Ron Arad on art's place in resolving conflicts and promoting change

This is an excerpt from our publication Can Art Aid in Resolving Conflicts?: 100 Perspectives, authored by Noam Lemelshtrich Latar, Ornat Lev-er and Jerry Wind. In it, over 100 leading and emerging architects, artists, curators, choreographers, composers, and directors of art institutions around the globe explore the potentially constructive role of the arts in conflict resolution. Below, Israeli industrial designer, architect and artist Ron Arad responds to the titular question. Born in Tel Aviv, Arad attended the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem between 1971–73 and the Architectural Association in London from 1974–79. In 1989, with Caroline Thorman, he founded Arad Associates, an architecture and design firm, in London.

'The very wording of the question regarding bridging and empathy is problematic. Sometimes that is the case, but at other times the exact opposite happens. Sometimes there is no other option, and bridging is not a good term. I wouldn’t presume to say what art should do. Sometimes it is bridging, and sometimes it is breaking bridges. Under South African Apartheid, you didn’t need to build bridges between the parties, but rather had to tear the bridge down. Bridging and empathy are nice words, but they create a mindset.

I don’t think anyone can say what art should do. It is difficult enough to talk about what art can do...

I object to the use of the word "should". I don’t think anyone can say what art should do. It is difficult enough to talk about what art can do, and I believe that when art really does do something for change, then, if we take for example songs of protest, if we look at art in the service of revolutions, the purpose isn’t necessarily to build bridges. For example, this is a very important period in Israel. Recently, a young man placed a statue in Rabin Square (a golden statue of Bibi Netanyahu) in Tel Aviv. Curators did not like the fact that something like that went viral out of their control, and they rushed to state that it was simplistic and superficial. But I think it was very effective and very well done. Was it an attempt to create a bridge? I don’t know, but it placed a mirror in front of us, saying "Look what is going on". No matter the responses, it was political art. Did it have an effect? I’m not sure that it had a major effect. But if it didn’t change the world, it at least made sure that the world didn’t change us.

Header: Pressed Flower Navy Blue, 2013 | Above: Pressed Flowers, 2013

Most of the people who vote do not read poetry or visit art museums, and thus the effect of art is not great, but it does help in situations of social change by providing tailwind, encouragement, or other thought patterns, or by showing things from a different point of view, as art often does.

I’m not saying that art should be precise or that it can create an influence through its effectiveness in "promoting processes". I am very skeptical regarding the ability of art to bring about change. I don’t believe that many people will change their mind because of something poetic or due to the composition of a painting. In most cases, political art tends to deal with matters that all sorts of aficionados will call superficial. But if you take the case of Wagner for example, and the whole debate surrounding him, no one would argue that his work does not have musical and artistic values, yet it arises from a space we cannot tolerate.

Art does help in situations of social change by providing tailwind, encouragement, or other thought patterns...

So it isn’t clear cut, there’s no recipe or book of rules and there are no "yes and no solutions". We can view what is going on in Russia with Pussy Riot — it doesn’t interest me as music, but I do understand its importance.

I can look at the works of Ai Weiwei, who has placed his entire being in the political social sphere, sometimes in a very artistic and poetic manner, and sometimes less so. But has he made a difference? When I visited China and people heard that I’d been to his studio (he is a friend of mine), they were uncomfortable, because he makes them uncomfortable. It was difficult to find anyone in the art world in China who felt empathy for Ai Weiwei.

I talked with the family from whom I bought the old Fiats for the work Pressed Flowers, an Italian family that has been working with these cars since they arrived in England. When they heard I was going to squash the cars, they actually started crying. But I told them "Hold on, I’m not destroying them, I’m perpetuating them, like pressed flowers" (that is also where the name of the work comes from), they understood and joined me and assisted me and gave me the best possible help I could get. That is something real that happened, and really helped me, and really helped them.'

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