Being Change—The Artist as Citizen

2017 has been a year marked by change. This has been as true for me personally as it has been for the country at large. In neither case has it all been welcome change. For instance, about four weeks ago my 12-year-old broke his leg falling off a merry-go-round. Not a change I would have wished for. But, it is also true that with change comes opportunity. As we wind down this tumultuous year, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to develop and teach the new course “The Artist as Citizen” at Portland State University.

My colleague Suzanne Savaria and I began this artist as citizen project with a series of questions:

  • How would it change the way we approach art education if we were to train our students in social engagement aspect of their art at the same core level that we teach them artistic skills?
  • What if, across the disciplines, we approached student’s understanding of art as a change agent at the same foundational level we treat the acquisition of artistic skills?
  • What if, at this early stage in their development, we encouraged them to reflect on their sense of purpose as artists, their own potential to affect change?
  • Might they begin to consider, not just the how of making art, but the why, and in the process, expand their sense of  agency and their vision of the role of art can play in changing the world?
Peruvian dancer  Luciana Proaño  performed in Oregon's Elliott State Forest as part of  my event  to bring attention to the forest's potential sale to a private company. Image by Brenda Moseley.

Peruvian dancer Luciana Proaño performed in Oregon's Elliott State Forest as part of my event to bring attention to the forest's potential sale to a private company. Image by Brenda Moseley.

Over the course of the class, we heard from experts in conflict resolution, art history, political theater, public-interest architecture, and art as social practice. We read, wrote, reflected, discussed, and debated ideas and approaches, and studied the work of historical and contemporary artists as it related to activism and social engagement. We organized and led our own “teach-in,” at which four visionary Portland artist/leaders spoke passionately about creating intersections between art and community.

In the process, we uncovered a treasure trove of examples of artists, both in our region and around the world, creating dialogue, building community, pursuing activism, and transforming society. These include the innovative, community-centered work of street artists like JR, the deeply personal work of photographer Brandon Stanton, and the iconic protest art of Pablo Picasso. It also includes the work of my PSU colleagues like Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher at KSMOCA, the amazing contemporary art museum they created within King School in northeast Portland, and Margaret Leite who led the creation of the Smart Academic Green Environment (SAGE) Classrooms that are revolutionizing educational spaces.  

What these artists have in common is their willingness to frame the act of artistic creation as a gift to those with whom they come in contact—their audience, or whom they have committed to serve—their community.  

More than the information, though, the true reward of this class was the transformational nature of this way we were looking at art. Each of us—myself included—experienced moments of personal epiphany through this process of examination and reflection. Each of us was encouraged to re-imagine our roles and responsibilities as artists/citizens. In the process, we gained insight into what inspires us, what matters to us, where we feel we belong, where we connect to others, where we find hope, the issues and communities that we care about, our identities, and our dreams.

I look forward to talking about these ideas at the Portland Art Museum in a little over a month. For those attending, here are three pieces of writing that we discussed in the Artist as Citizen course that may provide food for thought as we explore this topic at the “In Dialogue” lecture series on January 21st.