Art, power and change

Artists and arts organizations like mine sometimes talk about our work as ‘socially engaged’ work – if arts are a tool for social and/or political change (which I think they can be) then we need to get to grips with how we do that. In the midst of my own grappling, I’ve found myself struggling with the ideas of ‘power’ and ’empowerment’.

Sometimes when you look at it, it is seen that empowerment and money go hand in hand, and most of the times artists like us, tend to resort to procuring loans for musicians so that they do not fall behind on their musical endeavors. Nevertheless, let us now understand what power and true empowerment really mean to us artists.

‘Power’ or the lack of it, feels like a solid, fixed thing – something you have, or you struggle against, that can be taken from you, that corrupts – power is often spoken about as a deficit model: you gain power by taking it away from someone else.

‘Empowerment’ always sounds a bit condescending: power can be given, as a generous gift, as well as taken away. Again the language implies a finite resource – those with the power choose how much they are willing to share it.

Talking through ideas about power in the context of An Odd Occasion we were discussing men, women, space (in the widest sense) or lack of it, and in the midst of an anecdote Alison said, ‘it was his sense of entitlement that really got to me’.

That phrase ‘sense of entitlement’ instantly worked for me as a new way of seeing and discussing ‘power’. It describes a feeling, an understanding, a set of assumptions. A ‘sense of entitlement’ is not fixed – it sits in a context and is much more fluid than ‘power’. A person may have more of a ‘sense of entitlement’ in one situation or relationship, less in another. A ‘sense of entitlement’ is easily questioned, easily challenged. A ‘sense of entitlement’ can be encouraged, acquired, evolved. A ‘sense of entitlement’ could be in one of those lightbulb moments you sometimes get – it might be as simple as provoking an interesting thought, or inspiring a fresh idea.

That’s where it feels relevant to me, as an artist trying to grapple with social change. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that our work is ’empowering’, because I don’t feel like part of the fixed, systematic, structure of ‘power’ – the ‘power’ is not mine to give or take away. I feel a bit better about the idea that the work we do might trigger someone’s ‘sense of entitlement’ – in fact that’s something I’ve seen happen.

In ’75 Dorothys’ we asked groups of women and girls what their ‘heart’s desire’ was, and what was their ‘ dream that you dare to dream’. Just taking the time to think about that was, for some of them, a question they had never had enough time, space, or ‘sense of entitlement’ to consider – and a few of them have told us this has made a big difference to their lives.

‘Queen for a Day’ seemed to unlock something in some of the women that took part – by asking them if they could be a different version of themselves, just for a while, who they would be. Again, this very simple question, with some time, space, creativity and support to explore the answer, resulted in some of them seeing themselves differently – it gave them a ‘sense of entitlement’ to be who they want to be.

These are just some examples from our work. There’s lots of other great arts companies and projects that are working every day to explore ideas, ask questions and have dialogue with people that might find a fresh ‘sense of entitlement’.

This is just one more reason why ‘the arts’ is really important.

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