Human Rights

The Right to Bear Art

Today I’m guest blogging at another site: The Art Haus SLC, a community arts organization dedicated to “bringing creativity to the lives of individuals, families and students in the Salt Lake City area.” They are currently running a kickstarter campaign — Click here to learn more and offer your support.

In the US, art making is often treated as a privilege. Our very conception of “the artist” as someone separate from and different than the rest of us — the moody recluse or the superstar genius — privileges the few who show the requisite talent early on. But this attitude is nowhere more striking than in our public schools. As art experiences are cut in schools serving primarily poor students of color to make room for “core” courses and test prep, private schools continue to make art courses central. Art education has become a privilege offered to those already economically and racially privileged. As evidence of this trend, a study by the NEA found that young Black and Latino adults interviewed in 2008 were 49% less likely to have had arts education as children than those interviewed in 1982; for Whites the decrease was only 5%.

At the risk of overstatement, this is a human rights violation — at least, according to the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 27 of this document reads: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This is a powerful statement that reaches far beyond equal access to paint and brushes.

Art becomes a right when we begin to understand it not only as a form of individual creative activity, but also as one of the central ways that culture is created, critiqued, shared, and shifted. To cut off individuals, or even whole groups, from these conversations is to deny access to a certain type of power — the power to have a say in who we are, who is included in our “community,” and how we should be with one another. This conception of art as a right rather than a privilege is foundational to the community arts movement. But what does it mean for practice?

First of all, it means recognizing the ways that people are already participating in cultural life. Arts practice is taking place all around us, but often in ways not appreciated by mainstream arts and educational institutions. Second, it means sharing power and decision making in artistic spaces — moving from a service model to a collaborative model. Third, it means taking a serious look at how power and privilege — racial, cultural, economic, gender — shape our lives, our aesthetics, and our art spaces. Fourth, it means challenging institutions of artistic power, such as art schools and museums, to break down walls both physical and cultural. And finally, it means creating new artistic spaces that reflect the values of democracy, collaboration, and critical multiculturalism.