The EmcArts Project Develops a New Model of Social Change through Teaching Artistry

By Richard Evans, President Emeritus, EmcArts, and Liz Dreyer, Lead Facilitator, EmcArts

Social systems are invariably complex and do not yield to lasting change through traditional advocacy or planning efforts. Why is this? In part, because humans are at once inter-dependent, passionate, assertive, and territorial. These qualities drive social systems away from being ordered and predictable in their behaviors. Most of the time, they become complex and adaptive—which means there is room for creative efforts and for irrational imagination to contribute to the emergence of positive change.

Complex systems, however, are notoriously hard to change. They possess a kind of gravitational pull that drags them back to established norms. Where powerful forces constrain the present and unpredictability rules the future, effective strategies for change must emerge indirectly through radical divergent experimentation, and ingrained assumptions that hold the system in stasis must be let go of on all sides.

These methods (experimenting obliquely, being open to new directions emerging, questioning shared assumptions) are counterintuitive for most of us, but are the lifeblood of the creative artist. Artmaking disturbs and reconfigures established ways of being, so the roots of artistic development and of complex system-level change are intertwined. Complexity scientist Dave Snowden notes: “The embodied nature of learning through art is itself an indirect approach to navigating complexity.”

The teaching artist in particular, whose practice brings to life the creative potential of others, can play a leading role in propelling systemic change by using approaches to complexity that are socially acceptable and can achieve emotional momentum, not just rational assent. Artmaking alone offers experiences of this kind—demanding but not confrontational, structured yet open to rapid revision—where profoundly different futures can be creatively explored and safely enough rehearsed for commitment to take hold.

Kirya Traber, Artist Facilitator, and Michelle Clesse, Local Convener, Union Project, in Pittsburgh parade for pedestrian safety.

In Pittsburgh, for example, a group of artists was determined to tackle the extremely high percentage of pedestrians being hit by cars. Pittsburgh has a lack of sidewalks and poor visibility for drivers. After working with community members at public safety meetings to capture in papier-mâché the diversity of faces they saw on the streets, the artists put together a parade of amazing headpieces, all of which were then worn at key intersections to alert drivers to pedestrians on the streets.

With this kind of “meta” narrative, a community makes the invisible visible, literally. The parade raised the issue of lack of pedestrian crossings above the eye level of drivers and began to name some of the barriers to making changes. The next steps from the parade were to bring the “pedestrian crowns” to City Hall, mark where the most dangerous crossings were, and begin to discuss together how to make these places safe.

We might call this an aesthetic approach to social change—a much-needed counterpoint to the deeply ingrained scientific method that fails us in complex conditions. Rather than being grounded in a formal hypothesis that is then tested (“If we do this, then this might happen”), artmaking begins at the pre-hypothesis level (“What might we learn if we do this?”). It releases the imagination by removing constraints on feeling and action in order to allow original connections to be made, which are then shaped through repeated rehearsal, critique, and improvement. Experienced in the whole body, and activating human capacities beyond (and including) the rational, artistic practices can result not only in remarkably innovative approaches to change but also high levels of ownership and commitment to the product or strategy that emerges from the development process.

So what kinds of stories really matter in complex systems change efforts? What kinds of content should teaching artists focus on? EmcArts programs have shown that teaching artists can lead the co-creation of meta-narratives—as they did in Pittsburgh—that coalesce community experience into archetypal meaning (the clash of different forms of movement). These processes can reveal the hidden structures and deep-seated assumptions that keep systems in stasis, and make visible the psychological foundations of a new way. Anecdotes of personal trauma, injustice, or heroism need to be heard and cannot be repressed. But in themselves they do little to change systems. What makes a difference are composite, localized myth-stories that capture both the specifics of real, convincing human experiences and also the universal meaning that the symbolic actions in the story carry.

Artists can shape and build these archetypal stories from the lives of those they work with. The stories do not have to be in words only. A group in Dallas that built an alternative community garden in an inner-city plot, using only discarded junk from the neighborhood, created a strong metaphor for the food deserts of the area. The work provoked new conversations and led to decisive change in commitment to local nutrition. When we are moved by art, systems begin to move.

Shared music-making is among the most powerful mythic processes we know, pre-echoing transformed inter-dependencies in real time. In his seminal book Musicking, Christopher Small wrote, “The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They model, or stand as metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be.”

The life-changing power of such experiences is well-known to musicians who work in El Sistema programs around the world. We saw it ourselves at our National Innovation Summit, when 250 people from 60 organizations in 15 communities across the United States (few engaged professionally in music) congregated for the “keynote” session to rehearse and perform for each other Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, releasing conference relationships to become a deeper bond.

Artists occupy a unique space that gives them permission to be subversive and construct alternative narratives—and the responsibility to do so. People are looking to our artists right now to explore different futures and yearning to be shown ways to realize them. It is an unexpected opportunity of the pandemic—but one that has often been present with artists in times of duress.

How can teaching artists develop their practice in this direction? By using a sequence of five artistic capabilities that echo system-changing interventions. We have found that teaching artists can help communities develop alternative narratives, images, and musics that embody the changed states of being that are aspired to, making accessible and memorable the newly embraced fundamentals on which they will be built. This means facilitating group artmaking that 1) is able to work with the surprises of inter-dependence and unpredictability; 2) weaves new networks and makes imaginative and unexpected connections among like-minded people across difference; 3) lets go of advance planning in favor of experimentation to discover new insights and possibilities; 4) makes generative use of sustained uncertainty (exploring multiple simultaneous ideas can plumb unexpected strategic potential); and 5) repeatedly rehearses new pathways and dispassionately lets go of favorite ideas when needed (amplifying and elaborating promising experiments, while closing others down).

Shared artistic experiences built in this way can powerfully express a radical vision for systemic change and inspire practical innovation toward it. They bring people together in support of unified community change initiatives, rather than partial and divided efforts. Working artistically along these lines enables groups to embody and prefigure the new mental models needed to underpin changed system dynamics.

In summary, teaching artists need to think about how to guide the construction and use of shared archetypal community narratives in different artforms, and how to integrate the five capabilities into their artistic practices in order to enable deep community re-imagining. Because both of these approaches involve deep reflection and letting go of fixed habits and long-held assumptions, teaching artists who want to catalyze change in social systems should also focus on how to use artmaking to manage loss.

These areas of work exemplify the next era of development of what it will mean to be a teaching artist, the social artistry of the future.

Editors’ Note: For a further exploration of EmcArts’ theory about the generative power of disorder, read Richard Evans’ essay “Making Disorder Generative.” For those interested in the “complex systems” work of David Snowdon referred in this article, read Eric Booth’s essay “Reframing El Sistema-Inspired Work,” which lays out the implications as directly applied to El Sistema programs.

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