The artist as ally of social(-cultural) work

Johan Leman, 31 December 2021

The first thing that has stayed with me from my long stay in social and (social-) cultural work is that beauty in itself has a great educational value. Something that is beautiful usually remains respected, whoever the visitors may be. This also applies to art that is brought into a meeting room or youth work. Once, Willem Vermandere left two large wooden sculptures at Foyer. They found their way to the youth centre and to the women’s work. In all those years, not the slightest scratch was made to both works.

A second thing that strikes one during social work is that a work of art manages to create a broader perspective without words. Something imaginary-global enters a space that otherwise remains very local. Through art, the visitor feels referred to and sometimes even included in a space that far exceeds the local without losing the intimacy and closeness of the local. Guy Cassiers once worked twice on a theatre with children from the Foyer bicultural education projects. 35 years later, those little actors of that time are still talking about it. Many years later Kris Kaerts did it again with Roma youth. This too was real empowerment.

Depending on the branch of art, art in socio-cultural work is also supportive of solidarity, either because of the iconic element it brings in or because of the ‘mood’ it creates or promotes. (Music, dance, photography, etc.).

And a final point that stands out is that art contains a structuring potential. Because art often has a realising meaning, it is performative. Art can help to clarify something strongly. Supporting structure and creating mood, this is what the works of Peter Buggenhout, Willem Boel, Charif Benhelima, Ermias Kifleyesus, Elia Li Gioi and others do in the highly participative MigratieMuseumMigration.

There is art and art, I know, there is very accessible and less accessible art. It deserves a wider debate. But I think that art is not enough present in the social and socio-cultural sector. (There are remarkable exceptions, I know). Perhaps the artist himself should think more than he does now about how to involve art in social(-cultural) work, not at least amidst people who don’t feel addressed because not enough enjoyable or too conceptual. This is another of the lessons that we should perhaps learn from the pandemic, both from the side of the artist and from that of the social(-cultural) work.