Art To Strengthen Communities


Making art is the essence of being human. We do it in marble palaces and grass huts, every time we mark the unfolding of our lives. Even under the worst possible conditions, in SuperMax prisons and concentration camps, people save precious crumbs or scrape up mud to make sculptures. They scratch on prison walls with rocks or bits of charcoal. Herbert Zipper led a clandestine orchestra in Dachau. Our ancestors gathered around campfires, huddling against the darkness to share stories of the hunt, the trek, the storm and their meanings. Today we sit in auditoriums, warming ourselves by the light of more complicated stories. But underneath, we are the same. Making stories, images, songs, and structures is as essential to us as breathing.

Prophetic artists ask, “What stories need telling now?” They see that to survive the crisis in democracy, to achieve humane and sustainable community, we need the capacity to put ourselves in the other’s place and make choices driven by more than crude self-interest; and the social imagination to envisage new solutions to stubborn social problems. We need stories that draw the connections between public choices and actual human lives, stories that cultivate awareness and compassion.


Empathy and social imagination cannot be learned through intellect alone. Through film, theater, dance, music, literature, and visual art, through sharing our stories of resourcefulness and resilience, through sharing our own creativity, human beings have always learned to know and care for each other, to strengthen our communities and to face down challenges.

Art’s essence is its ability to engage us fully in body, emotions, mind and spirit, to create beauty and meaning, to cultivate imaginative empathy, to disturb the peace, to enable grief in the face of loss and hope in the face of grief. The great James Baldwin said that, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” My definition of a life worth living is one marked by a congruence of inner and outer realities, in which actions are shaped by the questions that truly matter most.

No one can guarantee that we will get what we want. All we can do is discover what ignites our passion, offer up our best efforts in its service, and surrender to the processes that have produced so many astounding surprises in the course of human history. As every artist knows, the pleasure is in the doing, at least as much as the result.

Seen above: Mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe by Oscar Velasquez. A graduate of Cooper School of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, Oscar’s murals can be seen from Ohio to South Carolina to Subotica, Serbia. He is a member of the American Watercolor Society; his paintings have been featured in numerous articles and publications including “The New Spirit of Watercolor” and “Exploring Color” by Northlight Books. (The mural shown above appears on the side of St. Peters School in Toledo, Ohio.)

Words above: by Arlene Goldbard. Arlene Goldbard is a writer, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational. Her essays have appeared in such journals as Art in America, The Independent, Theatre, High Performance and Tikkun. Her books include Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture; New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development; Community, Culture and Globalization; and her novel Clarity.

Interested in the community art form of murals? Here is a link to the mural arts program in Philadelphia; here is a blog about a neighborhood civic dialogue and history-based mural project in Tucson, AZ.

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