Art as a Human Right

by Kenji C. Liu

“I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” – William Morris

William Morris was a late 19th century artist and socialist who divided art into two types – the type done by and for the people, or popular art, and its opposite, art tied to commerce or capitalism. He saw the latter as contradictory – the tying of something that gives life to something that destroys it.

There are others who have complementary views – Hannah Arendt drew a distinction between work and labor. Work was an activity done by humans to make a beautiful world, whereas labor tied one’s activities to mass production and profit-making.

In the late 1970s, the term cultural work was coined and had an explicitly anti-elitist and anti-capitalist view of art. Cultural workers saw the creation of culture as being a grassroots activity, capable of being done by all, without profit as its primary goal. In this sense the practice of art is democratization and self-determination.

In our current society, the value of an activity is tied to its present or potential economic value. This is implicit not only in the for-profit sector but in the non-profit sector as well, where funding is tied to measurability of outcomes. As funding for arts declines, we may try to measure artistic activities in order to argue, for example, that art too can also fit within an economic calculus, because it improves productivity. Yet funding for arts continues to disappear.

As artists know, creativity is not an entirely rational, measurable practice. One of art’s strengths is that it is a whole other way of understanding the world. Its value, so to speak, is that it offers a practice that is not automatically enmeshed in economic usefulness.

We can stand in that value. The ability to work together for a beautiful and just world while being free from economic calculus and quantifiable value is not in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but perhaps it should be. Would our cultural strategies and policies benefit if we framed this kind of “freed art” as a human right and necessary for true democracy, just like education and freedom?



Kenji C. Liu is a writer, cultural worker, and 1.5 generation immigrant from New Jersey currently residing in Oakland. He has an MA in Anthropology and Social Transformation from the California Institute of Integral Studies and has worn many hats: Asian American Studies instructor, graphic designer, meditation teacher, deejay, and diversity consultant leading workshops nationally. Kenji’s poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes (Finishing Line Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appears in or is forthcoming from Tea Party Magazine (not related to the conservative movement), Kartika Review, Lantern Review, Kweli Journal, and the anthology Flick of My Tongue (Kearny Street Workshop, 2009). He is program director at the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse which offers arts-based youth development and leadership training for San Francisco District 11 residents. Prior to this, Kenji coordinated the Oakland Word program at the Oakland Public Library, which offered free creative writing workshops to the general public.

Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)
on Saturday, April 16! Register here.

6 replies
  1. Jason W.
    Jason W. says:

    I would take this even one step further based on the quote: this is also tied directly to education and freedom. I came to the arts as someone who participated in theater in high school. I went to college (briefly and then dropped out) focusing on rhetoric and storytelling. Outside of the academic arena, I worked in social justice, anti-oppression, education reform, youth leadership, etc through working in Beacon Centers in San Francisco, supporting the field of youth development's workforce , sitting on a storytelling organization's board of directors (with an eye towards community programming), bringing community into a queer theater company and developing an educational pedagogy. Through it all, I have learned that "art" is the best way towards "education" and "freedom". I've noticed that only when I incorporate the arts, movement/sports, wellness, the environment, etc. into my educational practice is the education practical, applicable, relevant and engaging. Basically, it is just incorporating multiple intelligences into educational design from the start.

    The best way to think about the educational pedagogy is as a triangle. On one point are the learners. On another point is the content. On the third point is the process. Only when honor, preference and attention is given to all three points do you have education that is relevant, applicable and transferable. It really isn't any different than Paulo Freire's work, the praxis model, youth development strategies or service learning.

    For me, I have always incorporated art into the process side of my educational pedagogy. I know it is also a content. I believe, however, that when we use the arts as process we bring a ubiquitous-ness to arts, one that most people find relevant, practical, philosophical, and enjoyable. Too often within our artistic institutions art is only content. And even if it is process it is process for contents sake. I feel that we need more spaces where a "movement class" is not about learning a particular kind of movement, but is about exploring something like financial literacy.

    I did this through an initiative here in San Francisco called the After School for All Technical Assistance Collaborative by hosting/facilitating Learning Circles for middle managers of after school programs. It resulted in some incredibly deep learning and showed exactly how arts is a platform for healing and change. That, to me, is why it is a human right: it heals. And we definitely need more healing in our selves, communities and world.

    You can learn download the Learning Circle curriculum for FREE here:

  2. Akrypti
    Akrypti says:

    In framing art as a human right, how are we describing this conception? Right of access to…?

    Access to the arts should be a fundamental right, I agree, but how you characterize that fundamental right needs to be fleshed out. There is something worth discussing here. Once we've characterized the right, convincing others of why art funding issues should be considered separate from current or potential economic value becomes much more effective.

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