Conflict Transformation through Culture: Peace-Building and the Arts

With 2014 marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, Salzburg Global Seminar chose this commemorative year to focus its Transformative Power of the Arts Series” on peace-building, peacemaking, and conflict prevention through the arts.

To this end, Salzburg Global brought together sixty artists, activists, policymakers, educators, and cultural actors from twenty-seven countries around the world for the session entitled “Conflict Transformation through Culture: Peacebuilding and the Arts” which was convened from April 6–10 at Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg.

James Thompson

In the opening plenary session, James Thompson, professor of applied and social theatre in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Manchester, identified certain key problem areas in researching art and war. Thompson drew upon his experiences from a project in Sri Lanka which was part of a larger UNICEF theatre training project. He found the lack of reference to Tamil theatre striking because the academic community assumed that people in the frontlines of conflict would not have art forms and cultural expressions. However, when the war was at its most intense, Thompson found that there was very vibrant, sophisticated theatre scene in Sri Lanka. The presence of this huge diverse theatre scene provoked questions in Thompson’s mind: Why is there such a rich theatre scene when the conflict is so intense? Why do academics assume that there would not be such a scene in conflict t areas? Why do artists in contemporary time zones struggle to continue the 
work that they did in the conflict zone? Session participants continued to grapple with these issues at various stages of the discussions.

Recognize the Time-Space Continuum

Thompson elucidated the time-space matrix to throw light on the above questions. The nexus of these two axes — time in one direction and space perpendicular to time — is reflective of the relative distance to conflict. The time axis begins from the immediate conflict situation to months, years and eventually generations thereafter. The space axis moves from the actual conflict zone to neighboring towns, to refugee camps, countries offering asylum and finally to diaspora communities. At point zero, theatre in conflict areas is not about conflict, in fact, it is about anything but conflict. As one moves away in space and time, the orientation changes and time and distance enable people to do something related to the conflict. The closer one is to the time and space of war, the less likely one is to talk about it. The problem is that funding organizations do not always recognize this and often fund conflict resolution or reconciliation projects at the wrong points in this time-space continuum. For instance, children’s theatre projects would be most appropriate at the time and space of conflict, rather than post-conflict testimony projects that involve narrating traumatic experiences.

Don’t Prescribe Formulas: “If they want to dance, let them dance”

The discussion problematized the notion of remembrance in testimony related art forms. Thompson argued that it is important to recognize the people’s right to forget. Some are deliberately seeking to forget, and cultural interventions must support that desire. Practioners cautioned against making assumptions about what is most appropriate. “If they want to dance, let them dance” said Thompson, quoting one practitioner. Another example of this was a woman at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa who burst into song in the middle of her testimony. It is imperative to understand that we should not be telling people how we should be remembering events. It is dangerous to prescribe formal methods, approaches for the way people deal with suffering. Instead, art should support people’s ability to deal with their trauma, in whichever way they chose to. Remembrance and commemoration projects are conducted as part of peace-building efforts, but are often focused on available testimony which could be problematic for those who feel excluded from that testimony.

There are impressive projects about justice and about reconciliation through arts and culture, but it is a mistake to assume that the two are naturally aligned. Usually, one is suspended at the expense of the other, and projects with a single focus tend to be more productive. In communities that have faced protracted conflict, there exists the tendency in cultural engagement programmes to glorify what Thompson referred to as ‘Romeo-Julietism’. This is problematic as it projects assumed divisions onto a community. It reinforces the same narratives that it is trying to change. Many other divisions that are worth addressing such as generational, urban and rural, are overlooked in these narratives. Single community projects often prove more valuable to address these.

“Beauty of the art is the criticism of the ugliness they are living in”

Predominant Thinking on Art and Conflict: A Critique

Two core teachings have problematized the way in which we relate art to peace-building, argued Thompson. One is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory which places cultural aspirations at the top of the pyramid of needs, which need to be met only after all other physiological, security needs as well as the need for love, belonging and self-esteem have been met. The second teaching is based on Theodor Adorno’s quote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Adorno’s view was that creating art about suffering was to belittle that suffering.

Both these teachings fail to recognize the importance of art in conflict and post-conflict scenarios. Even when basic needs have not been met, art has thrived in conflict zones. In fact, art in such situations is usually vibrant, joyous and loud. It is a way of looking beyond the pain that surrounds them. It is a means of escaping the desolation hey are living in and also a means to express this suffering to remember what they have endured.

“Art is not made to decorate apartments — it is an instrument of war” -Picasso

Artistic expression during conflict is not always positive. As an African who had endured conflict in Uganda, one seminar participant raised the question of where to draw the line when artistic expression emanating from the aftermath of civil war becomes harmful. As an expression of opposition to Idi-Amin’s oppressive regime, songs were composed deriding Amin and calling for his murder and also the murder of his tribe, which was provocative and dangerous in a volatile environment. The participant explained that these songs were banned eventually, and he drew attention to the moral obligation to be critical of artistic expressions that incite violence, underscoring the importance of the context. Art can be used to heal the wounds of war as much as it can be used as a political weapon.

Participants of Session 532

This article is part of a report written on a session held by Salzburg Global Seminar in April 2014,with Cultural practitioners participating in the session represented diverse arts organizations including museums, theaters, music organizations, cultural heritage institutions, as well as filmmakers, festival organizers, and performance groups engaged in a broad range of creative practices related to peace-building, conflict prevention, conflict transformation, violence prevention, trauma therapy, conflict diffusion, and social cohesion at Schloss Leopoldskron for Session 532 Conflict Transformation through Culture: Peace-Building and the Arts.

To read the officially published session report, visit:

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