Refugees rescued from the sea. Watercolour on paper, 2019
Art opens our eyes. Throughout history we have been able to read the social and political history when it has been captured in a painting. More than this, the great artists used art as a way to tell stories, to share their own views and ideas. They inspire us to evaluate the human condition.
We have advanced our sciences, medical knowledge and our technology has enhanced our lives and totally changed the way we communicate. But, this has also intensified the threats to human rights.
We are witnessing the 75 million displaced people, through Refugees and Migrants fleeing war, climate change, poverty or social-civil inequality.
With religious extremism, a resurgence in nationalist-centric politics which has lead to Facist ideas re-entering mainstream politics in many countries, expanding divides between rich and poor, the impact of privilege and racism becoming more apparent... when we add climate change to this the suffering of humanity is perhaps at a delicate tipping point.
There is also a crisis of confidence, and a mass loss of trust, in institutions such as ‘The Government’, National authorities, and established political parties. We need to acknowledge that faith and religious institutions have also done little to instil the public’s trust in established paragons of social good.
In this environment, the human rights message is flagging and may be failing. Perhaps the human rights message is too legalistic, technocratic, or condescending, or “politically correct”.
The 20th century’s human rights message may have become too divorced from the lives of many, too focused on particular types of vulnerable people, e.g. refugees, lgbtq+, minorities and prisoners... Perhaps the ‘Average Citizen’ whom would call on historic imagery of ‘Nazi-Beating’ or ‘Good Deeds’ would never consider their vote for nationalistic political ideals as an endorsement against these historical events which they hold dear to their view of humanity.
Whatever the reasons for these changes, it has happened, the language of the international and municipal human rights professionals, whether conveyed by the practitioners, the activists, the lawyers, the academics, the bureaucrats, or the judges, is not resonating as we need it to. We as supporters of human rights hold a blame too in this condition.
The human rights message needs help and reinforcement. Artists can help. Artists, have helped. Artists will always help.
The professional field of Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and human rights can learn a lot from the arts.
Our emotions commonly drive decisions; despite modern societies being lead to believe we our civilisations and nations are driven by rational thought and informed decisions
History has taught over and over that perceptions such as love, hate, hope, forgiveness, horror and empathy) are more powerful than facts. They can create emotional false-truths.
This eschewing of perception is intensified and more dangerous when society’s acceptance of facts is rapidly fracturing. -You only need to look at the political dangers of the USA with former president trump, the Myanmar treatment of Muslims or the UK’s ‘Brexit’ to see how this fracture of perception starts to impact negatively on human rights and human lives.
The problem... Human Rights as a message, is NOT about perceptions.
Art, however, is all about perceptions, even sometimes abstract or direct representations and reactions. Music, Film, Visual Art, Performance, and storytelling are more powerful mediums than the formal text normally used by human rights professionals. You only need to look at peaceful protests by activists compared to peaceful protests by artists and activists working together. Success is in the emotional intelligence and communication of resonating meaning.
Art does transcend barriers. Art comments on politics and language. The arts chronicle human rights. An author or poet can use their art of words to touch a life, to shape it, to inspire. There is no artist in history or alive now who’s inspiration doesn’t in some way offer a commentary of their view of human rights and civil justice.
Art can chronicle human rights abuses, hence providing for a unique form of naming and shaming, witnessing, and accountability.
Picasso’s painting: Guernica from 1937 is a savage indictment of the aerial bombing of civilians in the Spanish civil war.
Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ drew stark attention to racism in the US criminal justice system. Or my personal favourite Pete Seeger’s ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ commentary on war.
Art can also inspire people to act as advocates for human rights causes.
Picasso’s Guernica on display.
Art can be used in more direct ways to appeal to governments. After all, policymakers and leaders have cultural tastes and lives. They have thoughts, feelings and emotions that can be easily shaped and perhaps even ‘designed’ to react to art.
Art can help to heal the wounds of human rights abuses. Art allows creativity, an expression of compassion to help to alleviate the suffering of people in refugee camps, or in prison. It is their testimony, their story, for future generations to resonate with through interpretation.
The potential of art must not be overestimated by the human rights world either.
Art may be better at inspiring, activists, campaigners and human rights professionals are better at equal and fair social change. What is needed is collaboration, discussion and above all friendships.
Art does change the world, every brush-stroke, every word, lyric or photograph brings a new moment of beauty into the universe. We artists, we activists we rights professionals need to work in partnership and create meaningful change.