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Program works with art to create peace

By Olivia Leiter
On April 5, 2011

  • Artists and students come together to discuss how art can effect change after incidents of violence by looking at the four types of moral imagination. David Yun

The artist does not have to produce his work in isolation; instead of being confined to the walls of his studio, the artist can place his work in a more global, social context. Students and community development professionals came together from April 1 to April 3 to discuss the role of art in a global context and how it can raise questions about conflict for the Peacebuilding and the Arts Program's first-ever weekend intensive.The program is directed by Cynthia Cohen, who works at the International Center for Ethics. The Peacebuilding and the Arts program is one of the Center's three main programs. The Center's publication, Ethics Central, stated that the goal of the Peacebuilding and the Arts Program is to "explore the nature of the moral imagination and how the arts can be mobilized in support of non-violent resistance, to strengthen understanding across differences, and to facilitate reconciliation after mass violence."

On Saturday, Brandeis students, faculty and staff gathered around a table at the Abraham Shapiro Academic Complex while Polly Walker and Cohen facilitated discussion about the core values and concepts of arts and peacebuilding. Participants watched a slide show which centered on the moral imagination, or the capacity required for conflict resolution. Participants then broke up into small groups and discussed the four main aspects of the moral imagination: the centrality of relationships and acknowledgement of interdependence, the practice of paradoxical curiosity, space for the creative act and the willingness to take risks.

One woman talked about her experiences with this last aspect when she courageously traveled to Northern Ireland for a peacemaking workshop. Many people there feared the world of academia, thinking that academics merely pose solutions for peacebuilding but fail to see the change through.

Similarly, one student talked about her risktaking in theater. In class, her theater professor explained to students that the actor should take in a deep breath right before he is about to say his lines. Then, right before the actor is about to exhale, he should imagine that he is being pushed out onto the stage. While it is usually the audience members who watch a show in anticipation, the professor's point is that both the actor and the audience should feel a sense of apprehension during the show, as this will strengthen the connection between the artist and the spectator. This is a small-scale example of the risk-taking that is needed to resolve an international conflict. This segment of the program introduced the basic concepts of peacemaking and the informal, personal setup allowed participants to engage in discussion comfortably.

After this group work, participants were able to ask questions about the slide show and voice their concerns. This led to a discussion about impartiality and whether one's personal moral judgments should play a role in peacemaking. Usually one is not supposed to share personal experiences when mediating a conflict-one should remain objective. Yet participants came to the conclusion that it is unnatural to not have moral judgments. In fact, sharing one's personal stories can be powerful, and it is important that one stands by what one believes is right. Ultimately, this led to further discussion about the role that respect plays in conflict mediation. Participants decided that respect is crucial whether one remains subjective or objective. There is a need for respect whenever one is their sharing experiences, as this opens up space for narrative complexity.

More activities took place during the weekend intensive, including a visit to the Rose Art Museum and a closing ritual. Participants also watched Acting Together, a documentary project that began in 2005 as a partnership between Brandeis and Theater Without Borders. The documentary focuses on the peacebuilding work done in 15 different conflict regions.

Overall, there was something powerful and inspiring about the entire event. People of different ages and backgrounds were able to come together and talk about peacebuilding freely in a respectful, tolerant environment.

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