Discussing the potential of the arts to heal in times of lockdown, in partnership with Artsformation (a platform exploring the intersection between arts, society and technology) and European Alternatives.

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Author: Marta Cillero
Photo credit: Christian Mio Loclair Narcissus

Arts-based therapies in the form of arts therapy, bibliotherapy and creative writing have long been recognised by medical professionals as providing beneficial healing effects. Like much of the digital transformation we’re currently experiencing, not everyone benefits from working remotely under Covid-19 restrictions. For anyone yet to establish a foothold in employment, those in traditional customer-facing service jobs, older workers, or those who simply struggle without physical workplace interaction, Covid-19 may amplify the social, economic and political impact of digital divides between the established or digitally well-positioned and the great many others who are increasingly marginalized.

Artsformation, offers a timely investigation of the potential of the arts in transforming society to become more inclusive and sustainable in response to digital challenges such as that posed by the current pandemic. As part of the project, our recently published report, ‘The Role of the Arts in the Digital Transformation’, surveys ways that art and artists are found to have transformative potential. The report also offers a more focused examination of the ways that the arts can act as cure against the ills of digital society.  We return to this idea, but the metaphor of a medicine or tonic is a useful one in understanding the arts’ transformative potential.

The ease, attraction, and sometimes addiction to the screen-based interaction is undeniable, yet it is also common to experience a sense of an absence in digital space. More broadly, loss of face-to-face relations, individualism, and instrumentalized rationality are associated with digital disenchantment. Countering this force, the arts offer to re-enchant our relation to digital society by asking us to imagine the world without conclusion, and to present new modes of action within existing reality.

Marina Abramovic, performs by La Citta Vita is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Marina Abramovic’s, 2010 performative work, The Artist Is Present, provides an example of this. Absent any technologies other than two chairs and a desk, Abramovic invited strangers to sit in front of her in silent eye contact. The artwork functions to reposition social interaction in a way that disrupts established norms and create space for recalibrating our understanding of communication, or even what is special to be human. It’s not hard to imagine a contemporary version of this performance might involve the artist silently holding a stranger’s uncovered hand.

In our report, we identify four main branches to how arts’ curative potential is put in action:

  1. Re-enchantment
  2. Taking care in and through art,
  3. Offering imaginative solutions to societal, organizational and technical problems, and
  4. Stimulating  our critical capabilities to live a life well and to achieve collective wellbeing. Further, we reflect on how each of these processes might be put in action in relation to some of the challenges of digital transformation.

For policymakers, corporate leaders, social services, or others looking for solutions to social problems related to digital transformation, it is all too easy to take a blinkered view of the transformative role the arts may play. Which is to say, it is easy to promote the ways by which art can be transformative for society’s betterment. In the same tradition as Adorno’s condemnation of the detrimental effects of art produced by the ‘culture industry’, it is also important to draw attention to the arts potential for negative societal effects. Arts that entertain by reproducing homogenized social relations or which reduce critical thought to maximize audiences can have an impoverishing social impact. French philosopher Bernard Stiegler describes the arts as a ‘pharmakon’ or drug to capture the idea that the arts may be at once remedy and poison. Our survey identifies significant potential for arts-based transformation, but that we must take note of several challenges – the negative aspect of the pharmakon being one of them. 

Moving into our 10-month of increasingly screen-based interactions, a period where a host of digital challenges have been laid bare, the arts’ soothing and curative properties are as relevant as ever. As we’ve begun to address in our first report, ‘The Role of the Arts in the Digital Transformation’, the challenge is understanding processes and mechanisms by which art transforms and whether this knowledge can facilitate the arts to play a greater role in transformation of digital society. In context of the current pandemic, the risk of tapping the transformative potential of the arts seems one well worth taking.

Artsformation is a platform exploring the intersection between arts, society and technology. More information here.

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