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 intersection of arts & human rights
The intersection between the arts and the social or political sphere is rich in history. Maybe it all started with the Trojan horse, an artifact of beauty that brought down an empire; more recently in the Western canon we have witnessed art’s ability to express and experience protest, in Picasso’s Guernica, in Goya, in the poetry of Ahmatova, Heaney, in the popular songs of U2, Sting, Jackson Browne, and others. The division between art and the political, if it ever existed, is clearly artificial—the boundary is porous. Art is rooted in an atmosphere of openness and tolerance to flourish and survives underground, determinedly, even when that rich air is not there. So the political context affects it, at the very least. For art is, at its core, about true freedom, about untrammeled speech, unbridled expression of the spiritual and the relentless search of conscience. Art explores our every corner- high, low, sublime and sorry alike; it is the mirror of man. And we in the West have come to see cultural democracy as a right, just like economic and political democracy. It is a right that can be the foundation of change, wherein self-expression is a prerequisite for self-empowerment. In that sense, then, human rights, is at the core of artistic practice, in all its difference and breadth.

Art has another point of intersection with the political, in that it is also a potent vehicle for communication, one that uses beauty, and emotion, to transport the viewer to worlds and realities that we might not be receptive to otherwise. Trapped by the play of color, the explosion of form, the reality of Guernica sinks in—the screaming faces turned to the skies, the mothers gripping their children, the memory of the death and horror visited on that small village in Spain, in its brutal civil war when Fascism triumphed- a harbinger of the World War only steps behind. Art may register the horror of an event removed in space and time better than statistics, or news reports, by delivering the message in its aesthetic context. And it functions as evidence as well, remaining forever as a reminder that this inhumanity or injustice occurred. Susan Sontag summarized its identity in this way: "A work of art encountered is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not about something; it is something. A work of art exists in the world, not just as text or a commentary on the world. A work of art makes us comprehend something singular."

Two frequent criticisms of activist art are often heard: "Art doesn’t change anything; so leave the politics to the politicos"; or, "It’s not art; it’s propaganda (or sociology)." But if art cannot change the world, it can be part of a world that is changing. Photographers and playwrights can, and do, reflect the concerns of their time and place as much as novels, poems, and music. Art’s value as a political tool resides in that intersection, that enduring quality, those timeless reminders of a humanity we share.