SHARED FUTURE 08/07/2023
By Jack Farrar

This is the first in a series of articles about peacebuilding and the arts, exploring how creative practices help us revisit our past and reimagine our futures.


“Art is a great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man’s reasonable perception into feeling… Art should cause violence to be set aside. And it is only art that can accomplish this.”

Or so Leo Tolstoy concludes in What is Art?, his fiercely influential treatise on the nature and purpose of art and artists. Anyone living in a conflict-affected society may find Tolstoy’s remarks unconvincing. Art is certainly a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement, but it is difficult to imagine that it can stop a bullet from being fired. In this series, however, let us take Tolstoy’s claim seriously. Art, it will be argued, is an indispensable resource for ameliorating violence, promoting reconciliation, and consolidating a culture of peace.

Northern Ireland is rich in arts and cultural heritage. It has been home to such literary figures as Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis, Michael Longley, Deirdre Madden, and Booker Prize winner Anna Burns. Northern Ireland gave the world one Nobel Laureate for Literature, Seamus Heaney, and helped shape another in Samuel Beckett. This small region has produced globally renowned musicians as varied as Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, The Undertones, Two Door Cinema Club, David Holmes, and one of the world’s most forceful electronic acts, Bicep. In visual arts, many will recognise the picture books of Oliver Jeffers, the dynamic large-scale portraits of Colin Davidson, or the 2021 Turner Prize-winning Array Collective. Indeed, even Northern Ireland’s infamously divisive politics is richly decorated with ephemeral visual culture, from symbols in the form of flags, murals, painted kerbstones, and banners, to performative events, marching bands, parades, and public protests. But what, if anything, should peacebuilding practitioners make of all this? Why, in reshaping post-conflict Northern Ireland, should limited resources be invested in the arts? Is there anything unique about an aesthetic experience that suggests it is a fertile ground for promoting intergroup dialogue, understanding, and social cohesion?

In this article series on peacebuilding and the arts, these questions are addressed and explanations are given as to why arts and cultural work play a central role in promoting peace and reconciliation in the aftermath of armed conflict. It will be argued that creative practices are effective in revising our relationship with the past, empathising across the sectarian divide, and fostering peaceful coexistence and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Arts-based processes remain undervalued in the field of peacebuilding, but there is a nascent body of scholarship theorising and documenting their varied contributions; the next section offers a cursory overview of the theory, with further articles examining local case studies.

Theoretical insights

There is a broad spectrum of practices embraced by the domain of “the arts”. The arts include oral and written literary forms, poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. It includes performing arts, musical works, dance, theatre, both scripted and improvised, solo and ensemble. The arts also accommodate a range of activities typically categorised as visual arts: painting, photography, sculpture, and installation, among others. It is with this latter category that we are presently concerned.

Engaging with these various art forms, both as creators and spectators, affords considerable opportunities for empathy, reflexivity, learning, experimentation, and creativity. The power of art to access these emotional pathways lies in the uniqueness of aesthetic experience to transcend language and rational thought, engaging us on both visceral and cognitive levels. (Social games theory informs us how this happens.) John Paul Lederach, a leading conflict resolution scholar, refers to this as the “wow factor” (pp. 121–2):

“I would call this the wow factor. It can only be understood in parallel with the arts and the creative process, as opposed to sciences and the analytical process. Understanding in the sciences comes, for the most part, through cognitive processes of breaking phenomenon down into parts that can be studied. We ‘see’ analytically by pieces. The artistic process, on the other hand, goes beyond the view seen through a parsimonious lens to capture the whole. It provides a way for us to ‘see’ — to discern and grasp — what is visible but not seen with the eyes. That is the capacity of a painting, poem, play or photography. In its small wholeness, a deep truth about something is revealed and understood. When applied to peacebuilding, such a process is not set into motion by logical intent and cognitive design, but rather as many artists would say, by intuition and an ‘I feel into it’ quality. It is the intervention of an energy that goes beyond cognitive understanding and penetrates to a new level of understanding, motivation and action.”

While Lederach may be harsh in his demarcation between the sciences and the creative process, his recognition that art exposes a “deep truth” beyond cognitive understanding certainly resonates. Aesthetic experiences stimulate emotional capacities that may have been otherwise blunted in contexts of violence and oppression. If the work of peacebuilding relies on these emotional capacities to facilitate more nuanced understandings of opposing narratives, to navigate the painful complexities of mourning and forgiveness, and to reconstruct damaged relationships, the arts appear a valuable ally.

It is lamentable that in the aftermath of armed conflict, investing in the arts is rarely at the top of political agendas. Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch speculate that the arts remain marginalised within the field of peacebuilding because they are considered ‘soft’ approaches to the ‘hard’ concern of violent conflict, or because many peacebuilding practitioners spring from a background in political science rather than arts and humanities. Despite this, there is a burgeoning crop of research linking the arts and conflict resolution, situated within the broader framework of civil society-based approaches to peacebuilding.

Lederach’s Moral Imagination firmly situates the creative process as a fulcrum of conflict resolution. This builds upon recent developments in cognitive psychology which suggest that improving hostile relational dynamics requires much more than rational deliberations. Specifically, research conducted by psychologists Peter Brecke and William Longue found that, in the context of post-war reconciliation, hot emotional patterns rather than cool rationality are the linchpin of transforming anger and aggression into empathy and a desire for affiliation. Craig Zelizer also cites the capacity to engage people holistically on emotional, cognitive, and rational levels as an essential strength of arts-based approaches to peacebuilding. Cynthia Cohen’s work is seminal in the field, laying a rich theoretical foundation for considering the value of the arts to the process of building peace. In Creative Approaches to Reconciliation, she systematically illustrates seven ways that art projects can be designed to mitigate the consequences of violence: appreciating common humanity; telling, listening, and revising stories; mourning losses; empathising with each other’s suffering; acknowledging and redressing injustices; expressing remorse and forgiveness; imagining and substantiating a new future.

The range of arts-based practices being conducted to achieve these ends is quite diverse. In some cases, it is the strength and beauty of the produced work that makes art such a potent resource for peacebuilding. In other cases, art projects focus on the process of creation, with less concern for the product. In this general sense, arts-based activities can support relational peacebuilding efforts by bringing conflicting groups together to facilitate interaction and increased understanding, even without directly addressing the substance of a particular conflict. A third category comprises creative therapies for people who have suffered trauma. This finds its clearest elucidation in Arts Approaches to Conflict by art therapist Marianne Liebmann. Distinguishing between these categories is useful as an analytical tool, but it will become clear that there is often significant overlap.

Galvanised by these theoretical insights, there are arts-based processes supporting peacebuilding efforts in conflict-affected societies across the globe. Search For Common Ground has facilitated several arts projects including the annual Common Ground Film Festival, showcasing films from a diverse range of conflict regions and perspectives. Other well-known NGOs incorporating the arts in their conflict resolution work include War Child, The Coexistence Initiative, World Vision, Peace Direct, and Transcend. There are also many individuals and local community groups using the arts to bolster peace processes at the grassroots level. For example, in the formerly war-torn Batticaloa district of Sri Lanka, communities have taken up painting and sculpture in the Butterfly Peace Garden as a way of processing and recovering from trauma. In Israel, the Peres Center for Peace brings together Israelis and Palestinians to create joint photography projects and foster dialogue. In South African townships, community organiser Bongani Linda has turned to the arts as a means of bridging the gap between warring communities and contributing to social integration. Linda regrets that peace efforts in many townships have failed because they have been too focused on leadership at the expense of engaging the wider community. In this respect, for Linda, the arts are invaluable.


Peacebuilding is no easy task. It is only made more arduous by attempting to cut through entrenched worldviews and divisive societal tensions with a toolbox of exclusively cognitive methods. Transforming consciousness demands more than facts, figures, and commanding arguments. It is necessary, suggests Michael Shank (p. 555), to also “work within the worldview of one’s target constituency — a metaphysical reality shaped by emotion, intuition, and symbolism”. Art, therefore, emerges as a critical catalyst in the process of social transition after armed conflict. This truth is slowly gaining recognition amongst peacebuilding practitioners, but the underappreciation of the arts remains a cause for concern. As argued by Guila Clara Kessous, UNESCO Artist for Peace, and Ambassador for Peace of the Universal Circle of Ambassadors of Peace (Geneva): “The impact of art is underestimated today. We have a limited view of the artist as someone who produces beauty devoid of social conscience”. She continues by defending that artists, rather, “offer their talents to alleviate suffering, promote peace and prevent war.”

Visual arts, music, literature, poetry, film, television, photography, theatre, dance, oral history, folk tradition, festivals, crafts — all can help divided communities empathise with their shared humanity, mourn losses, address injustices, and tussle with the complexities of remorse and forgiveness. In this series of “Peacebuilding and the arts” articles, we explore how these varied artistic processes have been applied in Northern Ireland, defending their effectiveness at supporting communities through conflict, and nourishing our capacity to imagine a peaceful, shared future.

The arts certainly promote reconciliation and coexistence, but their contribution could be multiplied with increased investment and better coordination with other civil society peacebuilding efforts. Peacebuilding practitioners should seek opportunities to collaborate with artists and the local cultural sector, and increasingly consider incorporating artistic processes in their programming. Policymakers should create more space for artists and cultural workers to explore the reconciliatory potential of their work through grant programmes and sensitively designed commissions to apply their talents to current intergroup relational disputes and political challenges. Importantly, an elementary long-term funding strategy is needed to ensure the survival of the wider arts sector in Northern Ireland; this must come before considering the possibilities of artistic engagement in peacebuilding projects.

Investing in the arts means investing in local communities, intergroup cooperation, better health and social care outcomes, and a stable economy. The arts are a vital resource in the protracted task of rebuilding a shared Northern Ireland in the aftermath of violence and long-standing division. They need more investment, not less.


Peter Brecke and William Longue: War and Reconciliation: Reason and Emotion in Conflict

Tom R. Burns: “Two Conceptions of Human Agency: Rational Choice Theory and the Social Theory of Action”, in Agency and Structure: Reorienting Social Theory (Piotr Sztompka, ed.), pp. 197-249

Cynthia Cohen: Creative Approaches to Reconciliation: From War to Peace

John Paul Lederach: The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace

John Paul Lederach: “The Wow Factor and Non-Theory of Change,” in Positive Approaches to Peacebuilding: A Resource for Innovators, pp. 121-2

Marianne Liebmann: Arts Approaches to Conflict

Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch: Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding

Craig Mitchell Zelizer: The Role of Artistic Processes in Peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina