The Art of Development: Do artists have a place in International Development?

Art tells people to go fuck themselves which is why it should be central to development.  When the government fails, the environment sucks, the money dries up and the NGOs waste everyone’s time, the ability to say ‘fuck this’ becomes the focus, almost the purpose, of expression and that’s more important than anything. 

There are a lot of NGOs addressing health, finance, and infrastructure.  There aren’t many promoting art and culture.  The ones that are, are BORING.  How many times can people look at vapid paintings of world peace and friendship?  Or how often can they look at cliché, poorly done imitations of Banksy style, I’m-so-clever, street art? 

The problem is that good art isn’t hierarchical, it doesn’t come from a program.  It’s subversive.  It’s organic and comes out from the dirt like any other plant.  Without that rawness, it’s just something stilted and fabricated which has no power.  The idea that culture is upstream from politics is old and tired but true.  For some reason the international development community refuses to believe this.

Hard outcomes are easier to measure. The World Bank, WHO and Gates Foundation can tell if their money’s been well spent with measurable interventions.  But how do you know if you’re affecting culture? How do you even create an environment where culture develop organically?  The good and the bad of it is that nobody knows.  The bad part about that is that it’s hard to rejuvenate a dried-up scene.  Art and culture are the soul of a people and when it’s dying you are fucked. 

Every country that has ‘developed’, so to speak, has done so on its own, driven by its own culture, pushed forward by its own artists.  Replicating development without a similar emphasis on culture is short sighted at best and stupid at worst.  But that doesn’t mean the development establishment should create it.

The good thing about the difficulty of fostering culture is that it’s very difficult to manipulate.  The only thing to do is create the capability for art.  Try to orchestrate it and you get the Backstreet Boys. Sure, they were popular, but I bet you hadn’t thought of them for months if not years until I brought them up.  The best art, the best music, the best writing will always resonate with people no matter what the corporate overlords want.  Maybe that’s what the development community is afraid of: uncontrolled art subverting of their pet projects.

Art is dangerous, unpredictable and destabilizing but without it we’re just drones going to work and coming home.  It’s meant to speak truth which is usually uncomfortable for those in power and let’s make no mistake, the development establishment is in power.  Maybe it’s time they get told to go fuck themselves.