How Change Really Happens (Hint: Through Art)

A friend of mine recently posted this question to Facebook: “I'm curious. How do you suppose change happens?”

Answer? Life imitates art.

This is a massive thesis, the gist of which is that art has a few things going for it that make it particularly incredible at catalyzing change. Chiefly, art:

  • Brings new ideas to life,
  • Elicits emotional reactions,
  • Leaves interpretation to the audience, AND
  • Makes disagreement safe.

This combination is magic for fostering change because it's all the things. It’s better than work, advocacy, directives, or anything. Says me. Here’s why:

Brings new ideas to life Art, literally, is what happens when an artist creates something that’s never been experienced before. And anytime people are exposed to new ideas, their vision for what’s possible changes—and with it, their expectations for what will exist in the future.

Elicits an emotional reaction True, lots of things elicit emotional reactions, but few things are able to get at those complex emotions that come from stepping directly into conflict. Good art, like a good friend, calls out your shit. Imagine a misogynist realizing that the image in the Georgia O’Keeffee painting he bought for his company’s lobby isn’t just an orchid. If he has it removed, he risks exposing his sexism. If he doesn’t, he’s been one-upped by a lesbian. Either way, for at least a moment, he's forced to wrestle with something ugly inside him that creates a chance he'll choose a new point of view.

Leaves interpretation to the audience Everyone co-creates art’s meaning, and each audience member is free to choose a meaning for art that either validates or challenges his or her world view. Art is amazing this way: it can hide those parts of itself that someone’s not ready to accept until he is; sort of like letting people dial up or down the difficulty level of what they're willing to accept. As someone's difficulty level increases, bam. New reveal. And even after the reveal, art is still right.

Makes disagreement safe For all the ways art challenges people as individuals, art is also very protective of peoples’ relationships with others. Its protectiveness stems from the fact that art is ultimately inconsequential—so statements like, “I love it, I just don’t think I’d want it in my house," or “I’m not in the mood for that song" don't trigger the sort of tribalism that shuts down conversation. In this way, art creates a safe environment—an important precursor to positive, manageable change. (And, ironically, one thing that makes art quite consequential indeed.)

So What The upshot to all this is that art catalyzes change in a very powerful way.

For those amongst us who are change agents, the key then is to know when and how to capture upon that shift and channel it into action. Think of it as facilitating life becoming art.

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