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This is the fifth blog post in a weekly series from a student enrolled in the course ‘Contemporary South Asia: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Intractable Social and Economic Problems’ co-taught by SAI Director Tarun Khanna. The course features several modules on issues facing South Asia: Urbanism, Technology and Education, Health, and Humanities.

This week’s focus: Art and Humanities, led by Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams, Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literature, and Director of Graduate Studies in Spanish


By Siddarth Nagaraj, MALD Candidate, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy,Tufts University

Can art be a catalyst for social change? In the final lecture of our Humanities module, guest lecturer Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams, Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literature, and Director of Graduate Studies in Spanish, strongly argued that it can.

Probing the class about why we consider art to be important, Professor Sommer argued that it not only has a potential to facilitate conditions for change, but that much of its ability to do so derives from aesthetics, which rejects the notion that art should be programmatically directed towards reform.

Professor Sommer began the class by discussing aestheticism, a school of thought that maintains that art exists for the sake of beauty rather than as a means of promoting social change. She contended that art is powerful because it celebrates beauty in ways that leave people “indifferent”, meaning that it excites them but leaves them able to walk away with enjoyment and without bias.

This generates a sense of pleasure that one does not feel when absorbed in purely utilitarian activities (such as work) that may be essential to survival and economic growth but cannot generate freedom, creativity and connectivity with other humans.

Having established this, Professor Sommer posited that arts-inspired interventions present opportunities to change public sentiment about important issues and can also induce collective action to bring about non-programmatic change, strengthening interpersonal bonds within societies.

This intriguing claim made me wonder how positive social change could be catalyzed through art that assertively dissociates itself from social issues. To answer this question, Professor Sommer presented the case study of Bogota, Colombia, whose former mayor Antanas Mockus (who is also a visiting professor of Romance Languages at Harvard) attracted global attention by implementing artistic initiatives that he termed “cultural acupuncture”.

These constituted a set of different projects aimed at creating spaces and pleasurable artistic activities in public settings. They included the painting of stars on streets where pedestrians had been killed (a public safety warning) as well as free concerts to encourage citizens to use open spaces without fear of crime. Mayor Mockus called these interventions “treatments” to society’s ailments and cited their engagement of large populations as a tool for eliciting collective action.

We then discussed the challenges of applying cultural acupuncture in South Asia. It may be very hard to convince public officials and private investors of the value of social “treatments” when basic vaccines and primary healthcare remain beyond the reach of millions of people.

Furthermore, the failure of one arts-based initiative could undermine tolerance for similar, more viable interventions. A student shared an account of his experience in Kolkata, where well-known songs by Rabindranath Tagore were played in public during traffic jams to alleviate commuter stress and encourage more positive social interactions. However, the public’s affection for Tagore’s music clashed with their sense of frustration in that setting, and the venture failed.

Nevertheless, other initiatives in South Asia have flourished, including interventions that have been co-designed by our other guest professors from the course. In particular, Professor Rahul Mehrotra of the Graduate School of Design, and SAI Steering Committee member (who led our module on urbanism earlier in the semester) comes to mind. He helped create an initiative in Mumbai wherein local residents created art collectively in polluted urban areas. By doing so, they reclaimed public space for their communities while engaging in an activity that provided a means of personal expression. The intervention worked well in this instance, but may not have done so elsewhere, underscoring the universal importance of context.

Upon reflection, I think it is fitting that our final lecture by a guest professor should have concerned the value of art, not only because it is a subject that is so poorly understood, but also because those who champion arts-based interventions often encounter greater difficulties in overcoming a common challenge for social entrepreneurs: convincing investors (and officials) that one’s proposal is worthy of support, and that patience is needed.

All too often, investors’ priorities, patience and appreciation of contextual differences do not correspond to the needs and experiences of those who benefit from their support, threatening the growth of smart, successful interventions. Social entrepreneurs must bridge this divide and that will require resilience and resourcefulness. As the class rose to leave, Professor Sommer us gave us encouragement through the words of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Contemporary South Asia Student Blog: Global Health, pt. 2

Contemporary South Asia Student Blog: Global Health, pt. 1

Contemporary South Asia Student Blog: Technology and Education

Contemporary South Asia Student Blog: Understanding urbanism in megacities