On July 22, 2010, Reos Partners held an event on the intersection of art, creativity, and social change work at the Hub SoMa in San Francisco. Here follows a synopsis of Jeff Barnum’s evening presentation.
Reos Partners is an international organization that helps government, business, and non-government organizations address together the complex social challenges that none of them can address alone: innovating within a broken child protection system in Australia, creating robust strategies for the future of agricultural systems in California and Canada, working to change the relationship between government and citizens on a national scale in South Africa. We help leaders see their severe social challenges from a whole-system perspective, and to understand where they can act together for greatest impact.
In this work, I’ve often noticed a gap between social intent – the intention to change social reality – and social outcome – a real and living new society or social reality. This gap is occasionally filled with something that can be designed and implemented: for example, a new diagnostic tool that helps doctors prevent suicides. But when suicides indicate a collapse of local culture and sense of identity (as has been the case, we learned in one of our projects, with British Columbia’s aboriginal youth), a fundamentally new social reality is needed. Such new societies cannot be designed and implemented; they must be created from within the challenge context if they are to exist.
All human beings are inherently creative; even to think or to speak means to create something from nothing. In art, we concentrate this inherent creative process in order to create new meaning and new culture. In the creation of new social realities, we apply creativity to the medium of society itself.
One of the defining characteristics of the creative process is that it structures a process of change or metamorphosis in that medium. In art as in nature, the final form emerges at the end: unless you have seen them before, it’s impossible to predict the butterfly from the caterpillar, the rose from the thorn bush, or the oak from the acorn. In art, if you’re sure of what you’re going to get before you start, you’re using a formula. It must be realized that the artist doesn’t preconceive the final form and then just execute. Rather, it is a hunt, structured in a disciplined way. Any artist in the process of discovery structures a process of emergence. See for example this video of Picasso painting for a dramatic demonstration of the “hunt” for the final art work, or this one (third slide) tracing the evolution of one of my own works.
Given the complexity of the social medium, the work of creating new social realities needs a similar approach. We must be prepared to engage in a metamorphic process, strategically enabling one social reality to metamorphose into another. We must, like artists, be in dialogue with the medium, allowing ourselves to learn from it as we go forward. We must, like artists, balance between being outcome-driven and open-ended, driving towards a suitable outcome but open to what emerges along the way. These are important skills for creative social and studio artists alike.
In my article “Social Sculpture: Enabling Society to Change Itself” I have described the art form of “social sculpture,” which is demonstrated in outstanding examples of massive social change in Germany for post-war healing, in Colombia for social cohesion, and in Albania for post-communist recovery. The same approach, which is not new but still under-utilized, can be applied, if we understand it sufficiently, in other places and for other purposes.