Can art/music/writing/film change us?
January 12, 2014 9:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to freshen up the assigned readings for an undergraduate writing class that I'm about to start teaching. The theme of the class is art (by which I mean not only visual art, but also music, film, and writing) and social change--that is, whether the former can actually help to achieve the latter. I have some readings on the topic but am looking for more. Help me, hive mind!
posted by chicainthecity to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

There's a study being released tomorrow arguing that '16 and Pregnant' and 'Teen Mom' may have prevented 20k pregnancies in 2010.
posted by acidic at 9:54 PM on January 12, 2014

Can you throw out some readings you already have in mind so we can get a feel for the tone you're looking for?
posted by kylej at 10:02 PM on January 12, 2014

There are a lot of choices from the Russian canon in both fine art and literature but a couple of the classics are The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and Maxim Gorky's autobiography.
posted by rue72 at 10:14 PM on January 12, 2014

I take it you're having people read some Vaclav Havel and some Athol Fugard.
posted by brookeb at 10:21 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Artists and writers have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of their work in this regard, especially in the last fifty years or so. Usually, the answer to your question is "no".

But I can cite two examples where art really did result in a substantive change.

1. The book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" seriously strengthened the Abolition movement in the North.

It's not fair to blame the Civil War on this book, but it certainly contributed to the political flow of events that resulted in the Civil War.

2. About 40 years ago, the County of Los Angeles Fire Department began an experiment with fire department Rescue Squads who were giving substantial medical training, and started doing medical treatment of victims before they were transported to the hospital. The program was quite successful, but it didn't seem to be getting a lot of traction outside of LA.

Jack Webb decided to make a TV series out of the concept. The resulting show was "Emergency!" and it ran for 7 years. The rescues in each episode were reenactments of actual rescues which had been made by paramedics.

And besides the mundane aspects of entertaining people and making a lot of money, it also publicized the idea of paramedics. People who watched the show started wondering why there weren't paramedics in their own communities, and lawmakers all over the US took notice. And now it's common -- and thousands of lives have been saved, because of a TV show.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:55 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh hello, this is a strong passion of mine. Here's some blogs to start you off:

Conversations with Bianca occasionally has interviews with people who incorporate art and social change

Center for Artistic Activism is all about this

kusama pyjamas


Another Limited Rebellion

posted by divabat at 11:24 PM on January 12, 2014

Off the top of my head from the music world, Wagner and German nationalism, raggae and Jamaican politics, The Velvet Underground and Velvet Revolution. Rock music has been a massive catalyst of societal change, not necessarily as the root cause but as a form of memetic transmission.
posted by Candleman at 1:47 AM on January 13, 2014


But in general the would-be change is difficult to gauge. Still, on the philosophy side, Marcuse's One Dimensional Man was near-required reading during the countermovements of the 1960-70s , and Debord's The Society of the Spectacle was so popular that people graffitied quotes from the book everywhere. But I have no idea if these books resulted in any actual social change.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:59 AM on January 13, 2014

John Carey, 'What Good are the Arts'. Is positive on social and therapeutic impact for participants in the arts, but perhaps a little negative on art as a social catalyst.
posted by molloy at 5:57 AM on January 13, 2014

The TV show Dallas is sometimes given credit for changing attitudes towards capitalism in various Iron Curtain countries.
posted by yankeefog at 6:57 AM on January 13, 2014

Contagion persuaded the Tea Party to continue funding the CDC.

I personally found To Be Young, Gifted, and Black really influential
posted by spunweb at 7:00 AM on January 13, 2014

Are you looking for readings that demonstrate a link between art and a social change or argue for such a link?

I don't have any recommendations for the former, but as to the latter, check out Martha Nussbaum's work, particularly Poetic Justice and Not for Profit.
posted by xenization at 9:39 AM on January 13, 2014

Response by poster: Xenization, I'm looking for readings that argue for such a link, either in general or with regard to a specific case. My apologies if that wasn't clear in the original post.

But I appreciate and am learning from all of the answers so far!
posted by chicainthecity at 9:59 AM on January 13, 2014

I've found a number of books on the experiences of individuals changed by art, but these two seem more widely relevant:

Books that Changed the World - Robert B. Downs
Books that Changed the World - Andrew Taylor

Amazon has other potentials--search 'music [or art or...] changed world.'
posted by xenization at 10:20 AM on January 13, 2014

In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that empathy, which has kind of been collectively acquired through the widespread reading of novels, has contributed to a decrease of violence in the world.

Seamus Heaney also talks about the social role of poetry and other forms of literature in his Nobel Prize speech as "bearers of value", in the context of 1970s and 1980s Northern Ireland:

"The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry's power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry's credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being."

And there is also a lovely poem, The Joy of Writing by
Wislawa Szymborska, which doesn't really argue for anything explicitly...

"The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand."
posted by ipsative at 10:53 AM on January 13, 2014

Response by poster: Sorry, kylej, didn't see your question until just now for some reason. One reading that I already have in mind is "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," by Thomas Frank. It's from a book called *The Cultural Resistance Reader,* which has some interesting if somewhat dated readings.
Does that help?
posted by chicainthecity at 10:55 AM on January 13, 2014

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