Transformations and Turnarounds: The Role of the Arts in Human Flourishing

The arts are transformative.  For many people involved in exploring the intersection of theology and the arts, this is a fundamental axiom.  It’s also a commonly held belief by the wider public.  However, while there may be many good reasons to hold this view, I would suggest the assertion needs some questioning and challenge.

First, what sort of transformation, if any, can ‘the arts’ bring about?  Second, is there anything unique about the role of the arts in facilitating transformation?  Instead of confining these questions to the realm of the abstract, two current examples will hopefully prove illustrative.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary is a maximum security prison in Angola, Louisiana; it is also home to thousands of criminals serving time for a multitude of violent crimes.  According to a recent NPR feature, ‘nearly 4000 of them are serving life without parole’.[1]  Commonly known simply as Angola, the prison is also host to the Angola Drama Club.  In early May of 2012 prisoners involved in the club along with others participated in a play aptly described by its title, ‘The Life of Jesus Christ’.  The play has received numerous accolades and has stunned audience members with the power of the performances delivered.  However, beyond stunning performances, there are signs of transformation.  As Levelle Tolliver, who played Judas said in a New York Times documentary on the performance, ‘I’m not going to try to convince you that this play changed me.  I’m going to show you that this play changed me’.[2]

Orchard Gardens primary school in Roxbury, Massachusetts was built as a pilot school in an underprivileged neighborhood outside of Boston and was designed to showcase the arts.  However, shortly after opening in 2003, student behavior led the administration to employ security guards and to ban backpacks for fear they might be used to carry weapons.  In 2010 the school underwent a radical transformation: 80% of the faculty were replaced, including the principal.  One of the first decisions made by incoming Principal Andrew Bott was to fire the security guards and reinvest the funds into arts education.  Last year, the school’s achievement had improved so dramatically that it was designated as a Turnaround: Arts school by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and has been featured by news outlets around the world.

The similarities between Angola and Orchard Gardens are many.  Both are populated by those often considered to be ‘the least of these’ by society; people for whom few would hold high expectations for achievement.  However, as evidenced by recent engagement with the arts, both are now being featured and lauded as places in which significant transformation for the good has occurred.  And, in both cases, fingers are being pointed at the role of the arts in this transformation.

But what is really taking place?  Is participation in the arts responsible for the transformation?  Evidence of the transformation is difficult to dismiss, but the experts seem unable to say why it occurs.  Or, as University of Maryland School of music Asst. Prof. Kenneth Elpus puts it in a BBC interview, ‘the research base hasn’t caught up to why this is’.[3]

My guess is that participation in the arts results in a fertile environment for caring instructors or directors to nurture the creative expression of others and that, in the process, these individuals experience humanizing relationships; relationships which invigorate the inherently relational nature of humanity.  Of course, much more is at play than this, and I welcome your thoughts about some of what this ‘much more’ might be.

This post was written by Dave Reinhardt who, before pursuing a PhD at the University of St Andrews with a focus on the theological significance of embodied expression, was involved in education through the arts in Charlotte, NC.


[1] “On This Stage, Jesus Is A Robber; The Devil’s A Rapist : NPR.” 2013. NPR.org. Accessed May 6. http://www.npr.org/2012/06/23/155535620/on-this-stage-jesus-is-a-robber-the-devils-a-rapist.

[2] “Prison Passion Play” 2012. New York Times, May 5, sec. U.S. http://www.nytimes.com/video/2012/05/05/us/100000001529143/prison-passion-play.html.

[3] “Power of Art: Can Painting Improve Your Grades?” 2013. BBC, March 26, sec. Magazine. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21890033.

2 Comments

  • bruce herman says:

    Dave – the relational dimension is undoubtedly pivotal. There is however another element that might go unnoticed: human flourishing requires that we be allowed and encouraged to engage in being human. Being human means “making” things. (Read: poems, plays, paintings, a loaf of bread, cities, universities, chairs, dwellings…). Making and being human are so fundamentally interwoven as to be virtually identical. Etienne Gilson (close friend and colleague of Jacques Maritain) explores the the connection between “making” and beauty in THE ARTS OF THE BEAUTIFUL. Making beauty is, I think, a fundamental need like sleep, food, sex. Human flourishing is not only diminished when that mode of being is frustrated––it is significantly distorted. Violence and the fury of hatred fill the space where beauty belongs. When children (and even hardened criminals) are allowed and encouraged and trained to make something beautiful, they are simply being allowed to engage in what human beings are meant to do. Deprive someone of food or sleep and they will eventually either become psychotic or they will resort to violence and crime. Deprive someone of the possibility of making something good and beautiful and true, and likewise you distort their very being. “Transformative” is a strong word. I would substitute “restorative.”

  • Dave Reinhardt says:

    Thanks, Bruce, for your thoughts. As I write, I can’t help but remember taking part in the arts breakout track you led at the InterVarsity Grad/Faculty conference in Chicago where the theme was human flourishing. Thanks for your teaching then, and for your comments here. You’re right. From the creation account in Genesis it’s clear that humanity is created in the image of One who creates. And, in each example offered above, the prisoners and students were not simply suppressed and controlled, they were given opportunities to create works of beauty; as seems plausible from the outcome, this facilitated the restoration of an image that had been so badly tarnished (of course, there’s even more ‘much more’ to be explored here!).

    Perhaps the word ‘transformation’ is used rather than ‘restoration’ because the concept you offer of what it means to be human isn’t widely accepted. But, I think most people, if they stepped back and looked at each situation, would be inclined to say, ‘This is more in keeping with how things are meant to be’. In so doing, they would (perhaps unwittingly) disclose a sense of tacit knowledge about God’s original intent for humanity.

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