Art Resource Traditions: education and community development with indigenous arts

Reality Checks

Sharing insights about difficulties and dangers in development work

On September 11, 2001, the world's leading internship and service learning agency was destroyed along with the rest of the World Trade Center. Almost immediately, tourism also slowed to a trickle all around the world. Many hotels and tour agencies went out of business, and the cost of security rose dramatically. As we discussed in the section on tourism, this has had a major impact on artists and artisans. Coupled with the already burgeoning crime rate and deteriorating security infrastructures, it has become much more problematic to visit these countries, let alone undertake aid and development projects, let alone accommodate students who want to explore service learning opportunities. Even the ever-adventurous backpackers and artists and writers who used to flock to exotic countries, have begun to think twice. In his book about working in Central America, artist and LAARP director William Swetcharnik talks about a writer friend from Texas who built a cottage nearby in the Honduran highlands, who Swetcharnik found dead one day with his chest riddled with bullets. In part, Swetcharnik's book deals with the tortuous investigation that ensued. One of the reasons he moved the LAARP home base to the USA was the danger into which he had put himself by trying to help with the investigation, but another reason was the mounting cost of security with which he and his wife, sculptor and writer Sara Swetcharnik, had to contend. Since most of the financial support for the LAARP program came from their income as artists, they found themselves trapped in a vicious circle of insecurity. Their own "reality check" consisted in recognizing that it was untenable to stay in Honduras, and that the USA would serve much better as a platform for follow-through projects in Latin America. As in the tourism crisis, there remain effective vehicles for bringing attention to the needs of Latin America and other developing countries, one of which is the Web medium through with we are now interacting with visitors.

In spite of the preceding concerns, there remain strong reasons for people in the more industrialized world to maintain a physical presence in developing countries, even though intermittently for a few weeks or months or years. Most of us, even artists, put too much stock in personal security. It bears observing that our generation has experienced the remarkable luxury of being able to go just about anywhere in the world with relatively little risk to life, limb, or pocketbook. This has been a historical anomaly. For better or worse, "life out there" seems to be returning to some of its more historically brutish ways. 200, 100, and even 50 years ago, most people who went out into "uncivilized" parts of the world assumed it would be a difficult and dangerous undertaking. These people were usually adventurers or exploiters or missionaries. Rather often, they were artists. The "natives", of course, formed a rather odd picture of what people were like in the more developed world. Now that they can all see American soap operas dubbed into their native languages, they have a more complete picture of us! This, of course, introduces certain expectations we have difficulty dealing with. Of course, we have our own cynical or romanticized notions about how life goes in other parts of the world, and our own expectations also create certain problems for us. We need to understand why we get into such messes with our well-intentioned but often naively designed projects. Hopefully, some of the visitors to this site will share some of their own insights in this area.

So of all the reasons to travel and try to make a difference in far-off lands, one of the most useful is that it teaches us what life really is like beyond the airport. We might even be able to do a little good and help the people in those countries better understand our own culture. The future of the world depends very much on communication and commonality.