The Danger Of Working With Artists

By Laila Sumpton

In protest OFCThe Project on Peacebuilding workshops in the Prijedor region of Bosnia were all about promoting understanding, learning how stories can heal and how to unite people for justice movements… which is why I thought it would be useful to throw a divisive spanner in the works and talk about creative clashes that can destabilise campaigns!

HIA fellows had a wealth of knowledge and experience on arts project that promoted social justice and peacebuilding—everything from puppet theatres in Beirut to an inter-faith choir in Sanksi Most, however it was useful for us to think of the separate aims and concerns of both campaigners and artists and the risks they saw in working with each other.

Our campaigners saw that the primary danger of working with artists lay in their inability to control the content, so that the work whether song, painting, film or poem succinctly spoke to their campaign message in a clear and understandable way.

Equally artists feared that campaigners would stifle their creativity and tamper with their artistic vision by being too prescriptive, reducing their work to propaganda—even if they believed in the cause. They were concerned that they would re-frame their work, and would look for a creation that was safe and accessible rather than creative and boundary pushing. On a practical level the campaigners were also unsure of whether the artists would even deliver the projects on time, or show up, such are dangers of artistic temperaments…

The power balance between artist and campaigner was called into question, when you have two visionaries on an unequal footing then the stage is set for conflict. There is also the question of who needs who more, who is doing who a favour— the artist or the campaigner? They may both have differing views on this! Usually the campaigner is the employer funding the artist in the vast majority of situations. Unless the artist approaches the campaigners and donates their time to a campaign for free.

Aside from the cause itself the reputations of both the individual artist or artistic group and campaign organisation are both on the line with any potential collaboration. The campaigners were concerned about any eccentric baggage that the artists might have, and if their previous work would contradict their message. Artists may worry about aligning themselves with radical campaigns that may hurt their chances of future funding from government grant bodies or companies.

With so many possible dangers, why should artists and campaigners unite? The answer lay in the long list of success stories, the partnerships that really inspired new audiences, helped reconceptualise campaign messages and see the heart and soul of the issue in a new light. In fact if you applied peacebuilding skills of good listening, and finding an honest and mutual aims and interests to art and campaign partnerships, then you can avoid the danger zones and inspire.

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