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Excerpt from Social Work Artfully: Beyond Borders and Boundaries edited by Christina Sinding and Hazel Barnes

From Chapter 3
How art works: Hopes, claims, and possibilities for social justice
by Christina Sinding and Hazel Barnes

Art, its relevancy to personal and social struggle, and its ability to aid efforts to transform social relations are the focus of this chapter.

The first section draws from a review of the literature on arts-informed social work (Sinding, Paton, & Warren, 2012). Social work practitioners, educators, and researchers often herald the arts as a means to respond to individual and community troubles. We discuss the various ways art is understood to address constraints on expression, failures of empathy, and oppressive patterns of knowing more effectively than “usual” social work.

In the next section, we reflect on the specific contributions and potentialities of applied drama and theatre. We identify a variety of types of applied drama and theatre, locating each in its historical and social context, and offering an assessment of the particular way in which each type affects people and communities.

The final section is a drawing together of insights at the intersection of social work and applied theatre, focusing both on what we learn from one another and areas ripe for collaboration.

How art “works” in arts-informed social work

Arts-informed social work is not a singular thing—far from it. Social workers and social work researchers take up the arts in a variety of ways; we are motivated by disparate interests and have different ideas about where, why, and how art and social work can and should come together. Not surprisingly, though, we are collectively motivated by a conviction that art can make a unique contribution to processes of change, both personal and social. In the literature on art and social work, the use of art carries at least three key promises: it can overcome constraints on expression; enable empathy; and disrupt dominant ways of knowing.

Overcoming constraints on expression

Many discussions of the arts in social work practice have an image in common of a person who holds a jumble of difficult, troublesome perceptions, feelings, or memories inside. Art, in these writings, is presented as a means of enabling the exteriorization of difficult feelings and thoughts—of allowing troubles to be “released” from inside (DeCarlo & Hockman, 2004). Art is held to be especially useful and productive for people who “have difficulty expressing themselves in words—whether for cognitive, psychological or safety reasons” (McFerran- Skewes, 2005, p. 148).

While many arts-informed social work projects focus on individual expression, the messy problematic stuff on the inside of a person has an echo in collective life: the social relations between us are messy, troubled, and require expression. Again, art is perceived to be useful in part because usual forms of communication are deemed inadequate, or because expression is constrained by them.

An article by Wulff, George, Faul, Frey, and Frey (2010) begins with reflections on how conversations about racism are so often avoided in the academy. An artful approach made a difference, in their experience. During performances of a drama developed by a School of Social Work diversity committee, the authors reported that “we could say the ‘unsayable,’ that is, we were empowered to speak in the context of our [performance scripts] that (which) we struggled to voice in our routine daily conversations with each other” (2010, p. 119). Linda Harms Smith and Motlalepule Nathane-Taulela (2011), reflecting on the South African context, describe a similar evasion and suppression when discussing apartheid. Their use of art recognizes the unique set of internalized and structural oppressions of class, race, and gender that permeate the postapartheid and post-colonial context (L. Smith, 2008). Inviting students to create pictorial representations of early memories of powerlessness enables their consciousness of forms of oppression, and how these become internalized. Harms Smith and Nathane-Taulela (2011) suggest that art also offers a way to make the persistence of oppression available for critical reflection in a context where talk about it is routinely discouraged.

In a variation on this theme, some social work researchers take up the arts not because people or communities encounter some difficulty expressing themselves, or because talk about an oppressive dynamic is suppressed, but because the expected or required forms of expression are themselves implicated in oppression. Ann Fudge Schormans (2010), for example, relied on artsinformed approaches in her inquiry with people labelled intellectually disabled because “traditional research(er) insistence upon the written and spoken word can be both limiting and exclusionary.”1

In other instances, usual forms of communication are inadequate because the operation of oppression is itself so elusive. Izumi Sakamoto and colleagues have explored the very complex dynamics at play in the requirement that newcomers to Canada demonstrate “Canadian experience” (Sakamoto, Chin, & Young, 2010). The interactional signifiers of Canadian experience are often intangible—potential employers register very subtle gestures and expressions as Canadian (and not). Research interviews typically fail to capture or adequately describe these subtle gestures and expressions, but dramatic techniques can do so.

Social workers turn to the arts, then, in part because they seem to address or resolve limitations or constraints on expression. Art offers an alternative to conventional language or speaking when they are difficult or exclusionary. In situations where oppressive dynamics are hard to identify or where communication about them is discouraged, artful approaches can help us get hold of them, evade habitual defensiveness in talking about them, and make them available for discussion and action.

Enabling empathy

Another set of ideas about how art can be useful in social work concerns the difficulty social workers and students encounter in attempting to forge genuine relationships across social and cultural differences.

Gregory Gross (1999) suggests that classroom activities designed to create opportunities for students to interact with “others” (in this case, lesbians and gay men) are often problematic. While presentations by members of “marginalized groups” have some place in reducing prejudice, “the contrived nature of that medium usually prevents a true encounter with real people living their lives” (p. 142). Drama has more potential to enable such an encounter. When reading and enacting a script, “students can inhabit those relationships from the inside out and the outside in” (p. 143). Inhabiting those relationships, “students can come to appreciate the varying perspectives of various characters … can establish empathy with the characters in their situation … can ‘know’ these people” (p. 143). Ungar (2011), reflecting on the use of the novel as a research tool, makes similar claims and suggests that fiction allows us “to walk a little while in the shoes of another, seeing the complex weave of associations that characters use to make sense of their world” (p. 292). He points in particular to how fictional forms allow researchers to portray a character’s inner world in ways that usual research representations do not. Fictional forms enable us, in an usually deep way, to appreciate the texture and complexity of (in this case) the lives of young people navigating child welfare and criminal justice systems.

Goldstein (1998) advocates for the humanities in social work education while elaborating on this theme in more general terms. He cites Posner (1997) on the “empathy-inducing” role of literature, particularly in relation to cultures and sensibilities unlike the reader’s own, and points out that a good novel or play does not merely describe, but draws the reader emotionally into events. It is not merely “learning about” that happens; rather, “we are acquiring experience vicariously by dwelling in the imaginary worlds that literature creates” (Posner, 1997, quoted in Goldstein, 1998, p. 251).

Many scholars point out that social work education must support students not only in relating to “others,” but also in understanding themselves and their wn attitudes—a goal that Gross (1999), again, suggests can be accomplished through students vicariously experiencing how characters in a drama evolve in their own perspectives, and live with paradoxes (both love and prejudice, for example).

Ideas about empathy and vicarious experience also find their way into discussions about art and citizen engagement, with the claim that storytelling and theatre can draw community members into discussing social policy dilemmas in especially productive ways. Whereas a case study typically prompts debate and problem solving, a storied theatrical production works by immersing audiences in the situation, enabling audience members “feel the position of the person in the play” (Nisker, 2010, p. 88). Audiences commenting on situations they have “lived in” imaginatively offer much more complex and reflective responses than those who have engaged in other citizen engagement processes (Cox, Kazubowski-Houston, & Nisker, 2009). Kennedy Chinyowa’s work makes similar arguments in relation to conflict management and transformation (chap. 10, this volume).

Artful representations, then, are means by which we can imaginatively inhabit life worlds beyond our own, and may help us appreciate and empathize with others and their situations. Art engages us in ways that are emotional, sensory, and embodied, as well as cognitive, and seems to have some special capacity to generate complex, nuanced, and empathic understandings that are, potentially, linked to social solidarity.

Interrupting dominant ways of perceiving/knowing

Yet another set of ideas about art’s value to social work starts from the premise that our habitual perceptions are harmful or diminishing to ourselves or others. Art, in this discourse, works as a foil to the usual (dominant) images. It has the capacity to interrupt our habits of seeing, and to challenge and alter what and how we know.

Reflecting upon the reluctance of social work students to enter gerontological social work, for example, Fiona Patterson points to “powerful medical, psychiatric, and sometimes stereotype-based theory and research about aging” (2004, p.178). She uses a narrative perspective and the richness of literary works to counter these constructions, and to “reeducate ourselves and inspire students” to work with elderly people “more responsively and creatively” (2004, p. 178). Discussing international social work placements, Furman, Coyne, and Negi suggest that poetry, in prompting reflection on alternative meanings for events and interactions, can have the effect of “potentially liberating the mind from stereotypical ways of seeing the world” (2008, p. 76).

In their exploration of the use of photography in social work education, Catherine Phillips and Avril Bellinger (2010) note that popular discourses (in this context, racist discourses about asylum seekers) “can literally dominate and inform [students’] practice knowledge” (p. 3), and have set their use of Diane Matar’s photographs of politically displaced people living in Britain in the context of this problematic practice knowledge. Deliberate in their choice of these photographs, Phillips and Bellinger have drawn attention to Matar’s recognition of asylum seekers as individuals, and the dignity afforded in both the making of the photographs and the images themselves. In the midst of their efforts to make meaning from photographs, viewers are drawn to “situate [them]selves within the social relations embedded in the image” (Phillips & Bellinger, 2010, p. 7). These particular photographs—in the everyday familiarity of the living spaces, and the full biographies they imply—collide with the more widely available images of asylum seekers, effecting a kind of interruption to the “othering” social relations embedded in the dominant images.

Ann Fudge Schormans, for example, relied on arts-informed approaches in her inquiry with people labelled intellectually disabled because “traditional research(er) insistence upon the written and spoken word can be both limiting and exclusionary (2010; see also chap. 11 in this volume). As part of her research, Fudge Schormans invited people labelled intellectually disabled to respond to and offer commentary on public photographic depictions of people with disabilities. Then, working with a digital media consultant, she invited them to change the images, or create new ones. The significance of the PhotoChangers’ artful work was in how it offered “a means of interrupting what is known about them” (2010, p. 54; Fudge Schormans, 2011). Through their research and its public presentation, the PhotoChangers effected changes in the “perceptual habits” of non-disabled people.

Bernd Reiter (2009) describes a somewhat similar process in his account of an arts-based social development project in Brazil. Reiter outlines extreme inequalities of wealth in the country as well as profound “misrecognition,” in Nancy Fraser’s (1998) use of the term, among members of the community.2 A music school initiated in the poor neighbourhood of Candeal generated benefits for its students like those available in more conventional social and economic development initiatives (e.g., some of the students gained employment as a result of their involvement). The arts program was distinct, however, in its capacity to draw state actors and local middle- and upper-class white Brazilians to poor neighbourhoods multiple times, over extended periods. Presenting their art—their own representations of identity and situation to an audience—the young people achieved various kinds of recognition. While there was immediate appreciation for their talents, it was more significant, Reiter claims, that, “artistic expression provided a vehicle for inserting the voices of historically marginalized groups into the public realm, thereby challenging cultural hegemony” (p. 157). The middle-and-upper-class cultural hegemony—and along with it the habitual social and political “misrecognition” of the neighbourhood residents—was interrupted.

The literature on art and social work suggests, then, that art may be an especially effective way to break “bad habits”: to interrupt patterns of seeing and knowing defined by stereotype and prejudice, to bring us to consciousness about these habits, and to offer the possibility for new ways of knowing and relating.