Recently my wife was asked by the South Australian Art Gallery to present at a forum on one of Tracey Emin’s work (The Bed). Before this event I was not aware of Tracey Emin and certainly didn’t know anything about her impact on contemporary art. I discovered that she is a little confrontational, to put it mildly, and uses her art to express the pain she has experienced in her life. So what does any of this have to do with Social Work? While I was listening to the speakers I began to wonder, according to their definition of art, which was basically that “if we call it art then it’s art”. I am not sure that many Social Workers would call what we do “art”. However the notion is worth exploring.
Like Emin, we listen to peoples stories and attempt to make some sense of what they tell us and then to give it meaning. This isn’t all that different from what Emin has done with her art. She has taken the raw pain and expressed it in the most powerful way she could find. She isn’t afraid of the criticism she may receive because she vehemently believes that she has the “right” to express herself how she wants. This is a very public display of self. Our clients are not going to express themselves in this way, but we are the public to them. They often tell us some of the most horrific aspects of human existence. We are placed in a position of extreme power. We can offer a judgement of them or we can listen and understand the extent that the story has impacted them and honor their honesty and courage for allowing us to enter their world. On reflection maybe we are the curator and the client is the artist? It could be that we are both artists collaborating on having a story told with understanding and meaning. We are a partnership. The client is able to tell the story and we find the way by which the story gathers meaning and purpose.
We can become the public voice for the client by advocating for them and developing conversations which conjure different understandings. We also have the skill to enable the client to explore their stories in an environment which is powerful, deliberate and purposeful. It is like we bring along the artists equipment, because without the tools for an artist to present their story there is no expression of the real impact of the story. After all a story without meaning is just a story and will have very little impact on the story teller and those who are listening to the story. Through meaning comes understanding and power.
As Social Workers our art is to explore the story so that the emotions which accompany the story can be experienced and heard, by the client and the Social Worker. It is important to understand the story that we can feel the emotions and participate in the experience as much as we are capable. We don’t have to have experienced Emin’s rape and years of loneliness and abuse to experience her pain. If we look hard enough we will be able to see it in her work. If we use our skills we will be able to see the same level of distress in our clients. We will therefore be better equipped to understand our clients and help them through the emotional pain.
What is interesting about Emin’s work is that she has people critiquing it and she has therefore become a very public person with her pain exposed for all to see. Unlike Emin’s “public” our role is not to criticise or judge but as our clients “public” we have to be able to interpret the story which endorses progress and growth, strength and an inner power. Our art is expressed in the manner in which we unravel our client’s story and interpret in a way which offers renewal.
To have partnerships such as this is true “Art”.