Conflict Resolution: How Art Can Encourage Peace

As the saying goes, a painting shows a thousand words. Perhaps, though, it can do more than speak. Some would say that a work of art without emotion is not truly art. What about the emotion it can create?

Art is now being used as a form of therapy to overcome trauma linked to conflict. 

It has the ability to bring communities together, resolve conflict, and encourage peace. Simultaneously, art can facilitate strong relationships as people work together. 

Art opens our minds, helps us understand emotions and even understand ourselves. Art creation can even  be used as therapy for refugees, war victims, veterans and war survivors with PTSD. 

What is Peace?

Peace can be defined as a state where everyone coexists in perfect harmony. From a geopolitical sense, it can come in the form of peace treaties. Some could even say it exists where there is friendship and harmony within a society. 

What is conflict?

Conflict arises when two individuals cannot agree on something and they cannot look past it. In other words, there may be a difference in values, opinions, and needs, and they are unable to find a middle ground.

Conflict can arise anywhere. It can also arise among countries, political parties and states. If we don’t control a small conflict at the right time, it could lead to a large-scale war. Rifts among countries may lead to major unrest and disharmony.

"The arts can open the door to the imagination, pushing the envelope of how peace can be created. It takes courage to take this kind of risk, and courage is what we all need to create a better world." - Wayne Shorter

Why art?

Art has the unique ability to change our perceptions of people. Some believe that it can truly change the world. It can be an effective tool for both condemning and promoting conflict. 

Art is needed now, as traditional models of resolving conflict are not working. This universal language can be used as a strategic tool in peace-keeping methods. In negotiations, where verbal communication has reached its limits, this tool could help. 

We can use art to understand different perspectives. It can give a voice to marginalised and oppressed groups.

Art is beneficial to young people and children as well. It can distract them if there is conflict in their communities, and help as an outlet for emotions, opinions, and hopes. It can serve as a temporary escape if there is destructive conflict involved. And most importantly, it can help people visualise the end of war, and help them realise that it can be a reality. 

Art can give identity where language cannot. It is universally recognised, breaking down language barriers and enabling non-verbal communication. Language barriers are often the major contributors to a misunderstanding between different societies.

Backed by science

Brain scans have shown that looking at art can trigger dopamine releases. This essentially releases pleasure in the brain, raising feelings of well-being and happiness. It can reduce stress, stimulate creativity, and increase brain plasticity. There have even been studies indicating that art can also help you to stay focused. 

A study released in 2017 by Frontiers of Human Neuroscience established that:

  1. There is sociological value of art
  2. You can understand the effects of your own actions on others 
  3. It can affect your mood 
  4. It can encourage better social knowledge
  5. Understand each other 
  6. Develop empathy 
  7. Encourage self-understanding 

Charities and NGOs

Charities and other organisations have included art in their initiatives. Many focus their attention on young children and teens, as they are the most vulnerable to the impact of war. 

One of the top 25 children charities in the United States, International Child Art Foundation (ICAF), uses different forms of art. They believe bonds and understanding can be created. Friendship between children of different cultures can be harnessed. Many peace initiatives have included exhibitions and holistic education projects. They even provide lessons plans and training to teachers. They publish the ChildArt Magazine and run the World Children's Festival in Washington every four years. ICAF’s wish to cultivate children's imagination by fostering their creativity. They believe it can remediate suffering, and develop empathy. 

Every two years, the Global Art Project for Peace, takes place. Their vision of global peace and good has recognised the therapeutic benefits of art. They encourage the exchange of art between different communities. In each participant's group, the artwork is displayed locally. The art is then exchanged with another participant with whom they have been matched with.

How can art be used in situations of conflict?

Art can be used as a persuasive tool to convince people to fight for peace. Engaging pieces of art have the ability to invite change. This extends to all forms of art and all modes of expressions. Art can come in the form of theatre, dance, painting, yoga, music and sports. It’s intended to be multi-purpose. For example, art can be incorporated into activities and then used an additional resource for existing movements.

The social and cultural aspects of art should be included in peace-building initiatives. The modes of expression can be tailored to the culture of individual countries. 

Art can also enable cross-cultural communication between oppressors and the oppressed. It may encourage trust, and could even unite communities to work together. Art doesn’t just give a voice to the oppressed, it encourages the oppressors to listen.

Exhibitions and art show the effects of war from the side of the perished and those left behind, expressed Dr Carol Rank, a lecturer for Peace and Reconciliation Studies. It can even serve as a warning to society to change their current habits.

When can art be used?

Art can be used at all stages of the conflict cycle. It can serve as a warning for society to change, or to tell the story of conflict that has already happened.  When used as a premonition of upcoming conflict, it can remind us to reflect on ourselves.  

What’s more, art can promote peace in two areas: conflict resolution, and post-conflict reconciliation. It can be an outlet for artists and cultural facilitators to document and reflect on their work. 

Peace-builders are using the power of art to stop conflict happening in the first place. Its peace-building role that can be used in official functions. Mediation facilitation and human rights advocacy are just a few examples.

Could art oppose peace? 

Not all art promotes peace. As mentioned earlier, it can be an effective tool for both condemning and promoting conflict.

For example, art can be used as a tool to spread propaganda and misinformation. Nazi Germany used art as a technique to spread their ideologies. Therefore, it is clear that in some cases, art can be misused or misinterpreted. Art can do the opposite of its intended purpose. Re-opening wounds and causing division may happen if we are not careful.

We must remember that art cannot be used on its own. It should used in global peace-building projects. The importance of art needs to be considered when organisations want to help.

Art needs to be created with respect and honesty - this is the key to a successful peace-building process. There must be a “bottom-up dynamic”, where local actors are appreciated. Here, the artists directly involved in the conflict should be given the stage to speak. Then, they can express their role of identity and culture in experiencing the conflict. "Top-down dynamic" approaches attract short-term attention and financing. However, they may not be sustainable long-term, as it may risk cultural standardisation. This means their approach may be general and unappreciative of diversity between cultures.

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