people a voice and face to resolve problems without having to resort to violence, be that as a means of reuniting communities or expressing dissent against a political leader. Artists are often working in areas which remain contested: "It's the artists who have the ability to propel themselves beyond the situation and imagine how it can be different."

Resilience can be stronger than resistance 

When considering non-violent action in the face of conflict, we often talk about "resistance" - but perhaps we should also consider the power of "resilience."  As one Salzburg participant who had lived in conflict zones in the Middle East remarked: “Performance and art-making are sacred spaces... For me, the thing that has kept me sane is the resilience of art.” Artists can take control and “activate” spaces, displaying art among the very people who have inspired them. “I feel artists are cultural innovators. It takes a lot of courage and fortitude, and those are all the things that make up this idea of resilience.”

But how can we ensure that resistance and resilience are pro-active instead of reactive? As one participant said, “If we’re always looking at resilience as bouncing back from something bad, we’re already starting from a negative point.”

A new, shared vocabulary is needed

A dictionary definition of "resilience" is all well and good, but what does societal and individual resilience mean to different people in different contexts? How can the arts continue to thrive - and foster resilience - in situations such as living under dictatorships? As well as "resistance" and "resilience," the term "renewal" has been adopted, especially in post-conflict settings, but still this means different things to different communities in different settings. As they launched their week-long discussions, the participants considered what steps could be taken to reconcile differing world views and create a shared vocabulary.

The time is now

Many participants in Salzburg agree now is the perfect time to have a discussion about the relationship between the arts and resilience. As one participant said: “The fact this [session] is taking place is an act of resilience.” Engaging with matters concerning courage, creativity, and renewal is important. Another participant added, “I don’t think this session could have been more timely. It’s a fantastic opportunity for us to take time to reflect.” Resilience concerns the ability to recover in the face of adversity and the ability to secure a future, something which requires creativity and courage. Questions facing these art makers and advocates now include: Can we make resilience an asset for artists? Do artists want to use resilience as an asset? How can we make the relationship between art and resilience better understood? 


The Salzburg Global program The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage, and Renewal is part of the multi-year Culture, Arts and Society series. The session is being supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.