A Tool for Creating Social Understanding

Greg Nielsen
East Side Arts Council

Within a social environment as complex as that created by American culture, visual arts can serve as a powerful language to help unify an increasingly diverse population. From the early days of colonization to the current information age, this young nation’s saga has been unfolding at a stunning rate, with spectacular changes in technology, immigrant populations, politics and the economy. Trying to determine the effects of such an atmosphere on a society has been a critical topic for psychologists, historians, sociologists and scholars alike for centuries. While all these disciplines have created useful narratives to help intellectually examine the relationship between culture, society and individuals, there still exists a need for mediums that communicate the more abstract qualities of the human condition.

When interpreted within the context of a culture’s history, language, religion and socio-political climate, visual art productions have played a critical role in understanding foreign concepts and experiences. Visual artists offer a unique social perspective by going outside the story, evoking in us a unique experience where knowledge and emotion coexist. By creating shared experiences, art promotes the types of relationships that are needed for diverse communities to coexist amidst the ever-changing face of America. Artistic movements, such as Abstract Expressionism, which sought to capture many of life’s transcendental qualities through stylistic “action painting,” are often manifestations of reactions to social issues. In the case of Abstract Expressionism, the movement was a kind of climax to attempts made by 20th century artists towards the liberation of the individual from the alienating forces of industrialized America. Whether or not one appreciates the works of the Abstract Expressionists, their paintings play a key role in understanding the historical context of American culture.

Perhaps it is best said that visual arts take us beyond a sympathetic awareness of disparate elements and help foster an empathetic sentiment towards those people, places and times foreign to our own experiences. In the “melting pot” of American culture, the arts have helped us visualize the world from the perspectives of members of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders and sexual orientations. It has bridged the gaps of time, transporting us to the distant past and placed us in the lives of those long gone. Without the arts, the ability to transpose ourselves for the sake of individual and community well-being would be limited. In short, visual art has the power to invoke in us an amplified sensibility that pragmatic facts alone cannot inspire.

Visual Arts and Cultural Empathy

Since 1990, more Hmong have moved to Minnesota than any other immigrant group. Outside of Southeast Asia, Minnesota’s Hmong population is second only to California; there are over 60,000 Hmong now residing in the state, the majority of whom live in the Twin Cities. Such a sudden shift in the ethnic make-up of a particular community often results in social and cultural misunderstandings. The effects are particularly challenging to schools, social service agencies and other organizations directly responsible for adapting to the needs of a changing community. In such an environment, ignorance and fear often turn to hate and anger, placing further strain on the already difficult situation.

One of the most effective and rewarding vehicles for creating social empathy and cultural awareness is through the shared experience of creating art. Knowledge obtained from books can provide the reader with useful facts, but erudition alone does not leave one’s mind imbued with the kind of understanding communicated through an artist’s work. While it is important that we be aware of the historical facts surrounding our world, it is equally imperative that we be aware of the artistic works that embody the thoughts of those who experienced the events first hand.

When the Hmong emigrated from Southeast Asia to avoid post-Vietnam persecution, they brought with them some of the most exquisite needlework and embroidery in the world. After evacuating Vietnam, many Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand. It was during this time in the camps that a new style of tapestry, known as Story Cloth, was born. Story Cloths combine Hmong needlework (known as pandau), and storytelling to capture the emotions and document the tumultuous circumstances experienced during the post-war transition. Brightly colored threads adorn geometric shapes formed with the utmost precision. Carefully sewn figures tell the tales of survival, juxtaposing the beauty of Hmong tradition with the grim reality of 20th century conflict. Story Cloth, while not an artistic movement in the western sense, offers us a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those unfamiliar to our own lives. However, this comparatively new art form, like so many others, is relatively underappreciated. Recently, it is finding its way into classrooms and art institutions, but its impact on American perceptions of the Hmong is yet to be determined.

The need for greater social empathy still exists in many areas of American culture. Few civilizations in the history of the world have displayed the rampant growth that the U.S. has experienced. This societal evolution is what gives a democratic nation its vivacity, while simultaneously evoking its most damaging consequences. With each new development, artists have responded with their unique perspectives and talents. More than just eye-candy for the aesthete, works of art embody the ethos of the era in which they were created, an aura of the artist’s presence and a significant role in the unfolding dialogue of artistic discourse. At the same time, the artistic productions of foreign cultures and beliefs, such as Hmong Pandau and Story Cloth, have impacted the lives of all Americans by broadening our experiences beyond our nation’s borders and taking us outside the mindset of western tradition. Through visual art we explore the depths of the human condition in an attempt to make sense of the environment in which we exist – hopefully so that we may preserve and respect the diverse array of cultures we will inevitably encounter.

Hmong Homepage: www.hmongnet.org


Minnesota State Art Board: www.arts.state.mn.us

Art in Theory 1900 – 1990: An anthology of changing ideas, ed. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, 1992

Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Clement Greenberg, 1961

Resources and Counseling for the Arts
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Suite 270
St. Paul, MN 651-292-4381

Metropolitan Regional Arts Council
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Suite 114
St. Paul, MN 651-645-0402

Social Understanding

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