The Transformative Power of the Arts 

and Culture

Iris C F Gomes

Katharina Domscheit is a German curator and the founder and director of Peppina Art, with a Master of Arts in Arts Policy and Management from Birbeck, University of London. She has worked as an artist consultant and a gallery manager in England. In the first of her lectures in a series entitled How Art Can Create Change: The Power of the Arts and Culture at the Kokum Design Centre, she expounded the idea of the arts and culture as a means to transform society in a progressive manner.

The arts would comprise of dance, music, theatre, literature, visual arts and the combined arts. Culture is an amalgamation of the arts and the values, beliefs, traditions and ways of life of people. Art and culture together would be represented by architecture, news media, the World Wide Web, fashion, food, etc. A division of the arts can be traced with dance, music, mime, drama, films and literature being categorised as the performing arts. The visual arts consist of paintings, photography, installation art, video art, performance art and sculpture.

The artist is the core from whom all creativity emerges. On the outskirts of this creative energy are the culture industries, where the creativity is transmuted into a finished product, and these would include commercial centres as well. Beyond this are the connoisseurs of art, and the public that is impacted by it.

Famed critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer advocated strenuously for the idea of art for art’s sake only. Art for art’s sake would entail the artist’s true expression of himself or herself without allowing a price tag to obfuscate creative vision. In their Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), Adorno and Horkheimer coined the term culture industry to explain how popular culture could be used to condition people into accepting their economic condition and succumbing to capitalism. Their argument was that when art is commercialised, the mass production erases its true essence.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s predictions in 1944 that culture industries would greatly influence social meaning have become a reality in this modern age, with art institutions and centres shaping the mindset of society. Katharina says, ‘…this has actually come true in that mass production for a mass audience dominates “art for art’s sake”. This doesn’t mean that art for art’s sake is not happening. It is happening and we need to encourage this. What is happening is that with mass production and mass audience we have a more generalised taste to feed, and because of that we are losing out on the making of art for art’s sake.’ An example of art being tailor-made to cater to the general public is Bollywood movies, which have a wider audience than independent movies and so lead the box office race.

The government does its share of encouraging art and culture. India has the Ministry of Culture that enables the promotion of art and culture, acknowledging that doing so is essential to the development of the nation. For this purpose it has established national as well as regional museums, science and history museums, visual art galleries, cultural centres, anthropological and archaeological surveys, archives, libraries, research centres, architectural memorials, world heritage, national and regional festivals, and folk music, dance and theatre.

However, the vast population in India poses the threat of obliterating the voice of the individual. Other hindrances to the free flow of art that is unfettered from the bondage of commercialism are the bureaucratic methods and unclear mission of the Ministry of Culture. The ministry states that it intends to highlight India’s cultural pluralism, but in reality it has a funnel approach, indicating an emphasis on what most people would appreciate. There are, of course, the economic considerations to ensure efficient functioning of the ministry’s projects, and these can derail dedication to primarily serve the cause of art.

The alternative to this dilution of art, albeit an admirable venture undertaken by the government, is private platforms. These are, and have been, a product of society for some time now; including private museums, many set up by private collectors, private galleries (commercial and not-for-profit), art festivals, auction houses, private universities, private colleges and not-for-profit organisations that are run privately.

Artist driven organisations are gaining ground and so curators, critics and artists have become cornerstones in supporting the purity of the spirit of art. For example, if a private museum is opened with the intention to display installation art, then artists who specialise in that area can showcase their work there and it will appeal to an audience which has this specific taste. They are required to maintain a balance between art for art’s sake and commercial art.

The arts and culture are beneficial in terms of creating employment such as with the requirement of staff for a new gallery or theatre that has been instituted. The exhibition of artworks overseas, travelling dance troupes, etc. will further bring in currency. The specimens of the arts and culture which reach other countries will in turn help to draw tourists from those places. Promotion of the arts leads to urban and regional development, with cities growing and development of properties around arts centric institutions. Social development follows along with the maintenance of these areas.

Personal benefits of the arts and culture are social and intellectual interaction and communication among people and between individuals and the art works. The emotions, images and thoughts that the arts evoke in the mind of an individual are worth noting. This contributes to the personal growth of individuals in terms of gleaning knowledge and encouraging self-understanding and self acceptance. Social stability is derived from these situations as one stays in touch with one’s environment and nation. Promotion of the arts and culture connects us with diverse cultures facilitating a cohesive understanding of them.

Another benefit of the arts is art therapy, where people can paint their innermost turmoil if they have a difficulty in communicating it through speech. Art therapy is therapeutic and heals emotional wounds. It stimulates all the senses, thus keeping us mentally agile. James Clear, a writer who blogs online, says that engaging in artistic creation not only makes you feel better it also leads to real physical changes.

The value of the arts can be seen financially, socially and personally. Though they do generate economic growth, this is dependent on the current taste, as you find some artists are more in demand during some periods of time than others. The arts maintain growth of society and bonding of members of that society, which is constant even as the dynamics of social, political and economic change prevail.

On a personal level, the arts will bring us joy together with intellectual progression. ‘No matter how expensive the painting is, what we will come away with looking at that painting, is our personal interaction with that painting and that is something that will last forever…for as long as you decide it will last. The power of art is simply that it is everywhere,’ says Katharina. She continues, ‘Another beautiful thing about art is that it can be appreciated by anybody. No matter how much background knowledge you have, no matter where you come from, no matter whether you are poor or wealthy, you can always appreciate art. All you need to do is just open your eyes and look…take time out of your everyday routine and just look!'