What is art for?

Untitled, watercolour, 2020, by Keiko Honda

We are repeatedly reminded that, in times of crisis, we turn to art. From everyday aesthetics to political art, like the examples seen from BLM, it’s inspiring to witness how the act of making generates so much interest around the world. I, for one, find refuge in painting and exploring Goethe, Kant, and Nietze this year. As 2020 comes to an end, I am reflecting on what the pandemic has taught me about the community I work in. What questions emerged during the pandemic that are worth pursuing next year?

As all the world’s a stage; we all have been watching a live play every day — a human drama in which we all play our parts. I praise the countless emerging artists, journalists, filmmakers, educators, academics, and art-supporting organizations who continue to keep art alive and use it to transform conversations and lived experiences, so we can understand, heal, and grow. Here I want to underscore the greatness of the “force” — the participatory relationship between our mind and nature/environment in which the outer world calls forth the inner world and they meet and participate in one another. This is Goethe’s method. It is so accessible, yet powerful.

untitled, watercolour, 2020, by Keiko Honda

This year, I came across a mind-blowing project called Full Grown, from the UK, where designer Gavin Munro plants and grow trees to mold into chairs and art objects like an organic 3D printing, using the laws and resourcefulness of nature. He was originally inspired by looking at a bonsai in his garden. If this is not participatory with nature, what is? I wonder what natural phenomena I really meet in any depth this year. I flip pages from my drawing notebook where I drew some fallen leaves I collected, flowers my friends brought, or organic veggies from my local farmer. What is nature telling us? We can converse with the world when we slow down.

One shift I noticed in my orientation over the years is the shift from a quantitative approach to a qualitative and observational approach, where feelings have a place and the sensibilities have standing. This year, through my non-profit work, I’ve collectively organized three new projects that combine art with life-long learning. They are not derived from some generic model or formula; rather, they were born out of my limited co-teaching experience with my dear friend Isabelle, on social artistry and the Japanese concept of Ikigai.

Although there were some challenges and barriers in virtual space, I had a very rewarding and satisfying collaborative experience developing a virtual summer youth program called the Future Leaders through Art Program, (FLAP). During the months of July and August, I had the great fortune of working with a team of six aspiring and talented twenty-something young people from all over Canada, with whom I spent every day via ZOOM and other online platforms, engendering a great sense of agency. Though strangers at the beginning, we became like a family by the end. I remember how I was eager to see my team in a ZOOM room every day, and my favorite time was the small chitchat at the beginning. I was challenged by — and at the same time saved by — their ingenuity. Co-creating was like one plus one can equal three and beyond.

Once the online course was developed, we invited just over twenty self-reflective teenagers from around the world, who participated in the two-week FLAP, which was designed to reveal their authentic voices and build their leadership skills. While the number of participants was small, the students were astonishing. Their voices are now encapsulated as critical essays in the limited magazine issue, SHIFT, as fruit grown from seed. The participatory nature of the process drove the beautiful, growing connections between these young minds, with each other and with the world. After the culmination of FLAP, the six original young adults and I then spent a week reviewing and evaluating the program in anticipation of future iterations.

In these eight weeks of intense engagement with young people of many different backgrounds, I changed the way I think about the coming generations and our collective future in the face of these dark times. As I contemplated what we had done together, I suddenly saw an image of a forest where different varieties of trees were connected through their roots, giving rise to a large forest canopy full of birds, flapping their wings. I often think of them.

After the summer program, we initiated an intergenerational buddy program, where seniors and youth collaborate to transfer the seniors’ life experience to the youth. We called it Together We Empower, continuing our mission of personal development through art. In this COVID era, it is challenging to create a large virtual network held together by genuine, intergenerational bonds. However, it was surprisingly possible to create small, intergenerational pods, most of them just five or six people in a ZOOM room, to transform a casual moment into a transcendent one, speaking across time and space, plumbing deep insights and memories, and supporting each other.

One of these series of mini-pods, called Lost & Found: Circle of Life, fosters creative, experimental play, with a focus on found objects sourced from home. We invite seniors and youth to think out loud in front of each other, allowing minds to expand and develop some common conceptual structure together. Returning participants have always started and ended with excitement because, although they cannot know what will happen, they know they will generate a collective experience. Rudi, a senior, discussed how his mind is often guided by his peripheral vision, as if he were seeing the edges that connect the things of this world. He is a retired HS teacher, life-long environmentalist, community builder, and gardener. I return again and again to Kant’s theory that we learn everything from sensation.

There is no doubt whatever that all our cognition begins with experience; for how else should the cognitive faculty be awakened into exercise if not through objects that stimulate our senses and in part themselves produce representations, in part bring the activity of our understanding into motion to compare these, to connect or separate them, and thus to work up the raw material of sensible impressions into a cognition of objects that is called experience?

These are the first words of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. What would you do differently if you fully understood that sensation was the beginning of all knowledge? Perhaps go outside more often?

Our third project, happening concurrently, is a program of collaborative visual journaling, titled Open Books In Search of Our Creative Edge. “Edge” appears again, by odd coincidence. The idea is to promote self-expression, socialization, and collaboration during the pandemic. I was surprised by how many people, especially women, were attracted to this program. We have nearly 40 participants.

2020 VACS Project — Collaborative Visual Journaling

The number reflects a real story. Two artists-in-residence have been working tandemly in our community. Nancy Low started in photography, which became a mode of visual journaling for her, for decades. Persistent “…visual journaling makes you resilient,” says CZarina Lobo, who creates ‘kitchen sink’ natural dyes for mark-making on paper. A bright pink cabbage pigment is made by boiling down leftover red cabbage, then adding lemon juice. Alternatively, adding baking soda makes it a deep purple that she applies with a brush on a blank page, beginning her journaling as if she were fertilizing the soil. I am intrigued by the beauty, time, space, and sense of freedom in this work. I treasure these women as friends and celebrate their example of how we can carry the head and the heart together.

“We have art in order not to die of the truth,” says, Nietzsche. Without interpreting his intended meaning, I wonder if this can be one test for the place of art in our life and world. Mental health issues have worsened globally during COVID. Recently, I learned the shocking news that more people in Japan died from suicide in October than from COVID in all of 2020, and women were the most vulnerable, the rate increasing almost 83% compared to the previous October. I cannot help but contemplate what intervention could have saved them from this effect of the pandemic. Could art have helped? And, if so, how? A cross-sectional and longitudinal (12-month) study of a large representative sample of Europeans indicates that reading books and watching films are protective against suicidal ideation. The study concludes that reading books or watching films may help compensate for the loss of social contact and support, suggesting the need to intervene by conjuring a sense of belonging. Facing the social isolation consequent to the pandemic, it is good that we turn to art, whether through Netflix, virtual libraries and museums, or online dance and theatre. But maybe this is only a bandage. I suggest we address the mental health consequences of social isolation and reach out to fellow neighbors to create tribes.

I highly recommend reading the WHO report in 2019, which has mapped the evidence from over 3000 studies published in the two key languages (English and Russian), in the WHO European Region, addressing the potential value of the arts in both mental and physical health. While the findings are encouraging, the complexity and limitations of the studies demand our deep involvement in this conversation. The participatory aspect of art — co-creation — is my focus, and I noticed that the WHO report hardly mentioned it. Participatory art activities were briefly mentioned in many articles reviewed in the report, such as the social prescribing interventions in the UK. However, participatory arts (e.g., community-engaged art) was not identified as a recognized field but rather lumped in with other art categories. Similarly, activities such as gardening, cooking, and volunteering were not seen as arts and therefore not included in the review. Is creativity not the prime criterion? As Nietzsche says, “One ought to hold on to one’s heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.” What does that say about AI artwork? When devoid of life (heart), what would the arts mean?

After the challenges and deep rewards of this year, I want to keep returning to Goethe’s participatory method, which allows us to see a thing that is perhaps hiding in plain sight. I want to go out into nature more. Our true legacy for further generations is to leave nature accessible for them, so that they can actively participate in coming into being. And in that, I see what is art for.

Scientist (Ph.D. in Public Health, NYU & post-doc in Cancer Epidemiology, Columbia University), Founder of Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society, & Social Artist.