The Intersection of Arts and Peacebuilding

As an introduction to this blog, I’d like to share my thoughts on “Peacebuilding and the Arts” as a field — where it is now and where I think it should be going. 

The umbrella term “peacebuilding and the arts” applies, increasingly, to any form of popular culture that can be harnessed as a vehicle for conflict resolution and for the promotion of peace. Among numerous mediums, this can include the theater, film, television and radio, music, dance and artistic design. More research needs to be done not only on the potential for promotion of the field but also on issues that threaten to keep instrumental use of the arts marginalized.

We need to better understand what exactly popular culture contributes to peacebuilding. Some cultures may already have a popular type of music, dance, or festival that can be suited to promoting peace. And on the other hand, a reliance on more Western models (e.g., television) may lead to accusations of cultural imperialism. Some might argue that these mediums are unsuitable to handle such complex issues. The study of creative arts as a method of peacebuilding is on the rise, but the practice is still underutilized. I believe this is due to a lack of understanding of the “what, when, and how” of popular culture based peacebuilding.

Peacebuilding with popular culture-based projects is still considered an emerging field – and some might object to the use of the label “field.” Organizations dedicated to conflict resolution are increasingly integrating culture into their toolbox (Zelizer, 2007).  But its obscurity remains dubious; John Paul Lederach puts a special emphasis on use of the arts by putting it at the center of his idea of a “moral imagination” (Lederach, 2007). He posits, “peacebuilding requires an eternal belief in the creative act” and that “creativity moves beyond what exists toward something new and unexpected while rising from and speaking to the everyday” (Lederach, 2007).

Globally, media is proven to have an impactful role in the shaping of public consciousness (Shochat, 2003). Culture is a method that allows adversaries in conflict to speak a common language, if not the same language (Fukushima, 2011). Traditionally, artists exist at the fringes of society; space needs to be created to allow for art and creativity to flourish in the mainstream. Tom Woodhouse believes that this space can be created alongside the traditional areas of peacekeeping and peacebuilding – security, humanitarian and political spaces. The institutionalization of a fourth, cultural space will allow for the promotion of issues the other areas ignore, like “symbolic, social and psychological dimensions” that can be explored in public art projects and community activities (Woodhouse, 2010). Art as a creative practice allows the mind to access feelings and expressions that the other spaces cannot utilize; if a culture has a significant area of art that identifies them as a people, harnessing that medium will connect culture to the fourth space.

Aside from creating a space in mainstream peacebuilding, projects themselves differ according to conflict stage, proper cultural medium, and community needs. Projects can directly intervene with a conflict and focus on displaying different perspectives and alternative means of problem solving (Zelizer, 2007). However, the project may not address a particular issue from the conflict; instead, it may focus on promoting understanding and healing between the parties involved.

Shank and Schirch identify four approaches to characterize the goal of a cultural project: 1) waging conflict nonviolently, 2) reducing direct violence, 3) transforming relationships and 4) building capacity. From the approach of a project, it is easier to decide what activity will work best to achieve the project’s goals and affect change. For example, if the goal is to transform relationships, a project could address trauma and justice as a means of forming social bonds. Activities that promote the transformation of relationships might include visual arts therapy, drama therapy and image theatre (Shank & Schirch, 2008).

Besides choosing an approach and a specific activity, the timing for the implementation is also crucial to pinpoint. Conflict situations must be analyzed to determine a strategic stage (Shank & Schirch, 2008). From Shank and Schirch’s recommendation, it seems the best strategy is to conduct a conflict assessment before deciding on the approach, timing, and medium. A more thorough discussion of what is needed at the conflict assessment stage would be helpful for the development of a methodology framework (Shank & Schirch, 2008).

Potential Problems and Arguments

Given its numerous mediums, the arts field has wide-ranging applications for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, but no framework for an accepted methodology. Many organizations have no arts-based focus, with criticism of the approach being too soft; a lack of creative arts people in the field of conflict resolution may explain the hesitancy. Conversely, artistic people show disdain toward creating art for a specific purpose (Shank & Schirch, 2008).

Using popular culture mediums can be affected by political situations and shifts in the project country, are transient in nature and/or have no lasting impact. It is difficult to predict project outcomes (and therefore to get funding) and the project may not be effective if local needs are misinterpreted. The chosen approach needs to be appropriate given existing identity issues, and participants involved may decide to remain anonymous or un-cited (Fukushima, 2011). Popular culture can be used as a tool to promote nationalism, violence and war. Legitimate fears, since often there is an observable gap between the stated goals of the projects and its actual impact (Woodhouse, 2010).

The most daunting aspect of utilizing popular culture is the perceived difficulty of the monitoring and evaluation stage. Those that are unfamiliar with using cultural methods may poorly construct their M&E plan, leading to a report that fails to capture the results. Worse, even with a well-crafted plan, it is not easy to attribute what projects specifically contributed to the observed outcomes (Zelizer, 2007). The use of popular culture and artistic projects are still on the rise, clearly indicating that there must be some methodology to the M&E stage, if not a standard, circulated framework.


Promotion and collaboration is the key to addressing skeptical practitioners. All arts-based culture projects need to stress the promotion of local ownership of the activity (Fukushima, 2011).  A proposal should strategize to involve local peacebuilders and civil society members at all stages (Zelizer, 2007). Research must continue on better ways to monitor and evaluate arts-based projects. These projects typically require long-term commitments with a focus on transparency and discussions with local partners (Zelizer, 2007).

The field of peacebuilding can be “legitimized” by harnessing popular culture in what is seen as an emergent global peace culture (Woodhouse, 2010). Practitioners need to articulate reasons explaining the transformative capacity of the arts (Shank & Schirch, 2008). Most all recommendations include a call for more research and better understanding; academics in the field should heed the call for more research and work together toward creating a generally accepted toolkit and framework.


Fukushima, A. (2011). Peace and Culture: Fostering Peace through Cultural Contributions. New York: Joint Research Institute for International Peace and Culture.

Lederach, J. P. (2007). The Moral Imagination: The Art and the Soul of Building Peace. European Judaism , 40 (2).

Shank, M., & Schirch, L. (2008). Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding. Peace & Change , 33 (2), 217-242.

Shochat, L. (2003). Our Neighborhood: Using Entertaining Children’s Television to Promote Interethnic Understanding in Macedonia . Conflict Resolution Quarterly , 21 (1), 79-93.

Woodhouse, T. (2010). Peacekeeping, Peace Culture and Conflict Resolution . International Peacekeeping , 17 (4), 486-498.

Zelizer, C. (2007, June). Integrating Community Arts and Conflict Resolution: Lessons and Challenges from the Field. Retrieved September 25, 2012, from Community Arts Network:

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