What is it actually like to be human?

Emiel Copini1


What does art education need to enable future educators to work in a socially engaged practice, both in and outside school? Our own perspective often appears to hinder a real connection with the other. This article reports on the quest that art teacher training programmes embarked on jointly in 2019 to discover what we can expect from the artist educator in this respect and what the institute and the programmes need in terms of attitude, knowledge and skills.

In art teacher training programmes, there is a growing awareness that art education can fulfil a social task that goes beyond the walls of academies and schools. Art education might be able to have a greater impact beyond those walls if it did location-specific work. How should course programmes change their awareness, attitude and action to further explore this area?

People have a tendency towards inclusion; they want the best for their fellow group members. But this connection within groups also seems to lead to exclusion of those who stand somewhat at a distance. With the best of intentions, when we concern ourselves about others who are different, we also seem inclined to think for them. Realizing how our own perspective is coloured does not necessarily lead to a real connection with and understanding for the other person.

Now that the social and the artistic domain have begun to overlap increasingly, and people are frequently seeking means of collaboration, it is also important for art academies to consider what the arts have to offer in the social domain, how we should think about autonomy, and what this means for what we ask of students and teachers.

Code in theory

The institute in the mirror

ArtEZ University of the Arts is very clear about the intended impact of the arts. Societal urgency is now at the heart of its educational vision:

Arts provide the space for a critical framework that enables sustainable change. We recognize artists to be drivers of that change. […] Arts ask questions, continuously rephrase questions and provide answers, event to questions that have not been asked.2

Art and art education have a role, a task, a responsibility, both when it comes to critical questioning and actually helping to build a resilient future, which is based on creativity, empathy and connection between people. The aim of the programmes is therefore to establish and propagate a culture in which inclusive thinking and acting are self-evident. This would require new networks and, in time, a more diverse population within study programmes, but also an awareness of one’s own values ​​and narratives, ‘so that these can be brought into a living, equal dialogue with the values and narratives of others in order to create a democratic community’.3

In view of this cultural change, ArtEZ Zwolle carried out the Cracking the Code project (February 2019 – February 2020). In line with design-based educational research, there was an open exploratory approach where those involved jointly arrived at insights and exchanged ideas against the backdrop of educational development. The trajectory consisted of four inspiration meetings, organized by the various teacher training courses. Simultaneously, there were talks, lectures, conferences and interviews with experts.4 I was given the opportunity to participate, observe and reflect at the same time, alternating my roles as teacher and researcher. The large number of conversations and encounters with teachers, artists and students resulted in a dynamic whole and increased the ecological validity. Experiments and innovative ideas were viewed from the perspective of our daily educational practice. The process also showed what working and thinking within a learning community can yield: through exchanges between students and teachers, but also between different study programmes, between in-school and extracurricular education, and between the artistic and social domain, the search for ‘common ground’ or a ‘third space’ was also expressed in the way we collaborated. The boundaries of partly autonomous programmatic terrains were explored and broken, but also defended.

In an iterative way, carrying out a combination of an exploratory literature review in the field of socially engaged arts education practices and a practical study consisting of conversations and meetings with experts and stakeholders led to a number of key themes. These points form the structure of this article.

Looking inside or outside

Do we live up to what we say? Do we propagate what we stand for? When an institute has the courage to look in the mirror, and simultaneously look through that mirror when it comes to issues of inclusion, this also raises questions, especially at a time when educational institutions are increasingly becoming political strongholds. Haidt and Lukianoff show what too much ‘protection’ can lead to in an American context. If we as an institute very clearly ‘know how it should be done’ and do not let students discover this for themselves, then we are missing something essential that education can offer, namely that it acts as a practice space where one can relate to all kinds of perspectives. When educational institutions become radicalized in their like-mindedness and, for example, start working with trigger warnings or refuse speakers who are too far removed from them politically and ideologically, the safe space they have created can become filter bubbles, which may be more detrimental than beneficial for students in the long run.

All students must be prepared for the world they will face after college. […] The playing field is not level; life is not fair. But college is quite possibly the best environment on earth in which to come face-to-face with people and ideas that are potentially offensive or even downright hostile. It is the ultimate mental gymnasium, full of advanced equipment, skilled trainers, and therapists standing by, just in case. […] If students succeeded in creating bubbles of intellectual ‘safety’ in college, they would set themselves up for even greater anxiety and conflict after graduation, when they will certainly encounter many more people with more extreme views.5

An education system that allows you ‘never to talk with someone you disagree with’, even if it is with the best intentions and aimed at creating a better world, weakens itself. Assuming students are fragile may not only make students believe they are vulnerable, but also deprive them of the skills they need to deal with difference. Johnston emphasizes that it is impossible and undesirable to be apolitical, both for students and for the institute:

I think an institution needs to put its flag in the sand. This is what we represent. If you wanna be part of it, be part of it. If you don’t, go somewhere else. I’m quite firm on this. If you’re involved in education work and you think you can be apolitical, you’re seriously mistaken.

The way the student then approaches and gives shape to this is free: ‘If you’re going to be right wing, anti-European, no problem. Argue your case. Don’t blow the other ones away, but be political!’

We are social excluders

If everything is determined by where we stand, both physically and ideologically, then perhaps we should start with the big question of how we attain knowledge of and insight in ourselves, the other, the world. According to the relativistic point of view in philosophy, nothing is definitely true, but is always dependent on perspective, location, related to a certain background of cultural assumptions, and thus can always only be true from a certain point of view. For the relativist, there is no objective truth or true knowledge that is separate from our judgment. For example, Marx and Foucault assumed that how we see the world is determined by our circumstances. Yet they also stated that some perspectives bring us closer to the truth, that in addition to distorted conceptions, there are also true conceptions of the world. ‘We can’t but speak from where we are’, Nietzsche argues, and in the case of Heidegger it is also clear how our perspectives are historically determined, and rooted in the language we use. Our concepts and conceptual frameworks are determined by the culture in which we grow up, says Gadamer.

It is difficult to see exactly how your perspective is determined by the frames of reference you grew up with. Our coloured perspective appears normal, self-evident, and true. It is only when we perceive difference that we can begin to realize that others perceive the world differently than we do. But whether we can really see or understand the world from the perspective of the other is very much the question. The fact that it is difficult or impossible to actually step into the other person’s shoes or step out of one’s own frame of reference also means that there is no neutral perspective from which to determine whether we are morally in the right. That people are inclined to look and judge from within their own, largely collectively determined frame of reference and perspective can also be highlighted through other disciplines besides philosophy, such as biology, semiotics, developmental psychology and cognitive sciences. People have a tendency towards ‘mythical thinking’, where language plays an essential role:

[Myths] express and serve to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something within a culture. […] Their function is to naturalize the cultural – in other words, to make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely ‘natural’, ‘normal’, self-evident, timeless, obvious ‘common-sense’ – and thus objective and true reflections of ‘the way things are’.6

Language allows us to be part of a community by exchanging knowledge and experience. A collective identity is maintained through rituals and stories. Language enables us to share our ideas and a perspective on the world. This mythical7, or conceptual8 thinking has a clear connecting effect: it maintains the group. At the same time, it also has an exclusionary effect; one’s own frame of reference often leads to tunnel vision. People tend to project their own coloured perspective onto other people, other cultures, and other times. Being aware of this does not necessarily lead to the ‘solution’.9 Our social capacity has paradoxical consequences. It is precisely this conceptual, tribal connection that promotes exclusion. Tribalism, says Richard Sennett, referring to Aristotle, ‘involves thinking you know what other people are like without knowing them; lacking direct experience of others, you fall back on fearful fantasies’. Sennett makes a plea for collaboration that goes beyond the Us versus Them dichotomy. The true challenge lies in bringing together people with conflicting interests, people who are not socially equal or who simply do not understand each other.10 The fact that we are exclusionary by nature in our social connections is also reflected in Joshua Greene’s (ultimately also optimistic) argument towards a worldwide moral philosophy. Many forms of cooperation lead to tension between our own interests and collective interests. However, we are often quite capable of solving these. It gets more complicated when it comes to ‘Us versus Them’.

Biologically speaking, humans were designed for cooperation, but only with some people. Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups).11

Our moral thinking is perfectly capable of facilitating collaboration within the group, but undermines the collaboration between groups. ‘Morality did not evolve to promote universal cooperation. On the contrary, it evolved as a device for successful intergroup competition’.12 It is our social capacity that seems to pose challenges for us when it comes to actually connecting with and understanding others. The work of the philosopher Kwame Appiah is also clarifying when it comes to these two sides of the social identity coin. Whether on the basis of gender, religion, country, class or culture – in all cases our thinking is actually based on a fallacy: ‘[we suppose] that at the core of each identity there is some deep similarity that binds people of that identity together’.13 This misconception leads to wars, exclusion, even genocide, while at the same time it can unite and connect us. Most optimistically, it is ‘the lies that bind us’, as Appiah calls them.

It is against this backdrop that we can situate our quest for what socially engaged arts education practices can offer when we work site-specifically. Are we not asking for something very complicated from students and teachers? Who is ‘the other’ and can we really identify with their world?

Setting something in motion

It is not easy to define or delineate what we have focused on in Cracking the Code. When it comes to using art education based on social commitment, on location, this touches on many traditions and methods. For example, Claire Bishop makes clear how extensive this field is by comparing it with, among other things, collaborative art, social practice, and community-based art.14 Sikko Cleveringa refers to ‘new style culture’ as a field of social-artistic practices with origins in the 1960s, where artists broke with the tradition of educating people with the cultural canon and actively sought out the living environment of communities ‘to use their artistic arsenal to bring new meaning there’ (p. 9).15 Angela Gigliotti’s dissertation provides an up-to-date overview of the areas that touch on what she refers to as Socially Engaged Art (SEA).16 John Johnston adds ‘Practice’ to this (SEAP), emphasizing that there is always an educational component. The person who practices this is in fact an artist, educator, social worker and researcher, and perhaps also a politician. Johnston explicitly focuses on conflict areas and sees the arts as a means to expose, question and undermine the system behind the conflict.17 Following Nicolas Bourriaud,18 he speaks of ‘relational artists’ who use their work to bring about social change. In the critical pedagogy that Johnston employs, (visual) language is essential, not only to understand how a community is deeply divided, but also to break through that culture of difference and inequality, of ‘them and us’.19 Today, more and more cultural institutions realize that ‘we have to approach the people ourselves and, together with them, produce canons from their own environment’.20 Under the direction of Tania Bruguera, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven set up ‘Arte Útil’, in order to activate a different way of thinking about art and art history from within the museum as an institute, similarly based on art as a means of bringing about social change. This is not necessarily about the actual solution of a social problem, but above all about initiating, setting in motion, making change possible. As art historian Gemma Medina says, ‘We don’t want to give the answers, but we will raise questions.’

Art is not the solution

If art and arts education move further towards the social domain, without necessarily solving any problems, then what are they doing there? Following Helguera,21 Gigliotti explains that social work and SEA do operate in the same ecosystem, but that the objectives are different. SEA can improve a situation, but can also ironize, problematize, even reinforce tensions, in order to encourage reflection.22 The terrain we are focusing on here is also distinct from well-intentioned peace propaganda, Johnston explains. In those cases, art and artist are instrumentalized, whereby the outcome of the process is already established and the disruptive basis of the conflict and division is not exposed.23 In SEA the artist sows doubt, or in Bishop’s words: ‘unease, discomfort or frustration – along with fear, contradiction, exhilaration and absurdity – can be crucial to any work’s artistic impact’.24 Neither Johnston nor Van Heeswijk seem really interested in the question of what makes their work art. Yet they indirectly give meaningful answers. In our discussion about how adolescents learn to see that their own perspective is relative, and then to realize or understand the other from a different perspective, Johnston explains that creating art offers a unique and different opportunity. The work is subjective, personal, it is ultimately a representation of how the maker sees the world, and his or her position in it. In other words, it is an expression of ‘cultural awareness’. But that is not all: ‘You can deconstruct it every day for the rest of your life, and you’ll get a different answer every day. If you’re in the world with an object that you’ve produced and you’re looking at that object from different angles, then you’ve really got something important.’

Although Johnston sees the many conversations he has as also being part of the artistic process, the material side is really indispensable, in his opinion: ‘We bring things into the world that would otherwise not exist, we make material out of thought.’ Van Heeswijk often starts with open conversations without a clear goal, as she describes her ‘public faculties’. She stirs the imagination by seeing a place not just as the streets, houses and squares, but by bringing to life ‘the emotional condition of a place’ through people’s stories and emotions. In my opinion, the question of what art is, or how it works, is no different in socially engaged practices than in a museum or concert hall. Everything can be or become art when we see it as such or ‘frame’ it. A doubling occurs, an ‘aboutness’, with which the created expresses something, imagines something, and is therefore about something for someone.

What is it that’s so complicated, then?

It is therefore not new: socially engaged artists have been around for a long time. Any tension or confusion about how the social and the artistic relate to each other is not surprising either. In many places, there is a realization that, for example, ‘social work’ and art (teacher) training programmes can collaborate more, and new initiatives are emerging everywhere. Yet there are also many questions when it comes to what art education has to offer in terms of social change, as emerged during the LKCA and Boekman research conference. I will now go into more detail on what exactly can go right or wrong in such projects, and what we can learn from this.

Those people

In an essay about ‘whiteness’, film reviewer Richard Dyer described how complicated it is to see white as a colour ‘partly because white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular.’ Still, he believes it is very important that we see whiteness as a culturally constructed category. As part of the emancipation process, much specific attention has now been paid to groups ‘defined as oppressed, marginal or subordinate – women, the working class, ethnic and other minorities.’ The downside of this is that

Looking, with such passion and single-mindedness, at non-dominant groups has had the effect of reproducing the sense of oddness, differentness, exceptionality of these groups, the feeling that they are departures from the norm. Meanwhile the norm has carried on as if it is the natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human.25

This is something that we have to include as background information when we focus on a group or place that we believe deserves extra attention from an inclusive perspective. Specific attention can reinforce the ‘deviation’, suggest a ‘colonial perspective’, disregard diversity within that group and thus confirm stereotyping, but it can also disguise that the norm is a construction.

Become one of them

If naming ‘the other’, even though it is done with the best intentions, doesn’t work, then maybe we should actually try to blend in with the world of the other? Johnston makes it clear that that, too, is an illusion:

You’re never going to be part of. Forget it. It’s not one of the foundation stones, it’s not something you’re trying to acquire. You’re never going to be part of it, you can make contributions, you can stimulate thought. But I’m not from Zambia, I’m not from Rwanda, I’m not from South Africa.

The artists I spoke with all mention the importance of long, intensive collaboration. If you actually want to effectuate something, it seems to be important to commit yourself for a longer period of time. Van Heeswijk indicates that her projects sometimes take up to ten years: ‘It is very important to invest time in one place, to generate involvement, to spend time together.’ Eric van Hove also explains why time is so essential: ‘This time thing is all about allowing humanity to be like a growing tree. It’s a biotope. A biotope needs time to establish itself, otherwise it’s just very artificial. There’s barely any kind of human problem you can solve quickly.’ Van Hove explains how he went to live in Morocco and became friends with the permanent group of craftsmen he works with in his studio every day. Talking about how he relates to them, he explains that eliminating the differences between them is never his intention:

I think it’s important to realize that there is a ‘we’ and ‘them’, and it’s not about the utopia of stopping that from being. The differences are there, you can’t just pretend they don’t exist. It’s actually about affirming them, but rest assured in the fact that there is richness in these differences and that is the basis of it all.

I continued to discuss the ‘colonial perspective’ and the ‘imperialist mindset’ with Van Hove. He further qualifies the problematic side of ‘helping’. On the one hand, it does indeed stand in the way of equality, because by ‘helping’ you indeed, often unintentionally and unconsciously, suggest that you are above the other and know better. On the other hand, we should not go too far in criticizing and disparaging anyone who means to do good by helping someone else.

On the common people storyline, it’s like, let’s go there, we can be purposeful, actually be of help, and that’s a very sacred and honest feeling of humans wanting to help each other. It fell into this other big complex historical spectrum of colonizing, but among that colonizing thing there was also a lot of sharing happening. So, if you go down to the people, you usually get back that humanity. So the problem-solving is always a bit tricky, because it’s a language that predates us. If you help, you are already in a position of helping, which is an assumption that you know better, which is weird. It’s a very slippery surface to walk on to start discussing these kinds of issues. I think it is essential that the relationship comes first.


Another theme that was discussed at the research conference is ownership. What you try to do as an artist, but also as an educator when you relate to the other, is ultimately that it is not for the other, but from and with that other person. As Jappe Groenendijk says,

Can you really emancipate someone else? Or does one have to do that oneself and is the most you can do to stand by or offer help? And how do you end that and ensure that the ownership and mandate lie with that person themselves? I have seen that fail in many projects.

This theme has been much discussed in the project that arose from the ‘interdisciplinary program’ (IP) and plays a role at various levels. All kinds of issues were raised in a fascinating interaction between teachers, students from a number of art teacher training courses, students of Social Work, employees from a welfare organization, and the residents of a number of flats in a suburb of Zwolle. One of the key questions was, ‘where does this demand for an improvement of social cohesion actually come from?’ Do the study programmes want this, is it from the welfare organization and the municipality, or from the apartment residents themselves? John Johnston calls this question essential for everyone in an SEA context. ‘Whenever you step out of the studio and you start to engage with the people, you’re immediately caught up in an avalanche of expectation.’ As an artist educator you are there with an intention, but that applies to all parties involved. The first step is to ‘identify the key stakeholders’, ensure that the agendas are on the table, have conversations that enable you to discover what, for example, the financial backers want. Also consider who might not be at the table but does have an agenda. ‘So, your research is first and foremost: what do they want?’


Asking follow-up questions about what ultimately drives educators in socially engaged practices and what determines their successes results in an attitude. When you want to create a ‘we-ness’, an open, respectful attitude is important. Good intentions and putting in a lot of effort to put yourself in the other’s shoes is often not enough. In the ten-part documentary series America to Me (2018), this idea emerges strikingly in a number of scenes. The teacher who suggests that he understands his students completely, almost better than they understand themselves, is missing the point. This is comparable to how it works with groups where you are temporarily included, Johnston explains: ‘You’re never part of the group, you’re ‘under license’. They decide when you’re in and when you’re out. You gotta be aware of that, it’s a sliding scale.’ This is about looking for ‘common value’. Ethical awareness, integrity, sincerity, that’s what it’s all about. This is an attitude you cannot play or fake.

Code in practice

The many makers I spoke and worked with in this process have different methods and visions. There were musicians, visual artists, researchers, theatre makers, filmmakers. Some work independently, others work for theatre companies or are part of a collective. The examples are so varied that it is difficult to generalize about ‘their method’. What they share is that they connect with individuals, with a group or a place, from a social commitment, and that they use art and art education. They see the imagination as a means to effectuate something, without the intention to directly solve a social problem. What can we learn from them, from their experiences and working methods, with a view to educational development?

Know your urgency

What has already been discussed above, and has been confirmed again and again by the experts in the inspiration process, is that it must be clear why you are doing something. What are your motives? ‘As theatre makers, we always work for a better city.’ Julia Schmitz works as a ‘neighbourhood explorer’ for PS | Theater in Leiden and explains that ‘being open to each other’s stories’ helps people to live together; ‘that is why we want to tell as many stories from the city as possible to as many people in the city as possible.’ Hanna Timmers works as a theatre maker for Frascati and made Urban Stories for the National Theatre in The Hague. Her message is that we need to connect with each other more: ‘I do think that I am a kind of missionary, and that is what my performances are about: seeing who you live with. I do believe in that.’ Sophia Jonker worked for the artist platform Zina for years, with Adelheid Roosen, and was mainly responsible for the preparatory research for, among other things, a series of performances called WijkSafari. In particular, she describes her urge to discover as a driving force: ‘For as long as I can remember I have been looking for people, communities and places that are different from where I come from. I’m curious. Not so much about what is in the newspapers or what is on the news, but about what I see around me, what drives people, and how it is that someone is in a certain situation at a certain moment.’

Dive in

There are different views on the extent to which preparation is needed and whether this is preliminary research or part of the creative process. Companies and collectives that work ‘site-specifically’ have therefore also created new job functions, fully focused on this often intensive preparation process. The function of this preliminary investigation varies. Some are focused on collecting stories, others on finding characters, or they are there to get the residents used to the presence of theatre makers in the neighbourhood, they clear roads and arrange everything. When a large production has to be run in a repeatable format, you see more of a routine developing in this process.

This can also pose dilemmas. Jonker explains that for this reason, she no longer wanted to do both making and researching: ‘Because I quickly start to love people and feel involved with them, and I feel bad for them when something doesn’t go ahead.’ The difficult decisions can then be left to the director so that no damage is done to the relationship. Schmitz recognizes this approach in her working method when she prepares living room performances and calls it ‘good cop, bad cop’.

Research methods were also discussed, such as those of actors who step into the life of a neighbourhood resident for two weeks, to create scenes from there. Timmers explains that it all starts with curiosity, because you suspect ‘that there is a story to be told’; the next step is to enter into a partnership with makers and, in her example, the Liberal Synagogue and the Bethel Chapel in the Hague, and the Hindu Temple in Laak. ‘Time is very important for that research. One maker had three months, the other had almost six months. That also made a big difference in the elaboration. It matters a lot how much time you have, for how you connect, and also during what time period you are there.’

As part of Cracking the Code, Jonker accompanied and coached a group of third-year theatre students as they carried out research, bringing together figures about population composition, anecdotes, maps, personal stories and historical facts. In a month, working two days a week, they collected an enormous amount of data. She provided the students with a step-by-step plan and method. ‘I showed them how I would do it, and they started doing it themselves.’

In Schmitz’s story, the routine is even clearer: ‘I walk in somewhere and bring people who can tell me all about the place where I am at that time: architects, archaeologists, social workers. About population composition, problems, origin, history. I’m looking for key figures, the ‘usual suspects’, the head of a community centre, for example. This person can then refer you on to many others.’ Everything is strongly aimed at residents, but there is also attention for the place itself, for its architecture, landscape and renovations. What does a city have to tell?

In the interviews, it turned out that the term ‘research’ was interpreted in different ways. The heads of the study programmes, in particular, showed great interest in effect measurements and design-oriented research, partly based on the impact of SEA projects. Boessen:

What are the long-term effects? Have you researched that? What does it generate in a neighbourhood? Do you evaluate that? How are things six months later? Has something changed in social patterns, in the perception of their neighbourhood? You were there, then you left again? What did that do? […] You generate a lot of data and somewhere there is an end result. So you make choices, which arguments do you have to choose? So it is not representative, then?

This is not the type of research that the makers conduct themselves: ‘I do not research the usefulness of my work.’ The makers talk about impact a lot, about social goals they aspire to, and about what they want to leave behind. Sometimes, it is necessary to clarify what the project has yielded to its financial backers. It evokes discussions during meetings, says Boessen:

One question that keeps coming back for me is: what is the difference between site-specific research and cultural participation, participation through art, and good cultural education at a location? It’s great what you’re doing, but what exactly is the research angle here? How are data collected, how are they processed in a method? You call it storytelling, but you could also call it good didactics. How do you frame what you do?

And Johnston says,

In SEA the ultimate parameter is impact. Has anything changed? Has anything that you have done in your work made any difference or change to the context you’re working in or the people you’re working with?

One of the teachers, Boris Saran, believes that the research task and the question of impact, continuation and policy should not lie with the makers at all.

That question lies with the government, or with the organization involved. They try to assign that task to us, which is nice and easy. Then they say, “nice project, and what are you going to do next?” No, the question should be “what are you going to do?”, because you paid for it! It’s government money you’re watching over. How are you going to take this further? That task lies with the government; they should say, “we’re going to do this kind of project again”.

I see the way in which research is discussed in the context of ‘site-specific research’ as being part of the preparation process of makers and other parties involved, who use this process to study or immerse themselves in the place and the people in all kinds of ways. More traditional methods such as interviews, observation, surveys and source or desk research can play a role in this, but also more participatory forms, arts-based research, or methods that are already part of the creative process such as dramaturgical considerations as well.


Most experts and stakeholders cite connection with people as the ultimate means and goal. Allerd van den Bremen describes how he tried to pursue this in the socio-artistic musical projects he supervised: ‘You have to discover what the other really wants. It’s about really being in contact with the other.’ Johnston mentions ‘co-ownership’ and ‘reciprocity’; others refer to ownership and co-creation. We’re not doing something for them, but with them. It is this ambition that takes so much time, sincerity, and attention. The organizational connection between the various parties must also work, as Johnston explains on the basis of a case study: ‘It was not SEAP, because it didn’t put the foundations in place. The engagement with the local community was not co-owned. There was no co-ownership. The community aspect was incidental.’ Especially in the initial phase, all parties need to be properly informed about expectations, ownership and co-creation. That connection with humans can also be described more methodically: ‘I always say: know your entrance, make sure your entrance points are clear, and know your exit, have a good exit strategy. We are not leaving people.’

It is precisely these concepts of ‘together’ and ‘co-creation’ that led to discussions. How real is that intention, how real is that connection, and do other factors perhaps obscure that togetherness and reciprocity? Haverkort: ‘Is it co-creation? The word ‘together’ is mentioned so often, but is it together? It starts together, but then it turns into something that is no longer so together at the end, apparently.’ This is indeed the case for some of the makers and productions. Timmers and Jonker discuss this further: ‘That idea of together has many different shades. I don’t think I make it together with the local residents, that’s just not true.’ ‘Not even that they feel like they made it together?’ ‘No, they don’t.’ ‘But they are part of it, or participate in it together.’ For Van Hove, Van Heeswijk and Johnston, this pursuit of co-creation and the ideal of ownership involved goes much further. Timmers explains that Frascati does not necessarily understand co-creation as connection with residents and the public, but with a non-artistic party in particular. Van Heeswijk, nevertheless, goes a step further in terms of co-creation and ownership:

For me, it’s about how you don’t see them as volunteers, as people who are allowed to participate and get something fun out of it, but it’s about how they really become co-creators. If you take that seriously, then you have to take that into account in your financial structure and provide an income.

Make an effort and dare! Have a conversation

Van Heeswijk uses an interesting method in her project Public Faculty. It consists of conversations that arise spontaneously when she asks passers-by an open question, usually in relation to where they are. These questions do not have to lead to anything, do not have to solve anything; their only aim is to question, to conduct a conversation based on an open question that challenges the interaction. The challenge is to keep the conversation going for as long as possible. In a similar way, artist Bram Esser works as an ‘explorer of the everyday’. He emphasizes that his method is related to ‘the artist’s alibi’; ‘then you always have an excuse to ask someone a million questions. And it is about rules that you must impose on yourself and apply very consistently, for example by working on the basis of a dogmatic manifesto.’ In his manifesto, Rule #8 is about encounters: ‘Where am I? He who knows where he is also knows where he is going. The people the explorer meets along the way are landscape oracles who tell him about their personal relationship with the environment.’ Timmers describes how she cycled to Paris on a heavy bike, in the rain, with the wind against her:

Sometimes you first have to show that you are willing to make a connection. That you really came all the way to Paris especially for that person, because you hoped you would meet them. The one with that special, normal story. You should never assume that people are waiting for you to show up. Because why on earth would they feel like talking to a theatre maker? You also win your way into people’s hearts.

Make! Without any preconceived goal

Some people see conversations as part of the creative process, others see it as preparatory work for making something. The artists’ collective Questions Collective also assumes ‘making’:

The power we have as makers, that is what all of you have too; you can make things, and as a teacher you have that power to enable others, to give others that magical power or to make others feel, experience what it is like when you have control over the world around you.

The creative process as a means of making reality, creating, deconstructing and constructing again. It’s not a long process of designing and preparing, but in designer Tessel Brühl’s words, ‘We try, try, we make, we make. And what we see is that the more you make, that quantity also develops quality.’ In his stories, Allerd van den Bremen seems to focus on something that arises just like that, without a real plan, just by doing it. ‘You bring a musician, a dancer and a theatre maker together, in this case in a nursing home, really site-specific research, but with the idea that we will eventually use this to make something.’ Timmers argues for chance encounters, for doing research, and mentions two schools of thought. There are makers who are looking for something very specific and already know what they want, and makers who focus more on coincidence as a basis for their work: ‘You’re looking for a suicidal psychiatric patient, or you go to a psychiatric clinic and think, gosh, what will I find here?’

Be goal-oriented, product-oriented; it’s about quality

An interesting point that often came up in our conversations was the question of whether a connection between the artistic and the social would threaten the autonomy of art. In my conversation with visual artist Saskia Janssen, it emerged that she does not want to call herself a ‘community artist’. She is not an artist who aims to do something good or beautiful for society. But she also says: ‘I want to make meaningful art, and that art is usually also socially involved because that is where my interest lies, but I don’t need to improve the world with it.’ In her work, she collaborates with homeless people, psychiatric patients, prisoners – but she also says, ‘I come without an agenda; I don’t want to teach them anything and I’m not looking for any kind of gain.’26 Could there be a taboo on mentioning engagement, because the possible social usefulness of the artistic threatens the autonomy and thus the quality of the art and the artist?

The quality criterion can also raise ethical questions, especially in relation to the pursuit of reciprocity, co-creation and ownership, mentioned by so many. In large theatre productions in particular, certain choices might disappoint residents, because they might no longer recognize themselves, or artistic choices might be made that they do not understand or are not involved in. Visual arts teacher Leontine Broekhuizen says,

I think that’s a complicated thing. To what extent are you using people? That research is about people, just like when you’re interviewed and then you get some attention. You put people on a stage for a moment, and then it is turned into a work of art they no longer recognize themselves in. So that individual part in relation to the larger goal seems like a sensitive issue to me.

You don’t want to disappoint people, and that requires transparency and clarity, but choices do have to be made that go over residents’ heads. In the context of her WijkSafari project (neighbourhood safari), Jonker explains:

Sometimes it’s just like with amateur theatre. Sometimes you see a performance and you think, “God, six of them have now had a monologue and there’s still another four to come!” Then those people have had their attention, but the performance is dramatically uninteresting, and that’s not so different in WijkSafari. How can you make sure you treat people well? You’re also dealing with an artistic end product which has to be good, and if six stories are about migration or leaving your home country, then that’s too much, so you have to be very careful about what you promise. But the question is who you’re doing it for, and everyone goes in there with their own agenda. You often work with neighbourhood workers or community builders who want to use that aspect, so it’s certainly about connecting, but you are also part of a theatre company, and a theatre that wants to sell tickets and put on a fantastic performance.

Sometimes it seems as if social-artistic projects are always held together with Sellotape and plasters, but being an artist can also ‘boost the whole thing’, ‘pimp it up’, give it ‘cachet’. ‘I also want to put together that performance because I think I’m good at it; I’m a professional; we do what we do because we can do it well, and that’s why I am not a police officer or a social worker.’ People’s stories can even change, says Timmers: ‘Sometimes you want to tell something a certain way, and you think, that’s not quite how the person told it to me, but it would be very interesting; I don’t always inform people about that.’

Use a format; it just works

Of course, meetings and conversations should arise by chance, intentions should be sincere and intrinsic. But still, between the lines, advice was also shared that tends towards a format, a method, tips and tricks. Opinions differ on whether this is ethically sound or not, as Timmers says: ‘Just as the theatre teaches you to make, the city teaches you to make, too. Then you notice that some things work and others don’t.’

Being visible is important. When doing research in particular, it is important to be ‘environmentally oriented’ and let people know that you are there. Timmers: ‘That’s exactly why we often went to the synagogue on Saturdays, not so much because we were looking for something specific, or to be inspired, but in order to say: we are part of what you’re doing for a while. It is mainly to point out: we’re here, and you can get to know us. So there is a kind of breadth in that research, which is also about saying, “I want to connect with you.”’ Part of the strategy seems to be denying or not mentioning that it is a strategy. Schmitz says:

I go to social meeting places, to the community centre, and there will be a certain type of people. We go to cafes, supermarkets. I am not coming there to ask for anything, I am not looking for anything there. Have a chat, build a bond, show genuine interest. And then it starts, when the prefab offices are placed; from there we make contacts. We are there once a week, so you show your face, and we explain why we are there.

Participation is used as an instrument: ‘That’s what I always enjoy most: completely immersing yourself in a neighbourhood. I’ll sign up for a line dancing course, join a community allotment: there are always things you can join.’ Even co-creation is used strategically, according to Schmitz: ‘If people get the opportunity to add something, they’re willing to work a little harder for you.’ Sometimes, there is up to ten months of research and the method is clear: know your neighbourhood, participate, make sure you are there regularly, according to a set schedule, and make yourself visible. Typecasting also happens: ‘We still need an angry mother.’ The format for WijkSafari is clear: the performance is a route through the neighbourhood, from one o’clock to five o’clock in the afternoon; when you’re the audience, you receive a call from the actors: go to such and such an address; and an actor will take a group of ten of you on a route through the neighbourhood; of the eight performances, two of them are in living rooms.

Know when to stop

Where Johnston, Van Heeswijk, Van Hove and Janssen repeatedly emphasize that it is about a sustainable connection – projects are long-term so you can build a real bond – there are also makers who say that you must accept that a project has a certain duration and must therefore also come to an end. Jonker: ‘I did so many performances; I couldn’t take it anymore: I felt I had to keep sending everyone tickets, because I was the one who got them involved, I had persuaded them to be part of this family, and soon they’re going to feel abandoned, and it’ll be my fault.’ Things can become complex when you bond with someone, or give the other person an impression of friendship, while it isn’t always completely reciprocal. Timmers:

I don’t want to rush in and go. I just don’t want that anymore, because I’ve experienced that a number of times now. But you also shouldn’t forget that projects sometimes have an end point, and that’s also deliberate. Sometimes that’s how life works.

Know what you’re leaving behind

When the aftercare is explained in terms of relationship management, and the community that is created also offers advantages for the sales figures, this raises ethical questions as well. For Johnston, it’s really about ‘being true, honest, and ethical’, and thus about reciprocity. You come there to learn, but also to contribute: ‘We wanna contribute, we wanna leave something behind, something which is sustainable’. So it’s really about the question of what you leave behind when you leave. This also affects the demand for impact and for what sticks.

Code in education

Cracking the Code took place in a learning community of teachers from a number of art teacher programmes. As such, the trajectory also provided insight into how teachers learn from each other, where there is common ground, where there are differences, and how people think about what we should include in the development of visions and methods in socially engaged artistic practices and of site-specific research in education. Are these skills that the art teachers of the future will need? Perhaps part of the answer lies in what Timmers says about what makers and teachers can have in common:

[In this kind of project,] we are really looking for makers who want to make a connection, not for makers who prefer a blank canvas and a room, because that is actually of no use to me. Because why would they suddenly go into a neighbourhood? You need makers who are intrinsically motivated to enter into these kinds of connections, to mirror themselves to these kinds of contexts, and I think these are the makers we are training in theatre teacher training courses.

The fact that we have tried to crack a code together may suggest that there is an ideal method, a recipe that works in all kinds of situations. Of course this is put too simplistically, because reality is more complex; situations and methods can vary enormously. During the course of the process, it turned out in conversation with all those involved that there are indeed fixed, recurring subjects that we encounter and can learn from as study programmes. That is why I now want to discuss a number of themes that recur in the translation from theory and praxis to educational practice that the artist educator should at least have an opinion on. I will formulate them as questions that we can build on in the joint learning process between makers, teachers and students.

Where do you stand?

Raising awareness was discussed throughout the entire process. Both students and teachers are increasingly aware, not only of the way in which their own view and perspective is coloured, but also of how difficult it is to actually use that awareness to change anything. It may be impossible really to think outside your own perspective, really to put yourself in the position of ‘the other’, but still, realizing that can be constructive – in the sense that we can rise to the challenge of exploring what art education has to offer in that regard. The question we can therefore ask is where we stand in relation to the other and the world. It was also discussed during the LKCA conference. As theatre director Giselle Vegter says, ‘Study programmes must offer a programme through which students experience their own view of people and the world from or with a different living environment.’

What do you stand for?

A related question, certainly in an educational context where engagement and issue-based action is encouraged, is how you want to relate to others, and what you can and want to achieve as an artist educator. Above, I have described what the downsides can be when you consciously commit yourself to a group of people. Good intentions are not necessarily in sync with the impact you intended to make. Being aware of this is a first step in improving socially engaged art education practices.

With the other, for the other, or about the other?

Wherever students, teachers, makers and social organizations work together, one must ask again and again whose urgency, whose question and whose problem are involved. It goes without saying that when we relate to others as a maker, teacher or student, we all do this from within a certain vision. When we participate or collaborate in socially engaged artistic practices by using art education as a means of effecting something, many avenues are possible. While some people aim for a specific effect or a predetermined impact, others work more openly, searching impulsively, without an intended result. While some primarily want to see social improvement, regardless of whether the practice, action or product can still be called artistic, others focus on quality, and the autonomy of the artist. While some see the artistic process as a means to resolve conflict or, for example, to improve social cohesion, others do not necessarily see this process as a solution, but as something that questions, criticizes, confronts or offers recognition. While some see co-creation, joint ownership and reciprocity in the relationship with others as ideal, others can sometimes make pragmatic or artistic choices where the work may be more about the other, or for the other, rather than with the other.

Although there are various possible points of view in this field of socially engaged artistic practices, I would nevertheless like to refer to the search for that reciprocity as a shared aim. Whether we empathize with each other as colleagues, as a teacher with a pupil or student, as a social worker with a client, as a maker with an audience, or as an artist educator with the individuals or groups we work with – in all of these cases, there is that challenge of not resorting to stereotyping, of jumping to conclusions, or of overlooking the individual because there is too much focus on the group. At Vocal Statements, Rohan Poldervaart and Carmen Hovestad consider the core of their approach to be that they situate that ownership with the young people they work with. How do you get young people in pre-vocational education to sing, to dare to use their voice and to discover how they can express themselves by telling stories? This requires a new kind of language, and this is how, as outsiders in particular, as makers who briefly collaborate with a school, they discover that you can play a significant role and shake things up. Theatre teacher Arjen Hosper explains why he sees so much in the stories of the speakers with a musical background that may well be applicable across all disciplines of art education:

What I really like, and this emerges in a number of ways, also in your vision on education, which I very much agree with, is this: you’re not saying “this is my profession and my knowledge and I’m imposing it on them,” but, “how do I get away from that, how can I get somewhere and look at the people I’m sitting here with? – and from there I’ll start talking and get in contact with people.” ‘Finding a new language’ is a very beautiful metaphor, in theatre, in music or in any discipline.

We work for and commit to underprivileged groups in society, groups that are struggling, or that we want to help in their emancipation process. Vegter explains that there is a contradiction here:

The pursuit of inclusion and reaching people from different backgrounds contributes to how you think, work, create. This requires an awareness of the fact that as soon as you start talking about people with a migrant background, about the elderly, or people with a mental disorder, you’re trotting out a whole series of groups again. And that’s exactly what you’re trying to avoid. The point is that we need to involve students in a thought process about the people they’re work with, also outside those boxes.

What’s happened to my profession?

When subjects, disciplines and fields are linked together, there is often a fear of losing that which is yours. In this context, I would like to highlight a number of themes. First, there is the connection between the social and the artistic. What exactly happens to the art profession when art and art education are seen and used so explicitly as a social instrument? Perhaps this is music to the ears of legitimation, which we know so well in the field of art and cultural education, since we can use it to demonstrate the social usefulness and relevance of the arts. Or does that actually impoverish and diminish the autonomous power of art education? After all, when social impact is or becomes the most important criterion, you could also argue that the end justifies the means. It could mean that artistic quality becomes less relevant. Whether it’s about a game of football, people preparing soup together or collaborating on a musical, in the end, it is mainly about whether the social purpose has been served. But this requires more nuance, as the conversations showed. For example, during the LKCA discussions, the teachers from Social Work and from art academies indicated that it is actually very difficult to start a conversation with each other, because the various parties simply speak a different language.. It is where those areas are becoming more connected in particular that it’s very important to see how the other party distinguishes itself, to know how you can complement each other. One of the points where the artistic distinguishes itself is that the social situation doesn’t have to improve (immediately). After all, an artistic experience or process can also serve to confront, make one think, or make one aware.

Secondly, I would like to draw attention to the connection between subjects and disciplines within art education. Because students and teachers from different art teacher training courses were constantly working together on the same question within Cracking the Code, we also gained insight into that which makes each discipline unique. If it is true that teacher training courses are changing, especially in their relationship to and connection with society, then the question is also what that means for the art form. Broekhuizen: ‘We have not yet decided what a work of art is exactly, and I think it differs per discipline.’ For music teachers, the importance of musical skills as a basis was paramount. Haverkort:

When I look back on my studies, I realize now what I benefited from most. It’s that I learned my craft well, that I am skilled as a music teacher, and that has given me the confidence to try things. And indeed, that challenges you to try things in different contexts. It is good that students can now enter something very openly, but the most important thing is that they just learn their craft and that they just keep getting better at their profession.

Ward Meijer, also a music teacher, noticed that music teachers and students were lagging behind somewhat in interdisciplinary collaborative projects. It is as though it is less obvious for musicians to set a story in motion in the public space. Yet the realization came that this blind obedience may not be necessary:

When it comes to music specifically for site-specific research […] What I see with students and what I have noticed myself […] is that musicians have a bit of a tendency to wait for something to happen regarding the story, for example, or what the theatre makers and the visual arts people are doing in the neighbourhoods. I was too passive myself. But eventually you notice that every time you have been in one of those neighbourhoods, and you’ve recorded sounds, for example, […] an impression of the area is immediately evoked, which they in turn can use. So actually, my advice would be to make musicians aware that their own contribution is relevant from the start.

Boxes, subjects and disciplines are put to the test and boundaries become blurred. Let’s see this as an opportunity to experiment and find out what can happen organically. But let’s also use it as a way to rediscover what the domain-specific has to offer in a new context. Another suggestion that came out of the discussion: ‘is it not inherent in education, that search for connections?’ In my view, site-specific artistic work based on social engagement is mainly about participation, ultimately. Embedding a participatory approach in the teaching and research structure in this way increases the chance that students and teachers will develop interventions that are actually relevant to those they are working with. This search for connection and building solutions together is an indispensable skill for every educator.

How can I balance time and attention?

The work in our teacher training programmes will become increasingly site-specific, but does our educational structure actually allow this? Almost all experts in Cracking the Code emphasized that you need to have time and space to make contact, to start a relationship, but is that possible within the pressure cooker of an academic context? According to Timmers, there are all kinds of intermediate forms and short exercises, which she calls ‘etudes’. And Van Heeswijk has also shown us working methods where a strict time limit works very well.

Whether you see these approaches as sketches, as the first strokes on the canvas, or more as preliminary research, it gives a certain freedom to explore and enter the connection, even when the teaching module or lesson has a strict start and end time. Jonker, for instance, entered, investigated and mapped out the Diezerpoort neighbourhood in Zwolle with students, all within a strict two-week time frame. Schmitz also showed us methods for this and explained how, for example, the actors have themselves adopted by a company for a week, where they immediately do research by talking to everyone, working under high pressure, and recording a podcast in one day.

Even if an ambitious goal such as promoting social cohesion is not immediately successful, this does not necessarily mean that short-term, intensive initiatives are less valuable in this regard. Spending a lot of time talking to people you may eventually be doing an intervention for or with, practicing dialogues and forms of conversation based on equality, these things will have to be further integrated in teaching. These are skills that are ultimately not so far removed from what education is all about. This is also an insight Hovestad reached:

In the end I think everything stands and falls with contact with your target group and contact with your class, and I think that’s something I had no room for, when I was here at the conservatory from age seventeen to twenty-one. I only discovered that in practice: those ten years teaching at a pre-vocational school, trial and error, being called names, while you’re thinking, “I can’t even teach them a crotchet.” In practice, you slowly discover that it’s ultimately about how you make contact.

It’s obvious that something needs to change in the structure and hierarchy of skills in the programmes, but it is also a matter of discovering what exactly the implications will be for each programme. For those who practice theatre, the core of the field seems to be relating to others and immersing themselves in the other, and doing this by participating and being in the world. For music, there is more emphasis on the craft that must first be learned before that connection can be made. Another interesting question is whether the emphasis will be shifted towards performances, installations and interventions in art forms, also in visual art. Perhaps these constant interventions, making contact and striving for co-creation will result in art producing fewer concrete products. Perhaps those processes, which at times seem fleeting and transient, will ultimately have more impact.

Constantly sending students into a neighbourhood when some of them are still inexperienced naturally raises ethical questions. Residents of certain ‘priority’ neighbourhoods – which are not known as such for nothing – sometimes tire of all those groups of students traipsing through the area. It can also backfire if people in certain neighbourhoods are constantly confronted with short-term art projects. Students must develop a sensitivity for this. Is this person actually pleased to see me? In my opinion, education should pay attention to these questions: how do I get in here, how can I connect with these people, and when and how do I leave? Good preliminary research and a well-thought-out exit strategy can help. This requires a critical look at how intention and impact relate to each other, a sharp vision on what exactly you as an artist educator will bring about, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Can I practice in the real world?

When education becomes ‘real’, when it takes place outside of schools and in society, the implications can also be ‘real’. Vegter: ‘Some people have a sixth sense for when they are becoming no more than an exercise for the other person.’ In Cracking the Code, it struck me time and again how important it is to break through the group and get to the individual. A few students portrayed this beautifully by first capturing ‘the apartment residents’ in an anonymous, grey image with a few hundred doorbells and name tags. They rang the doorbell and started a conversation with an open question, after which they were often allowed in and got to hear beautiful, personal stories. Precisely because there was no planned result and no defined goal, all kinds of things happened. Perhaps makers and healthcare institutions can learn a lot from each other in this regard.

Working in and within society is not new, certainly not for theatre. Besides, the distinction between an institute and the world is actually a false dichotomy anyway. A school is just as much a society in itself, as well as being part of a larger society. But something is shifting. Where in the past, art teacher training courses were sometimes seen as a second choice by students who secretly wanted to become a musician or an actor, for example, we are now seeing something else, as Hosper says:

I have noticed that the artistry of the theatre teacher is recognized more and more often. Just like a documentary maker chooses to make a documentary, the theatre teacher chooses to get those stories from the neighbourhood and relocate them somehow. This artistry is increasingly seen as part of the art academy. It used to be like, I don’t want to be a teacher after all, being a teacher is lower than a performing artist. I now see fewer and fewer people who actually wanted to become an actor. Now, I see people who consciously choose this part of the art academy.

There is, however, a tension between the desire to allow students to practice and experiment as early as possible in the programme, without framing assignments too much, and the fact that this often does not take place in the relatively safe practice space of a classroom, studio, or academy. Study programmes are already working hard to create safe yet realistic frameworks. Developing an ethical compass must be a basic principle here.

A tool for the development of socially engaged art education practices

In this article, I have already discussed many questions that students and teachers can ask themselves and one another with regards to a project, in the preparation, implementation or evaluation phase. I will now present the most important insights in an overview. I propose to distinguish four roles that, in practice, are often linked and interact. The roles and associated skills correspond to the four basic skills of cultural consciousness, as discussed in my dissertation.27 The questions are intended for students and teachers, to sharpen ideas, increase awareness, clarify choices, and promote due diligence. The roles and questions will ideally lead to conversations, choices and possibly, reconsiderations. This can be done by combining the different roles in a collaborative process, with each person taking on a role, or by jointly highlighting the project from the perspective of different roles.


Cracking the Code took place before Covid-19 began to rule our lives. We could not yet foresee the societal impact this would have, the consequences for the art world, but also the revival of worldwide activism. Nevertheless, the insights that resulted from coming together on a shared issue at ArtEZ are still relevant. When it becomes more difficult to meet physically, when all gatherings are restricted, when we constantly have to ask ourselves whether our proximity to and distance from one another form a danger to anyone, socially engaged art educational projects in the public sphere are under pressure. The chance that we will mainly encounter like-minded people in our social interactions, which are increasingly taking place online, has grown. These are circumstances that make us realize even more so that what we were looking for in Cracking the Code is urgent, precisely because it is now under such pressure.

In a learning community of students and teachers, in connection with site-specific projects and inspiring experts, we searched together for how we, as art teacher training programmes, could equip ourselves in terms of attitude, skills, actions and consciousness to be able to act as artist educators from a place of social commitment, connecting with individuals and groups. It goes without saying that the recruitment policy and the composition of both the student and teacher population is an important factor when it comes to inclusion and diversity. Assuming that this is a parallel issue and process that deserves attention, Cracking the Code mainly focused on what teachers and students need. We were curious about the active factors in site-specific projects, especially to discover what we can take from them to use in educational development. Our research on this took place in direct reciprocity with educational practice.

In fact, this touches on the basis of our humanity. We are social beings, but especially social within the groups we think we belong to. That is not to say that we don’t mean well towards others, but that we are handicapped in our attempts to connect with others. We are conceptual, or tribal, mythical thinkers. We are social excluders. We usually do not see that the prevailing norm, that which we consider normal in this place and at this time, is a construct. As such, we are making the mistake of assuming a deep similarity between people who share a certain identity. Even when we have good intentions towards others, we tend to think for and about others. Developing an awareness of how our thinking and ideals are coloured by our own circumstances, often also by privileges and filter bubbles, is a start, but not yet the solution.

It is wonderful that an institute like ArtEZ dares to look in the mirror with a clear vision and an ideal. Nevertheless, we must ensure that the call for commitment and belief in the social impact of art education does not become a dogma. In my opinion, the fact that students are activated to work on the basis of issues and urgency should not mean that the ideals that we promote as an institute have already been established. Students are keenly aware of it when ideals are imposed on them. Let their education be a time when students are exposed to many stories, values ​​and truths. A time when they see how their own norms are constructed, how they are a product of time and place, and how they are able to create dialogues between values ​​and narratives. A critical gaze is indispensable: in what context do I exist, what lives and plays here, what interests exist here between parties and organizations, what institutional patterns, whose urgency and ideal is this, how do I relate to this, and how is my own perspective in this driven by my background?

Although we also encountered makers during this project whose reasoning came more from their artistic quality and for whom the creative process could also go over people’s heads, I think we are looking for reciprocity and co-creation in particular here. Truly becoming one of them, becoming part of the group you’re participating in takes a lot of time and is not necessarily the goal. Being sincere and careful is also possible in short-term projects, and it can also be achieved by in fact maintaining some distance, by working from within your role or combination of roles. Be open about your goal, importance and expectations. Be open to other perspectives, seek connection, and really allow the other person into how you think and create. Think carefully and keep an eye on what you are setting in motion and what you’re leaving behind.

As an artist educator in a practice, you fulfil several roles. You observe and experience, you create or direct a creative process, you work from a vision of what should or could change, and your work is research-based. These roles of the observer, the artist, the agent of change and the researcher are interlinked. Nevertheless, I think that in an educational setting, it is important that teachers and students learn to distinguish between these roles, in order to be able to connect them meaningfully. Developing an ethical compass is essential here. The practices, the places and the people we work with are real, and that is an opportunity for realistic practice during the training process, but this requires care on behalf of both teachers and students. As a learning community, we can question one another and keep one another sharp. This process will not always be easy; the artist educator may also experience discomfort, or even search for and imagine trouble. Art (education) is not necessarily the solution to a social problem, but can sometimes contribute indirectly to it. It is up to the study programmes to guide this process from a place of ethical awareness, but in realistic and real contexts.

Emiel Copini

Dr Emiel Copini works at ArtEZ University of the Arts as a teacher and researcher for the Master Education in Arts. His dissertation (2019) focuses on the development of cultural awareness during adolescence through arts and culture classes. This turns out to connect well with the issue of inclusion and socially engaged artistic practices. Copini is particularly fascinated by the role that imagination plays in the interaction with other skills. Can the artist educator be an observer, artist, agent of change and researcher at the same time? Copini has methodological experience supervising collaborative research, where all those involved are co-researchers in a joint quest. He uses research to achieve educational development from within learning communities. He is currently also applying this approach in higher education, in socio-artistic projects, and in national research into the anchoring of film education (for the Netwerk Filmeducatie (Network for Film Education)).



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  • Veldpape, E., rationale accompanying subsidy application for the project Cracking the Code: Diversity in Education, ArtEZ, 2018.

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For this article, I had conversations with Gemma Medina (art historian and research curator at the Van Abbe Museum, 1 April 2019), Tessel Brühl (artist/designer, 15 April 2019), Julia Schmitz (theatre maker, 20 May 2019), Hanna Timmers (theatre maker, 20 May 2019), Leontine Broekhuizen (project manager Cracking the Code, teacher fine art, 20 May 2019), Sophia Jonker (theatre maker, 20 May 2019), Judith Boessen (former head of Fine Art and Design in Education, 20 May and 13 June 2019), Frans Haverkort (head of Music in Education, 20 May and 13 June 2019), Boris Saran (theatre teacher, 13 June 2019), John Johnston (head of Masters of Art Education, 4 June en 17 September 2019), Arjen Hosper (head of Theatre in Education, 13 June 2019), Allerd van den Bremen (music teacher, 13 June 2019), Ward Meijer (music teacher, 13 June 2019), Carmen Hovestad (music teacher, 13 June 2019), Jeanne van Heeswijk (visual artist, 27 August 2019), Eric van Hove (visual artist, 28 September 2019), Bram Esser (philosopher/publicist, 12 January 2020), Jappe Groenendijk (director of studies of the Master of Art Education at the Amsterdam University of the Arts, 10 February 2020), and Giselle Vegter (director/pedagogue, 10 February 2020).

↑ 2

‘Education Vision’, 2019, pp. 2-3.

↑ 3

E. Veldpape, rationale accompanying subsidy application for the project Cracking the Code: Diversity in Education, 2018.

↑ 4

The research plan and process were developed in consultation with the heads of the study programmes involved. The first inspiration meeting (15 April 2019) was organized by the BA in Fine Art and Design in Education. The second (20 May 2019) was organized by the Theatre in Education BA, and the third (13 June 2019) by the Music in Education BA. Visual artist Jeanne van Heeswijk was a guest on 27 August 2019. All these meetings were paired with a group discussion between guests and teachers from different study programmes. As a researcher, I coordinated my findings with Elsbeth Veldpape, Leontine Broekhuizen, Eef Veldkamp and lector Jeroen Lutters (Professorship in Art education as Critical Tactics). These findings were shared and discussed with students and teachers at a small conference (30 August 2019) and during the final conference (15 November 2019). During the working conference, representatives from the teacher training courses, the master’s in Art Education and the ArtEZ professorship, as well as ArtEZ Studium Generale, investigated which changes are needed in art education in order to be relevant for today’s society. The topics discussed included art education, community arts (art projects about social issues) and our own blind spots. Parallel to this process, there were other meetings and conversations that I consider my data for this project: a conversation with Alessandra Saviotti and Gemma Medina at Arte Útil (1 April 2019), a debate evening that I organized on behalf of Keunstwurk, with Jantien Kurpershoek and Eric van Hove (3 October 2019), a Kitchen Table Conversation (Kitchen Table Conversations are gatherings where ideas are exchanged about how we, as humans and artists, relate to other people in society. The KTCs are organized by ArtEZ Studium Generale in collaboration with the Education in Arts Master’s, the Interior Architecture Master’s, the BA in Theatre in Education, and Mister Motley online magazine) with Saskia Jansen (30 September 2019), lectures by Maria Hlavajova (8 May 2019), Aminata Cairo (30 August 2019), Chantal Suissa-Rune and Ira Kip (15 November 2019). I conducted extensive interviews with John Johnston (4 June and 17 September 2019) and Eric van Hove. In addition, I had conversations with teachers and students, particularly about the site-specific project that emerged from Cracking the Code in the Interdisciplinary Program. On 10 February 2020, together with Marie-José Kommers from the LKCA, I led a ‘deliberation’ where the insights from the project were discussed with lecturers and researchers from other Universities of Applied Sciences.

↑ 5

G. Lukianoff & J. Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind. How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, London etc.: Penguin Books, 2018, pp. 8, 9.

↑ 6

D. Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics, London: Routledge, 2001, third edition 2017, p. 145.

↑ 7

M. Donald, A Mind so Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

↑ 8

B. van Heusden, Cultuur in de spiegel. Naar een doorlopende leerlijn cultuuronderwijs [Culture in the Mirror: Towards a Cultural Education Learning Trajectory], University of Groningen, 2010, https://ugp.rug.nl/cis/article/view/1/1.

↑ 9

E. Copini, Tussen willen en weten. Cultuur, cultuuronderwijs, en de ontwikkeling van metacognitie in de adolescentie [Between Wanting and Knowing: Culture, Cultural Education and the Development of Metacognition in Adolescence], doctoral thesis, University of Groningen, 2019, pp. 156-159.

↑ 10

R. Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation, London, Penguin, 2012, p. 4.

↑ 11

J. Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them, London: Atlantic Books, 2013, p. 23.

↑ 12

Ibid., p. 26.

↑ 13

K. Appiah, The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity, London, Profile, 2018, p. xvi.

↑ 14

C. Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso Books, 2012, p. 1.

↑ 15

S. Cleveringa, Cultuur nieuwe stijl. Praktijkboek community arts en nieuwe cultuurfuncties [New Style Culture: A Practical Manual for Community Arts and New Functions of Culture], Amsterdam: PCK publishing, 2012, p. 9.

↑ 16

A. Gigliotti, Creating a Critical Pedagogy of Place with Marginalized Youth in Barrio Logan, doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2019.

↑ 17

J. Johnston, ‘Critical Visual Arts Education’: A Pedagogy of Conflict Transformation in Search of the ‘Moral Imagination’, doctoral thesis, University of Sunderland, 2018, p. 2.

↑ 18

N. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses Du Réel, 1998.

↑ 19

Johnston 2018, p. 3.

↑ 20

Cleveringa 2012, p. 11.

↑ 21

P. Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art, Bethesda, MD: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011.

↑ 22

Gigliotti 2019, p. 76.

↑ 23

Johnston 2018, pp. 12-14

↑ 24

Bishop 2012, p. 26.

↑ 25

R. Dyer, White. Essays on Race and Culture, London: Routledge, 1997, p. 44.

↑ 26

E. Kat, ‘“Ik wil ze niets leren en kom ook niets halen.” Interview with Saskia Janssen’, Mister Motley online magazine, 26 September 2019.

↑ 27

Copini 2019.