5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Dave Collins

The Profession’s Pièce de Résistance as an Act of Resistance: The Use of Art in Social Work

No Play Today’ by the Author. Acrylic on Canvas. June 2020.

It has been heartening to see a variety of creative submissions in this online Magazine. Poems, creative writing, video, and cartoons have added to the richness of analysis of the current pandemic and affirm social work as a creative profession. Of particular note to me was Dr Ariane Critchley and Dr Autumn Roesh-Marsh’s article (2020) on the importance of poetry as a response to the impact of the virus, which highlighted the role it plays in expressing emotion, seeking understanding, and as a means of reflection. There has been an abundance of creative output throughout the world during the lockdown. Many have turned to artistic endeavours as a means of occupying their time, working through fears and anxieties, communicating with others, and even as a means of escapism. All this at a time when the arts have been decimated by social distancing, with many of those in the creative business having lost not only face-to-face engagement with their audiences, but also their livelihoods. However, you cannot keep the creative spirit down for long. Many galleries and museums have opened their doors to virtual tours, art forums have thrived, and do-it-yourself art exhibitions have emerged across the world. Nevertheless, a point made by Critchly and Roesh-Marsh particularly resonated with me: poetry (and de facto the arts in a wider sense) can play a role in political resistance and giving witness to the truth.

Since the publication of Hugh England’s seminal book ‘Social Work as Art’ in 1986, I have followed debates about the relationship between the arts and social work. England mounted a spirited defence of the creative, intuitive and self-expressive notions of social work practice against a rising tide of hard scientific empiricism, proceduralism and managerialism. He posed the question ‘can the arts … offer a paradigm for knowledge and practice in social work?’ (ibid.: 83). Answering this question remains important, particularly as social workers carry out their interventions in a climate of neoliberalism and challenging public sector economics, where creativity is ill-defined and related to the managerialist mantra of ‘doing more with less’.

Central to the debate is the threat neoliberalism and managerialism pose to the profession’s aspiration of promoting social change, social cohesion, the need for collectivisation, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Schubert and Gray (2015:1351) stress that managerialism and a prevailing risk aversiveness have ‘squeezed out room for creativity’. Social workers’ experience of working within codified, prescriptive and bureaucratic systems can have a diminishing effect on their creative abilities. Creative thinking is generally only permitted within the limits of the administrative and institutional frameworks of social work service. Nonetheless, social workers continue to be creative, and empower those they support to be creative, with little resources and sometimes in hostile situations. Could this be due to our creative selves being irrepressible and enduring, even in challenging circumstances? In his book ‘The Origins of Creativity’ eminent evolutionary biologist and naturalist Edward O Wilson firmly maintains that human creativity is innate to us, and is a defining feature of our species (Wilson 2017). However, in social work terms, being creative is often seen as an act of doing, rather than a part of personal and professional identity. I think that being creative should be seen as more than an act or activity: it should be central to the professional identity of the social worker.

There are numerous examples of socially engaged art across the world where artists and communities have co-authored and co-produced creative projects, environments and social interactions. Moxley et al. (2012) profile several projects involving communities, social workers and artists, giving people voices and the opportunity to engage in empowering collaborations and social betterment. These projects explore themes such as women and homelessness, positive aging, and environmental design. Several social work courses, including those at my own university, work with local theatre companies to explore supervision, social work interventions, and the application of theory to practice. For example, the Geese Theatre Company make effective use of masks, which powerfully evoke critical reflexivity and reflection. Responding to the pandemic, many homes have been transformed into art galleries, showcasing rainbows, and personalised expressions of thanks to key workers; such messages foster community networks and support. Artist Shaun Leonardo has used performance to argue for prison reform as coronavirus has devastated prison populations. Media activists in Brazil, Perú, South Sudan and elsewhere are sharing public health information in their communities in the form of comics, videos or cartoons. During lockdown, artist Pablo Helguera has produced a singing telegram service delivered via Zoom, to increase connections and respond to loneliness and grief. These are only a few examples of artistic outpourings, but in this context, socially engaged artists are presenting social agendas, taking their practice outside institutional systems, and placing themselves in direct engagement with audiences in public spaces to address social and political matters. Although we need time to assimilate the recent developments in art and culture, some think that the pandemic has significantly reshaped notions of ‘culture’ from a previously inaccessible and elitist domain.

There is a connection between the arts and radical social work in more provocative terms, to trouble, antagonise, frustrate and subvert dominant social structures and power imbalances, and to unravel and reveal political hegemony (Chul Kim 2017). The arts present many faceted perspectives. The use of visual, verbal and written metaphor engages with matters that are not easily quantified or understood. The arts also provide an openness that offers opportunities for different interpretations and multiple readings, engaging us in social and political dialogues and debates. At such a time of profound social change presented by the pandemic and recent events that have precipitated ‘Black Lives Matter’, these qualities help us on our journey and enable us to resist structural inequality and oppression. The arts support us by enhancing our critical skills, so that we can achieve more certainty about the experienced world, how it is expressed, and how it can be changed. Socially engaged arts can be contentious and controversial. Nevertheless, like others, I believe that social work, and its emancipatory ambitions, can be reinvigorated by exploring its relationship with socially engaged arts practice. Vive la résistance!

David Collins, Senior Lecturer, Birmingham City University


Chul Kim, H. (2017). A Challenge to the Social Work Profession? The Rise of Socially Engaged Art and a Call to Radical Social Work. Social Work.62(4):305‐311

England, H. (1986). Social work as art: making sense for good practice. London: Allen and Unwin.

Moxley, D. P., Feen-Calligan, H. and Washington, O. G. M. (2012). Lessons learned from three projects linking social work, the arts, and humanities. Social Work Education. 31(6):703-723.

Schubert, L. and Gray, M. (2015). The death of emancipatory social work as art and birth of socially engaged art practice. British Journal of Social Work, 45(4):1349-56.

Wilson, E. O. (2017). The origins of creativity. London, Allen Lane.