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Artistic Representations of the Effects of Intersecting Cultures

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Art has social relevance and is effective as a means of activism. Current social and environmental crises make art-based activism especially relevant today. There are problems with prevailing views on art, which prevent many artists from seeing themselves as agents of change. Therefore, some established views on art need to shift in order for artists to become more empowered. Ways of utilizing art for activism are many and varied. Activism is often approached with attitudes that are problematic and ineffective. An art-based approach is a positive alternative because it stimulates empathy. Empathy is necessary to achieve social and environmental justice.

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Arts and culture are essential for building community, supporting development, nurturing health and well-being, and contributing to economic opportunity. Collectively, arts and culture enable understanding of the past and envisioning of a shared, more equitable future. In disinvested communities, arts and culture act as tools for community development, shaping infrastructure, transportation, access to healthy food, and other core amenities. In communities of color and lowincome communities, arts and culture contribute to strengthening cultural identity, healing trauma, and fostering shared vision for community. Across the United States, growing movements focused on equitable development and community centered arts and culture are uniting to strengthen the equity impact of their work. The equitable development movement—which brings a racial and economic equity lens to the community development field—depends on the engagement of communities of color and low-income communities in prioritizing, designing, and implementing their aspirations for the futures of their neighborhoods, cities, and towns. The community-centered arts and culture movement—made up of social justice artists, arts and culture agencies focused on racial equity, and cultural centers that serve communities of color and low-income communities—leads in securing cultural assets, building greater social cohesion, and feeding economic vibrancy. Over the last decade, increasing collaboration between these two movements is yielding transformative and creative change

Arts and culture are critical elements of an equity framework; they reflect the assets of communities and enable cohesion in a pluralistic nation. Without equity, community redevelopment can improve a physical place but leave the people behind, stifle broad creativity, bring economic benefit only to a few, lead to a homogeneous community, or displace many. The tools of arts and culture can accelerate equity, build communities of opportunity, and design for broadly shared prosperity.

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In the latter half of the 20th century, rapid deindustrialization of American cities, widening economic inequality, and increasingly punitive penal policies gave rise to significant public safety challenges and the largest correctional population the world has ever known. The rate of incarceration nearly quadrupled between 1972 and 2012; as of 2012 over two million people were in custody in the United States (National Research Council 2014). The increase in the number of people in jails and prisons was also matched by a massive expansion of community corrections, with over four million people on probation and parole in 2012 (National Research Council 2014).Each day, large numbers of people return to the community from periods of incarceration. In 2014, more than 636,000 individuals were released from state and federal prisons to neighborhoods across the United States

These factors have made neighborhoods an increasingly important site when thinking about public safety. In fact, the concentrated effect of correctional control on relatively small geographic areas within urban centers led Laura Kurgan and Eric Cadora of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University to coin the term “million-dollar blocks,” which describes a block where over one-million dollars is spent on the correctional control of its residents. Research shows that involvement with the justice system is both a cause and a consequence of neighborhood-level disorder; the effects are mutually reinforcing (Liberman and Fontaine 2014). Where disorder and crime are commonplace, so too are poverty, disease, and social stigma. Further, these same neighborhoods have historically been subjected to place-based policies that perpetuated racial and economic inequality, creating crumbling infrastructure and expressways where houses once were.

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On the whole, even though museums are usually divided into departments based on culture or geographic region for organizational purposes, I believe that one of the greatest parts of the museum experience is seeing the artistic impact when two or more cultures interact and share ideas. The intermingling of peoples from seemingly disparate cultures is certainly one of the most important aspects of human history, and seeing this process take place through the visual arts is fascinating

Just as I witnessed at the Yixigong Mosque, different cultures exist alongside and within each other in ways that may be surprising. The link between China and Islam is not the only connection to be seen, and I encourage all patrons of the Met, or any museum, to look for these networks and discover that any two cultures are much more connected than previously imagined.

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Lewis, F. (2013). Participatory Art-Making and Civic Engagement. Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts.

Liberman, A. and Fontaine, J. (2015). Reducing Harm to Boys and Young Men Of Color From Criminal Justice System Involvement. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

National Research Council (2014). The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2014.

Pottenger, M. (2014). “Art at Work.” Talk given at TedxDirigo. .

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