News and Articles

The Art of Community

September 14, 2023

By Ruth Masuka, 2023 Social Connectedness Fellow

The arts seemed to have a fixed position at the periphery of societal priorities. It is so often thought of as a separate sphere, distinct and distant from our everyday existence, reserved for the upper echelons of society. We think of art and envision pomp and circumstance. For me, the very beauty of art is the constant reinvention of its meaning and its fundamental function as a confession of our interdependence. Often seen as an act of individual expression, artistic practices are also mechanisms of community building. Our collective encounters with art generate necessary questions without always providing a “right” answer. For example, how do we negotiate our identity within the context of perpetual crisis we seem to find ourselves in? What exists in the zones between the binaries we are forced into? Art interrogates how we place cultural production into the hands of entire communities. There are no clear-cut responses to these inquiries. Reality is not objective, it is relational and art allows us to translate emotion to others. Creativity is needed to respond to the contours of any social phenomena – from the way we perform our identities to how we digest unprecedented change.

University of Pennsylvania researchers discovered a high concentration of public art across a city is connected to higher civic engagement. Neighborhoods with expanded cultural infrastructure like community gardens, public access to museums, and murals are linked to better health outcomes, education and safety. When social disintegration has become an epidemic, there is something to be said about feeling connected to your environment, of feeling you not only exist in a given space, but have a meaningful say of what that space looks and feels like. Enjoying the magic of ordinary things and the beauty of everyday domains; for me, that can be the difference between a crowd and a village.  This sort of creative placemaking is rooted in collaboration; Belonging is a cause and effect. 

Herein art becomes a vernacular of democracy;  in art, I question if we must endure suffering until we are forced into action – if we can be moved by a poem rather than a boot on our necks. We speak and hear of activism often in adversarial concepts: defund, abolish, divest are bolded on protest signs. I imagine this is due in part it is easier to subtract than add. However we have to remain cognizant that radical transformation is rooted not only in the elimination of oppression, but the production of belonging, creativity, mutualism. I argue – along the legacy of other great activists – Paulo Friere, Angela Davis, James Baldwin – that hope is powerful, vulnerable, artistic nececessity. Sometimes, I find the enormity of the world’s grief can make it feel easier to conform to the familiarity of chaos. But, advocacy, self-reflection, critical theory – all these practices – are not the hobbies of resolute pessimists.

Justice is not simply about having access to the basic necessities of life or the absence of conflict,  it is the presence of love, and joy. Joy, compassion, imagination; these are all exercises in resistance, a radical act against oppression. In her essay Love as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks writes, “The power of love is our most powerful antidote to the politics of domination.”  For me, community is love in its most potent form.

Mutual aid is love. 

Solidarity is love. 

What is art if not a labor of love? 

This is not an abstract idea. It is happening in everyday spaces, everywhere by every sort of person – in libraries, in bus stations, in schools. Where can creativity be found more than in mothers who manage to feed their families in the midst of unprecedented food costs? What is imagination if not what fuels those crossing oceans for the chance for a life better for their children? And in a culture obsessed with efficiency, where productivity is king, I like to think the slowness of art is an act of resistance itself. Art takes time—Monet grew his gardens before he painted them. In this way art is both a practice and a praxis. 


hooks, bell. (1994). Love as the Practice of Freedom. In Outlaw Culture (pp. 297–306). Routledge.

Murthy, V. (2023). (rep.). Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. U.S. Surgeon General. 

Penn, A. (2019, April 1). Monet Moment: Gardener & painter. Monet Moment: Gardener and Painter | Denver Art Museum. University of Pennsylvania. (n.d.). Social Impact of the Arts Project. DSpace.