Global Recovery and the Culturally/Socially Engaged Artist

Michael Franklin Naropa University

Citation:  © Franklin, M. (2010). Global Recovery and the Culturally/Socially Engaged Artist In Peoples, D. (Ed.), Buddhism and Ethics, 309-320. Ayuthaya, Thailand: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University.


The culturally and socially engaged artist involved with global recovery work is examined in this paper through the lens of essential Buddhist principles from a lay, or non-monastic perspective. At the core of Buddhist belief is that there is a collective responsibility to take some form of action to assuage suffering in the world. This topic is addressed in this paper first by examining how certain inner unconscious processes can be exposed and understood, through the dharma practice of artistic sublimation. Before setting out to do socially engaged work it is important to untangle inner triggers. Art, as understood through the mindful process of sublimation, is one way to practice restraint and free will when it comes to acting out the impulses emerging from the body, speech, and mind. The focus then shifts to the outer view of the socially and culturally engaged artist. The subject of the Naropa Community Art Studio (NCAS), including a short case vignette, is offered as an example of applied global recovery through art.


The contemporary phenomenon of Engaged Buddhism primarily emerged in the 20th century fanning out across Asia, Europe, and the United States. During this time it has become an international movement whereby the deeply held tenets of Buddhism are skillfully and nonviolently applied to present-day societal, cultural, political, economic, and ecological challenges (Kraft, 1999). One way to mindfully address these global systemic needs of recovery is through humanistic applications of the arts, particularly the visual arts, which is the subject of this chapter. More and more, artists are coming out of the cloistered environment of the studio and directly addressing social and cultural issues of global recovery, particularly at the grass roots level of community engagement (Kaplan, 2005). Although these artists do not necessarily identify as Buddhist, there are correlations to draw between their humanistic actions and cultural interventions with the practices of Engaged Buddhism. Overall, artists contribute to culture and also serve as interpreters of culture. Socially and culturally engaged artists, through nonviolent means, interact with the larger psychosocial, ecological subject matter alive within their communities, towns, and geographic regions (Cohen, 2005-6; Jones, 2005-6; Kaplan, 2005; Lacy, 2005-6; Matheson, 2005-6). This paper explores this promising subject of the socially and culturally engaged artist participating in global recovery efforts from a humanistic and a lay Buddhist perspective. First, a brief definition of humanistic engagement and Engaged Buddhism is offered followed by an explanation of sublimation and art as a dharma practice for untangling the seeds of hijacking emotions. This section of the paper marks an important step for cultivating inner skillful means for exposing unconscious patterns before directly engaging with others in social and cultural work. Next comes the outer view where the socially engaged artist is discussed. Finally, the topic of global recovery through art is addressed by utilizing the example of the Naropa Community Art Studio (NCAS).

Defining Compassion and Humanistic Engagement

Humanistic engagement is a moral practice of compassionate concern for not only people, but all of the living systems that comprise our planet. Since human beings are capable of positively and negatively influencing our global environment, from the layered geology of the earth to the uppermost atmosphere of our planet, it is necessary to compassionately expose and directly address the outcomes of human behavior. In order to accomplish this goal, an understanding of compassion is in order since this term is at the root of the social and cultural action suggested in this paper.

According to Swami Chidvilasananda, the meaning of the word compassion has two parts. Com refers to the Latin word meaning “together” and patti means “to suffer” (1994, p. 84). Etymologically, compassion thus implies how suffering is a form of social connective tissue, whereby shared experiences of anguish can join people together. Similar to empathy (Berger, 1987), compassion is the altruistic thread that not only civilizes human judgments, it also spiritualizes human actions by providing a pathway to altruistic caring.

Empathy and compassion are close neighbors. Both erode the distance created by various forms of separation, which is a root cause of suffering. Empathy is feeling with and into what is before one. Compassion shortens the distance between oneself and another and provides heartfelt resonation with that “other” person. And it is important to mention that a compassionate presence, expressed through caring observation, is not always enough. Certain forms of direct skilful action, as found in Engaged Buddhism, may be required to meet what waits for us in our communities.

Defining Engaged Buddhism

Many have written on the subject of Engaged Buddhism (Jones, 1989; King, 2005; Kraft, 1999; Queen, Prebish, & Keown, 2003; Nhat Hanh, 1987). There is also a nascent literature on the arts and Engaged Buddhism (Cohen, 2005-6; Jones, 2005- 6; Lacy, 2005-6; Matheson, 2005-6). Although a complex subject to define, Engaged Buddhism is briefly described in the following terms. First, it is important to say that this is not a new Buddhism but rather an obvious extension of the core teaching (Jones, 1989). Within Engaged Buddhism, the guiding principles of compassion, wisdom, and loving kindness are expressed in forms of practical nonviolent action. As well, between Buddhism’s focus on suffering and Gautama’s focus on teaching, from the very beginning, there has been an initial emphasis on engagement. Furthermore, Gautama’s practice of instruction is an early version of direct engagement with the subject of suffering and is therefore considered an early application of social engagement (King, 2009).

Over the millennia, Buddhism has pursued a considerable focus on inner development. As the injustices and violence of the 20th century unfolded, Buddhism needed to become directly engaged with society. If it did not move out into the global culture, some believe it would have moved towards extinction (King, 2009). Thich Nhat Hanh conceived of the term “Engaged Buddhism” (p. 4). King addresses how his view of Buddhism was to directly incorporate the wisdom and compassion of the tradition into direct action that supports all sentient beings. Nhat Hanh’s book, Interbeing (1987), offers 14 guidelines for practicing Engaged Buddhism. One specific guideline is discussed below as it relates to contemplative applications of art when working with the “seeds” of charged emotions capable of hijacking human behavior. The reason why this particular guideline is being singled out, and applied to art, is because before outer action is commenced, inner awareness is essential. In this context, art practice holds its own dharma or truth teachings that are worth excavating. The art process, in essence, is the mind externalized. We can literally see our thoughts emerge and take shape. This expressive process reflects our current state of body and mind back to us through the symbolic speech of art. If we pay attention, we can commune with both the form and content alive within the visual narrative coming to life before us. Similarly, artworks created by communities’ serve as evidence that reflect the bigger mind and symbolic speech held by that community.

Art therefore can be a method for bridging the divide between inner awareness practices with effective social action. One aspect of all the arts, according to Langer (1951), allows for inner experiences to be objectified and for outer experiences to be subjectified. Bringing internal experiences to the outside through the art process, where they can be contemplated and then reabsorbed for further investigation, is an important lesson inherent in the dharma teachings of the artistic process. Additionally, as awareness through art increases, questions concerning social engagement can become clarified and realized as clarity improves.

According to the Buddha, every action manifests through the three doors of body, speech, and mind, which are the pathways through which karma gets created (Sivaraksa, 2005). The Buddha also taught that all actions begin in the mind. From the mind, according to Sivaraksa, actions are then expressed through the body or through speech. Since the arts, according to Langer, are also considered expressive methods for working with human emotion, they offer a direct strategy for processing the content of body, mind, and speech narratives.

Therefore skillful means, or upaya, of which art is a legitimate practice of upaya, is needed to monitor the inner thoughts that spawn karma so that appropriate actions can and will be performed. According to a Buddhist view, violence begins in the mind and therefore must be transformed in the mind. Within the mind, there are three main types of violent poisonous thoughts. In fact these three forms of mental violence are known as the three poisons. They are: “greed, hatred, and delusion or ignorance” (Sivaraksa, 2005, p. 3). In terms of speech, verbal violence can manifest in four primary ways: “divisive speech, gossip, harmful words, and slander” (p. 4). Art offers a way to literally see this speech in visual forms before merging into destructive cascading behaviors. While to some this approach to art may seem like further indulgence of a harmful thought, it can also become a strategy to tame and mollify that thought.

Concerning behavioral violence, the three primary forms are: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct” (p. 4). Since every violent act first begins in the mind as one or a combination of the three poisons, we need skillful strategies to manage these cognitive impulses before they become spoken or behaviorally acted upon. Transcendental actions, known as the six Paramitas from the Mahayana tradition, help to train the mind to not act violently. They are: generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom” (p. 4).

Four more paramitas are added from the Theravada tradition. They are: “renunciation, truth, resolution, and loving-kindness (p. 4). Additionally, there is also the Four Brahmaviharas or “Divine Abodes” which are “loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha)” (p. 4). Between the emergence in the mind of the three poisons and ethical and moral response of the six Paramitas is a gap. It is the space within this gap that this next section on artistic sublimation is focusing. Art, as will be discussed, adds a layer of wisdom practice between impulse and the goal of moral reasoning. Also, within this liminal space, art becomes a practice of aesthetically titrating the seeds of aggression.

Working with the Seeds of Aggression Through Sublimation and Art

Nhat Hanh (1987) outlines and discusses fourteen guidelines for practicing engaged Buddhism. The sixth guideline is of particular interest for this chapter because it addresses the importance of working with the seeds of anger and hatred. It states:

Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your anger and hatred and the nature of the persons who have caused your anger and hatred. (Nhat Hanh, 1987, pg. 18)

How does one effectively penetrate and transform the seeds of anger and hatred? And why is this important for matters of global recovery? This is a complex question since human beings are often plagued with a struggle to balance and manage unchecked base emotions such as aggression and complex corporeal impulses. Rather than become taken over by these spontaneous impulsive urges and unconsciously act them out, another way exists to skillfully work with their unconscious and eventual disruptive consequences. This process, known as sublimation, when joined with art (Kramer, 1971), allows penetrating access to the original impulsive urges while also transforming these urges into artistic compositions (Franklin & Seimon, 2009). In short, artistic sublimation is a way to be inwardly and socially productive with personal urges and disruptive behaviors.

As a process for exposing and clearing ignorance, artistic sublimation has several sub-stages. Two of these stages, displacement and projection, are processes by which emotional material is directly projected or transferred from an internal state into and onto the art materials and the emerging visual symbols. At first, as would be expected, unintegrated discharged emotion often translates into visual chaos. Externalized visual chaos can directly reference internal chaotic feelings. Known as isomorphism, the essential point here is that visual relationships of form and content, process and product, can directly relate to and access one’s innermost truths (Rhyne, 1998). Key to understanding sublimation and isomorphism is therefore the notion that externalized art forms can ultimately be similar in structure—through line, shape, and color—to the inner state of the artists mind and that these forms can be modified and unified through artistic processes. Emotion that is primarily either unchecked or inaccessible can now be accessed, seen, and known through expressive use of the materials. The visual symbols created in this process can retell the autobiographical story of one’s emotional inner life. Suzanne Langer (1951, 1953) persuasively argued that all of the arts were in fact the most accurate language for human emotion. She, and later Kramer (1979), skillfully established the foundational thesis that the function and purpose of the arts is to articulate complex affect and make it accessible to others so that they might experience their own vicarious experience of sublimation.

By creating aesthetic compositions containing an emotional array of feelings such as anger and hatred, ignorance to one’s actions is lessened. The equation of being seduced by these unconscious stimuli and eventually making them conscious through art therefore signifies that the impulse is now accessible to a different, albeit contemplative response. Art fosters insight into unconscious ignorance by exposing and making these hidden narratives visible through the creation process. Before engaging with others or with communities, it is prudent to clear the mind and expose the triggers that ignite our patterns. By doing so, the culturally engaged artist can be of genuine help to others.

When Nhat Hanh (1987) proposes that we “learn to penetrate and transform inner chaotic emotion when it is still nascent and in seed form, he suggests using the breath as the primary transformative strategy. As soon as these impulses arise, art, combined with other contemplative practices such as meditation, becomes a complete way to turn our attention towards this base material in order to see and understand the nature of these emotions. For the proposes of this paper, meditation is defined by Walsh and Shapiro (2006) as “a family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration” (p. 229). Through this conjoined process of linking meditation with art, the seeds of aggression are exposed and mitigated.

Art, as understood through the mindful process of sublimation, is one way to practice restraint and free will when it comes to acting out the impulses emerging from body, speech, and mind. And art is not proposed here as a panacea that remedies this complex perspective on cause and effect relationships. Instead art is viewed as a contemplative practice tool to develop awareness by directly sublimating impulses through creative work.

Kramer (1971) further argues that sublimation through art results in actions that are socially productive, a point that ties sublimation to a humanistic and engaged aesthetic. When art is created to reference charged subject matter through symbolic pathways rather than through destructive behaviors, a caustic pattern is bifurcated and redirected. More to the point, the connection between art and contemplative practice becomes evident when considering how sublimation circumvents the accumulation of karmic debt that eventually must be accounted for. Since thoughts create karma, as do actions, sublimation through art is an effective strategy for untangling ignorance and developing insight. According to the Buddha, every action manifests through the three doors of body, speech, and mind, which are the pathways through which karma gets created (Sivaraksa, 2005). Artistic sublimation stands at the entry or passageway of these doors, ready to catch powerful emotions before they are acted upon and do direct harm to others and our planet. Lastly, I am not suggesting that creating art does not create karma. Art is a symbolic process that can surface the poisons of the mind. If thoughts create karma and art is a visual representation of our thoughts, then art too creates karma. And yet, art is a way to retain and hold back charged impulses before they can do harm to others.

Once disruptive inner seeds of emotions like aggression have been untangled, a clear mind and wholesome intentions can more efficiently manifest in socially engaged work. This next section addresses several significant points of the role of the socially engaged artist.

The Socially and Culturally Engaged Artist

The socially and culturally engaged artist embraces a social activist, altruistic, peaceful role. Within this role, a need or calling is identified and the artist engages with an effort toward non-attachment to outcomes. Liberated from psychological ownership of results is a very different form of participation in both art and cultural work. Rather than remain cloistered in the studio, the larger calling of social need beckons the artist to directly engage. This relational approach to art considers the importance of human need and how art can offer back to these social causes.

The “art” is not necessarily only in the object of creation. It is also in the act of engagement. This was the focus behind the work of artists like Joseph Beuys, Dominique Mazeaud, and writers like Suzi Gablik (1991). Gablik (1987) also addresses the need to remythologize the world by utilizing the art process in order to locate a living cosmology as a way to reduce social and spiritual alienation so prevalent in Western culture. She believes that human suffering, in part, is the result of separating ourselves from what is sacred. From her point of view, the artist models a way to reengage revered and venerated connections with our planet. This is accomplished through an aesthetic of sacralizing the relational connections between environment, self, other, and spiritual yearnings. In this capacity, the artist serves as a figure that awakens the culture to see its habits of consumerism, alienation, and oppression. Connecting artistic action with social action is key when considering connections with an engaged art-based spirituality. Art is also a direct way to manifest personal empowerment by visually articulating a marginalized point of view. Those who are oppressed, disenfranchised, or socially exploited deserve to have their voices seen and heard. However, in some settings this is dangerous work. The symbolic coding of visual imagery, through allegory and metaphor, can be a method for symbolically speaking truth to power in a way that is not initially decipherable. This could be a helpful avenue to follow for those working under more oppressive circumstances. And, as mentioned before, it can still reap dangerous consequences.

There are many examples artists are helping to directly transform communities and foster local, regional, and global recovery (Lacy, 2005-6). For example, the extreme cycles of poverty can result in homelessness. In Albuquerque New Mexico, during the mid 90’s Artstreet was born. This thriving studio setting directly addressed poverty within the city by helping the homeless population have a place to create, learn artistic skills, and sell their work (Timm-Bottos, 1995). Similar to Artstreet was the community studio called “Vincent’s” in Wellington New Zealand. This community art studio was founded on the principle of having a safe place for psychiatric survivors to come and work together (Franklin, 1996). More recently art therapists have been involved with conflict resolution, gun violence, and trauma work (Kaplan, 2005).

Another example of global recovery through art is the Naropa Community Art Studio (NCAS). It is in the NCAS that marginalized voices from our community can be heard through the articulate language of art.
NCAS: Empowering the Silent Margins of a Community

As our mission statement says, the guiding vision behind the NCAS is to provide a safe space for various age groups and marginalized populations from our local community to gather and create art together. Equal access for our members is stressed, particularly those people who are unlikely to have direct contact with the humanizing practice of engaging in creative, artistic behavior. The NCAS is a studio setting for a wide range of community members. Naropa University Art Therapy faculty/alumni and graduate students manage the studio, organizing and running the many ways in which this space is used. Respect for cultural, ethnic, gender, and spiritual diversity is a founding principal of the studio. Unity in diversity, the birthright to pursue creative expression, and the capacity of visual art to contain and communicate the full range of human experiences comprise the essence of our mission and focus. We currently have four groups per week that serve young teen women, developmentally delayed adults, adults with psychiatric challenges successfully living in our community, and adults survivors of either a head injury, stroke, or both. Their impairments often result in aphasia, which is the focus of this next section.

On Fridays, for the past seven years, we have facilitated a group for people in the NCAS with aphasia. Aphasia usually results from a brain injury such as a stroke. Such an injury can result in an impaired ability to use or comprehend words. Aphasia can also involve more than speech. It can affect writing, reading, the ability to draw, and repeating words that are heard. An example of someone with aphasia experiencing life-changing results by attending the NCAS is Jude.

One of our graduate students, Kristin Scroggs, has worked closely with Jude. According to Ms. Scroggs, Jude is a highly educated woman who has spent many years traveling internationally in her work for the U.S. government. She was injured in a car accident, causing her to have aphasia, a condition characterized by the loss of the ability to communicate verbally or with written words. She began attending the (NCAS) in the fall of 2009 so that she could begin to connect with others who have similar struggles and who desire to have their voices heard through art.

Jude has been driving about 40-50 miles round trip to attend the NCAS. Since the fall she has been very prolific in her artwork. She makes books and considers herself to be an author. Jude’s books are comprised of mixed media boxes of objects from her past and sometimes contain a few words. She eloquently models the possibilities available through the art process.

Ms. Scroggs also reports that while Jude has had many significant problems due to her brain injury, she is slightly more verbally expressive than many others in the group who have more marked symptoms of aphasia. Because of this, Jude wants to write the stories of those in the Aphasia group. As a result of this intention she works to get to know everyone through the images that they create.

Furthermore, Jude has strong feelings about the animals and plants that are becoming endangered and extinct due to the impact of humans. Since these animals and plants do not have a voice – much like Jude and others with aphasia – she is creating art on their behalf. This act of selflessness and empathy has touched and inspired many of us to see beyond ourselves in our art making processes. Jude has found a sense community within the NCAS and will be moving closer to the NCAS in order to be with her new friends in the aphasia group.


Ahimsa, or the direct practice of non-violence or not harming, is usually not discussed in relationship to visual art. And yet, this is exactly the focus of this paper. Art can teach one to gently untangle inner patterns and model a unique form of inner compassion for oneself and others. This is essential work to address before directly engaging with triggering situations that are alive within communities.

Concerning the outer work of social and cultural engagement, as disengaged artists step out of the studio and directly work for the welfare of others, worldly interconnections are strengthened resulting in loka-samgraha (Feuerstein (2003). This Sanskrit phrase literally means “world gathering” or “pulling people together” (p. 48) in such a way that the social environment is transformed. Feuerstein goes on to say that “our own personal wholeness, founded in self-surrender, actively transforms our social environment, contributing to its wholeness” (p. 48). With this viewpoint in mind, the question then arises, how can these principles be explored in communal art settings where the environment, the materials, and community each becomes a place for refuge? The sanctuary of these simultaneously present spaces fosters sane environments where personal and collective truths can be explored. Ultimately, this form of artistic milieu humanizes the place where it thrives.


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Citation:  Franklin, M. (2010). Global Recovery and the Culturally/Socially Engaged Artist In Peoples, D. (Ed.), Buddhism and Ethics, 309-320. Ayuthaya, Thailand: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University.