Art for the Powerless

Here’s my May 17 article from Hothouse Magazine:

“That wall isn’t there just to keep me in, but to keep you out.” ~Tyrone, a former Inside Out Prison Exchange Program participant.

Art, of course, can do many things. That is, art can connect us with the holy; it can be a form of worship. Art can be a vehicle by which artists soothe their physical, psychological, or spiritual maladies. Art can be entertaining, shocking, an introduction to beauty and aesthetic for the one who consumes it. Art often seems largely used by the privileged, those for whom producing and consuming is a way of life.

All of that, of course, is dandy. We all use art to suit us. But, for some, art is life. Literally. Victims of tragedy, who may not necessarily identify themselves as artists, have used art, if not to make sense of how they were acted upon, but to live in the tensions of tragedy: who they were before and who they are now. Art helps victims cope with the then and the now and the violent moment that separates the two. In this way, the person who was powerless in a moment of tragedy, whether at the whims of nature or the hands of another person, can work toward reclaiming herself.

Others for whom art is life might also be those who have victimized others. In many cases, perpetrators exert power and violence over victims because in all other realms, they themselves are powerless. Perpetrators are often the chronically powerless who seek to overpower. Those who are stripped of economic and social power are often violent in ways they believe they are acted upon by those in power over them—in other words, they model what they’ve been taught as marginalized members of our society. Often, the perpetrator doesn’t know what it means be powerful apart from hurting others. The victim is innocent, at the wrong place at the wrong time. But we might also consider the perpetrator a victim of her surroundings, someone who may not understand responsibility the way most of us do because they’ve never been taught. While many might see this assertion as one that makes excuses for perpetrators, what is more intriguing to me is how the nature of art can, in the right ways, empower those who victimize in their quest for power.

I recently became acquainted with Ashley Lucas, associate professor of theater and drama and director of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan, which uses creative expression to give a voice to prisoners through literary and visual arts. She’s also the author of an ethnographic play about prisoners’ families, called “Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass.”
Similarly, the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program brings college students and prisoners together in an interactive learning environment on the prisoners’ turf—behind prison walls. At least some of the professors I know who’ve begun Inside Out programs at their institutions are themselves artists, teaching students inside and outside of prison the power of art to reconcile.
Art connects us to each other and teaches us something about how to live together as one because it gives voice to the most vulnerable parts of us, the unseen, roiling parts.

One program that intrigues me is called Reading For Life, developed by Alesha Seroczynski, a research associate at the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The program places mentors with at-risk youth and young adults at the local Juvenile Justice Center. The mentors pair literature and personal study as it relates to the seven classic virtues (justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, fidelity, hope, and charity). Students who participate in the program do so in lieu prosecution. Ninety-seven percent of those who complete the program have not re-offended; ninety percent have no more contact with law enforcement.

In all realms, art is healing, empowering, redemptive. Rather than only for the privileged, art stands as a means by which all people can find reconciliation and something outside themselves: hope.

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