Art for a Change

By Robin Becker

The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities by Doris Sommer. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

 What does a beleaguered mayor of a dangerous and desperate city do to stem escalating traffic deaths? Put in more stoplights? Eliminate cars on busy avenues? No. He replaces corrupt and ineffectual traffic cops with pantomime artists! Cajoling and directing drivers and pedestrians, these mimes have no legal power, but they play with authority and arrest attention with their antics.

Antanas Mockus, mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, is one of a marvelous troupe of characters Doris Sommer introduces in this book—an eloquent argument for deploying art and artists to engage communities in social action.

What happened in Bogotá? As Sommer puts it, “Soon the grid of urban space became a massive stage for daily fun poked at offenders of rules about red lights and crosswalks. The spectacle created a public from discreet and defensive residents who during years of lawlessness had been avoiding eye contact with one another.”

In the ten years of Mockus’s two mayoral terms, Bogotá saw a sharp decline in traffic deaths, the result, Sommer argues, of an artistic intervention grounded in a sense of play—prerequisite, she believes, for sustainable change. Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies at Harvard, has studied and learned from “cultural agents” around the world. She has educated herself in “creative works on grand and small scales that morph into institutional innovation.” At her own institution, she created Cultural Agents: Arts and Humanities in Civic Engagement, a program that supports conferences, classes, and creative projects blending art and public life—locally and internationally. 

Sommer illustrates—in vigorous, stylish prose—how constructive interventions may occur on city streets, in galleries and community centers, and in classrooms. Art “unclogs procedures in ways that make it a social resource,” she claims, yoking unlikely partners to produce innovative (and playful) activities that support lasting civic good. Of the five chapters, four focus on explicit projects, investigating issues such as the partnering of “ungovernable” art with government, the separation of humanism and “usefulness,” and contested approaches to AIDS prevention. In the fifth, Sommer explores the influence of Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) on philosophers who take up the “play drive.” These include Walter Benjamin, John Dewey, Jacques Rancièr, D. W. Winnicott, and others. Wisely, Sommer leaves the theory chapter for last. For the first hundred pages, she delights readers with public humanities activists, artists, scholars, and civic leaders doing their magic.

The chapter titled “Pre-texts” enacts the field-work-dissemination-feedback loop Sommer admires. Workshops originate with a literary text, often a classic, to which everyone agrees to respond. Sommer lists and describes fifteen activities from writing “interpolating” paragraphs and hanging them on a clothesline to staging human sculptures from textual conflicts. Such activities invite anyone to implement a “pop-up” Pre-texts experience, a pedagogy Sommer developed after seeing the success of bookmaking from recycled materials in the streets of Lima, Peru. Merging creative and critical approaches, Pre-texts challenges participants to “make something new of a text” and, in the process, teaches “ownership” of difficult literature. Through her Cultural Agents initiative, facilitators trained teachers in struggling Boston-area grade schools and then went on to teach Pre-texts to teachers in Mexico City, Puerto Rico, and Zimbabwe. Pre-texts incorporates the thinking of Paulo Freire and Maria Montessori with its emphasis on literacy/social inclusion and the “self-educating capacity of students.”

Pragmatic and purpose-driven, this book speaks directly to the defunding and devaluing of the humanities at all levels and will awaken even those grown weary of calls to action. A scholarly background in literary studies undergirds Sommer’s widely interdisciplinary approach: she invokes those who teach theater arts in underserved communities, performing Shakespeare; she describes students from elementary school through graduate school developing higher-order thinking skills in Pre-texts workshops by responding to complex texts through collage, dance, drama, film, music, photography, and rewriting/storyboarding. While some may balk at Sommer’s irreverence (“Books are not sacred objects; they are invitations to play”), others will delight in descriptions of unconventional teaching through art-making and interpretive activities. Real citizenship, she argues, depends on the collaborative, creative problemsolving these activities build; failing cities represent a failed collective will to create such citizens.

I found fascinating Sommer’s accounts of worldwide “cultural agents” (many of whom she has brought to Harvard for community workshops) whose projects have improved literacy, kept youth in school, created publishing cooperatives, sparked indigenous-language radio programs, and founded traveling libraries. One of Sommer’s admirable commitments involves disseminating the narratives of these cultural workers, such as Familia Ayara, an Afro-Colombian hip-hop collective offering dance and literary workshops in poor communities, channeling teen energy into dance, and supporting violence prevention.

Examining urban projects instigated by elected officials, Sommer forges links to Mexico’s reinvention of itself as a coherent social body after 1920. (This effort included public education for all, the creation of publishing houses and libraries, and the funding of Mexico-themed murals.) In addition to placing mimes on the streets of Bogotá, Mayor Mockus painted streets with stars to mark the places where people died in traffic accidents. He supported “Women’s Night Out,” during which 700,000 women went out after dark while men stayed home, except a few wearing “safe” passes cut from newspapers. He increased tax revenues, generated by a “voluntary” tax no one believed would work.

Similarly, artist-mayor Edi Rama of the Albanian capital of Tirana created another spectacle that “created a public.” He decided to paint the gray, Stalinist apartment blocks of his city in bright Caribbean colors, turning characterless buildings into spaces that sparked conversation locally and garnered attention and inspired imitation worldwide. Jane Kramer’s 2005 New Yorker article on Rama hailed him as an urban hero “repairing the body and soul of a shattered capital.” His work brought investment to the city and, moving “from decorative surfaces inward toward respect and selfregulation,” also led to more public participation in municipal affairs.

To examine the historical underpinnings, successes, and failures of large-scale governmentfunded projects, Sommer turns to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Federal Art Project of his Works Progress Administration (WPA). She takes up the possibility that a government’s support of artists during an economic crisis keeps them from agitating against it. She looks at censorship in the Theatre Project with the WPA’s withdrawal of support for Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock in 1937. Those skeptical about the impingement of freedoms—when “official” support for the arts determines who gets funded and why—will find Sommer a credible thinker on art’s “allergy” to state support.

In The Work of Art in the World, Doris Sommer models an interdisciplinary, institution-savvy humanist, adapting “cultural acupunctures” from others and paying them forward in her own teaching, creating another generation of citizen-artists. This book will excite anyone seeking evidence of the successes of collaborative, public humanities initiatives. Buy a copy for your dean. Recommend it for a faculty study group or a community read. Sommer can puncture apathy with hope and motivation to act.

Robin Becker is Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University. She is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Tiger Heron. She can be reached at [email protected].