Art and Social Work: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Healing

November 17, 2020

On the U.S.-Mexico border, artists installed bright pink seesaws spanning both countries for children to play on, transforming a point of separation into one of connection. How do art and social work combine in a way that can heal? Art can be a powerful tool for social change, empowering social workers to combine art and social work in ways that improve people’s lives.

Similarities Between Art and Social Work

Art, like social work, gives voice to oppressed communities. Artists create paintings, photographs and videos that explore the stories of the poor, the abused and the marginalized. Art confronts racism, sexism, climate change, economic inequality and other social justice issues, asking, Where do we go from here?

Street Art and Social Change

For example, internationally known street artist JR transforms public spaces in cities across the globe with projects that explore people’s unique identities and the prejudices that silence marginalized groups. One of his projects, Inside Out, invites communities to tell their stories through large-scale portraits in public spaces. In Baltimore, Maryland, project participants put up 42 images of Black people with their faces in the shadow of a fence. Their message: Government systems constrain Black people.

Other Inside Out participants took 10,000 portraits of immigrants and their descendents in 20 U.S. cities. Artists then displayed the images on walls and fences and on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The art installation put faces to the millions of immigrants living in the U.S.

JR is among a cadre of artists using murals, sculptures and other visual forms to pursue a mission of social justice.

Social Workers and Tackling Injustice

Like artists, social workers strive to tackle injustices. They develop programs that support vulnerable communities and organize initiatives that respond to those dealing with trauma, for example. The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics clearly expresses social workers’ duty to “promote social justice and social change” as well as empower the oppressed.

Art and social work strive to change the world. According to Virginia Commonwealth University social work instructor Kimberly Compton, M.S.W., social workers are changemakers. Compton, a Ph.D. candidate points out that the arts and contemporary art spaces contribute much to the social work profession’s mission.

Lessons of Art Applied to Social Work

Art leads us to question the world and reexamine our beliefs. When people question their perceptions, they feel uncomfortable. This internal discord can serve as a catalyst for change.

Social workers work toward change by helping people question their perceptions and take steps forward. They can learn valuable lessons from the arts. Art has the power to stick with people, Compton says. Consider the lasting impact of an emotionally moving film, poem or piece of music. The physical and emotional experiences provoked by stepping into the worlds created by artists can change people’s minds and inspire them to act. Compton suggests social workers need to find ways to harness that power.

Art’s Healing Power

Art cultivates deep empathy, teaches people to solve problems and strengthens communication across cultures. Lessons learned from the arts can be applied to social work. For example, by partnering with artists in community art projects, social workers can use art pieces as healing tools for communities.

Both making art and viewing the art of others have healing potential. They allow individuals and communities to explore feelings and ideas, cope with pain, expand self-awareness and bolster self-esteem. Art is an amazing communication tool, and it gives people the chance to uncover emotions and conflicts affecting their lives so they can address them.

Social work can use artworks as platforms for important conversations about the need to reconcile deep and historical wounds like those created by racism and white supremacy. Consider Dustin Klein’s 2020 visual installation Reclaiming the Monument in Richmond, Virginia, in which he projected images of Black thinkers and Black citizens killed by the police on a large Robert E. Lee statue.

Art that arises from social justice issues provokes conversation, but it can also stir up painful feelings or even trauma responses. Compton says social workers can offer their expertise by helping facilitate “growth-minded dialogue” and leading important discussions about what’s next. Compton believes social workers can learn much from the imaginative, unconventional approaches artists use to open up conversations and work toward transformative change.

The Interdisciplinary Approach of VCU’s M.S.W. Curriculum

Virginia Commonwealth University’s M.S.W. curriculum is designed to foster innovative interdisciplinary approaches to research and practice. Field instruction gives students the opportunity to integrate content from the generalist curriculum with practice interests. The university has forged connections with 500 human and social service organizations, offering students a wide range of field experiences across many disciplines.

Additionally, faculty are committed to guiding students through both traditional and nontraditional research projects. Instructors have diverse practice expertise ranging from trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy to empowerment-based practice, further expanding student opportunities.

Faculty mentor students transitioning into social work practice, often guiding them through fields outside of social work. For example, Compton mentors recent graduates who are farmers advocating for food justice. She also works with graduates who are developing projects that use art as community intervention, helping push art and social work to a level beyond individual therapeutic treatment.

Explore a Career in Social Work

Art pushes the boundaries of social work. Whether projecting an image of Frederick Douglass on a statue of a Confederate general to address ongoing pain, or displaying the faces of immigrants on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to inspire action, art can allow social workers to tackle social justice issues in imaginative ways. Collaboration between social workers and artists can inspire transformative conversations that challenge the status quo and bring real healing to hurting communities.

Discover how an Online Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University equips graduates with social work and interdisciplinary skills that can help heal individuals and communities.