Art is “one of the best societal mediators of difficult messages — it has always created a bridge between the comprehension and the expression of critical problems in society.” So declares the 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference’s website, which organized an art program against corruption. In keeping with that sentiment, last September the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT) organized a “museum of corruption,” a temporary exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre intended to raise public awareness about the extent and costs of corruption. Thailand is not the first country to undertake such an initiative. Museums of corruption (actual museums, not just temporary exhibitions) already exist in Paraguay, Ukraine and the United States, and many other enterprises that use art as a tool for anticorruption education and action are flourishing worldwide. For instance, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa has recently launched a hip hop video against corruption in Liberia, while the Inter-American Development Bank organized a cartoon contest to promote awareness and understanding of the corruption phenomenon and its harm to development. More recently, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain called upon poets and intellectuals to write against corruption. Other major players in the anticorruption field that have organized artistic projects include Transparency International (see here and here) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In additions to these institutionalized artistic anti-corruption projects, several countries have witnessed spontaneous public art displays – in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all – to promote awareness and solidarity in fighting corruption (see for example in Afghanistan and South Africa).
Understandably, some are skeptical of these initiatives, arguing that museums and temporary exhibitions are not the right forum to communicate on corruption (this was one of the criticisms of the Thai museum of corruption). One might worry that expressing anticorruption messages through cartoons and popular music won’t lead people to take the message seriously enough. (This would also be true when the artistic initiative takes a more humorous approach, as is the case for many of the anticorruption cartoons, as well as New York’s corruption museum.) And of course, nobody thinks that art initiatives on their own are enough. Yet while artistic initiatives will not by themselves solve the issue of corruption, these initiatives are not just a fad or a gimmick or a distraction. Indeed, there’s quite a bit of research indicating that these programs can be quite effective in raising public awareness on corruption.
First of all, general studies on the impact of art on society (not specific to corruption) support the claim that both participation in artistic projects and the experience of art as an audience member can promote economic prosperity (see here and here), improve academic performance and student discipline (see here), help accomplish important community goals (see here and here), and improve physical and psychological well-being (see here and here). Although some have questioned the methodology of theses studies, their results are nonetheless evidence that art can be a powerful communication tool, one that affects how we think and act.
Second, art that is entertaining as well as informative can be especially effective in reaching younger generations. In 2006, Amnesty International carried out a study that showed that concerts, festivals, and social media were among the best ways to reach out to young people (between the ages of 14 and 25). (Some anticorruption art initiatives can even reach younger children, as Blair Glencorse, Director of the Accountability Lab Liberia, has highlighted.) This role of art in raising awareness among young people is especially important given that studies show that engaging young generations is essential to anticorruption efforts, because of the fact that young people are generally more open to social change and political transformation.
Third, it’s worth keeping in mind that artistic initiatives such as song, drawing, or theater are particularly useful in countries where a significant part of the population is illiterate. Visual arts, drama, and music are among the most appropriate ways to communicate important messages in these circumstances. The same is true in counties where the majority of the population is rural, and even those who are literate might not have easy access to print media. In addition, art can cut across a number of potential barriers such as language and culture. For instance, an organization named Seeds Theater Group (sponsored by United Nations Volunteers) is doing remarkable outreach work to the illiterate populations of Papua New Guinea, using theater as a communication instrument to increase the level of knowledge and understanding of important social and development issues.
Art, in all its forms, has proven to be an efficient communication tool. Anticorruption initiatives should use it more often to insure the message reach their audience. Art’s efficiency in raising public awareness of corruption should not be underestimated or dismissed as a sideshow. Indeed, art—visual arts, songs, drama, poetry—can deliver messages faster, and reach a larger number of people, than can long, dry speeches or straight news reporting or advocacy.