Monday, May 22, 2017

In Support of Our Art

by Adriel Borshansky


“Conflict Resolution” by Leah Kolidas (Acrylic paint and ink on paper)

This year’s art contest at the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program brought in over fifty submissions from Harvard Law School, the greater Boston area, and around the world. We received paintings, sculptures, photographs, and poems—some from seasoned artists and some from individuals who were trying their hand at an art submission for the very first time. Dean Martha Minow, Lisa Dealy, and Professor Bob Bordone served as the judging committee for the art contest. They used a set of criteria developed by HLS Negotiators to judge the artwork and select these six winners, whose work is currently featured in the HNMCP suite.

As I have gone around sharing the news about HNMCP’s art contest with friends, others around Harvard University, and various framing stores in the area, I have received a number of raised eyebrows. People are more than a bit surprised to learn that a group specializing in negotiation and mediation at Harvard Law School are spending their time receiving and judging artwork. People were genuinely curious as to why our program is hosting an art contest.

“Justice in the Barangay: Dispute Resolution through Community Intervention” by Chad Osorio (Photograph)

Truth be told, a part of me shares in the wondering. I love art, and I’m a musician myself, but I find myself asking if an art contest is really what we should be spending our time doing. As polarization deepens, wars swell, and human suffering intensifies, we are really supposed to hope that art will help us find paths forward? I also know that art is a core part of who I am and what I believe in. But receiving the curiosity of others made me want to really articulate a clear and precise answer to the question: why?

In response to my inner skeptic, and in response to others who may share in my wondering, I would like to offer three reasons why art matters for any lawyer interested in peace and justice. And in particular, I would argue that art has a special role to play in dispute resolution processes.

The first might be obvious: art exercises a vital human muscle—imagination. We talk a lot about imagination in the field of negotiation and mediation because it is really a cornerstone of managing any conflict effectively. When two parties feel comfortable brainstorming any and all ideas to resolve their dispute, they are more likely to generate creative options and stumble upon ideas that offer each of them even more value than they thought existed. Conversely, when parties are stuck in a hostile, zero-sum mentality, they are more likely to use very little creativity and end up with a distributive end-game where both parties begrudgingly accept their share of the pie. The latter approach is one that most people instinctively jump to when they enter a dispute. Creative imagination is the last thing on people’s minds: it’s game-time and their job is to dig their heels in as deep as they can.

“The Lightness of Life” by Sarah Kenward (Brown clay)

What I have learned over time is that option-generation is only productive if parties are ready to actually generate creative and out-of-the-box ideas. And that readiness actually requires a lot of work. When I have mediated small-claims cases in Boston courts, for example, I needed to repeat many times to the parties that they could and should come up with their own ideas for how to resolve their dispute. They may have already been using their imagination, but their imagination only contained one image: a judge on a throne ruling that they are right and that the other party is wrong. It took hard work to just get parties to the point where they were engaging their creative capacities and actively imagining different potential outcomes. We all need help with this, especially in tense situations, and art is one of the best exercises possible for this skill.

Second, art teaches us about perspective-taking. There is, of course, the plain-sense truism that art conveys human emotion and personal experience. For example, “Capers,” the one-woman show by Anu Yadav that we included as part of our 10th anniversary celebration, has a vital role to play in humanizing the issue of housing discrimination in Washington, D.C. One could read an authoritative report on housing issues in that city, but only really care when that report takes the form of a poem, a photograph, or a play—something to which one can relate, which moves us emotionally.

“Imagine” by Michael Bogdanow (Acrylic on canvas)

But more than the empathy that it elicits, art actually helps us to replicate the skill of perspective-taking in our lives and our work. When I worked at Seeds of Peace‘s international camp, I ran music programs for teenagers from Maine, from Syracuse, and from the Middle East and South Asia. These participants engaged in several hours-long facilitated dialogue sessions every day. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting for them. The arts and music programs offered them an outlet and an opportunity to communicate with each other non-verbally. What I began to notice, though, was that the arts were not just an escape for them. The exercises that we did in the music shack had direct connections to their conversations in the dialogue huts. We had kids respond to various creative writing prompts, work together in teams to create a song, and listen to each other’s rhythms in order to add something to what another had already created. And these exercises became a training ground for the kind of communication we hoped they would evolve into in dialogue. They were curious about each other’s interpretations of a prompt and each other’s creations, even when (or especially when) their creations were light-hearted. Because they were focused mostly on art and aesthetics—not on identity or politics—they could actually do what we all so often lack the fortitude to do: suspend prejudgment about a person and try to really understand another’s view on the world.

“Empathy” by Anirveda Sharma (Acrylic)

This practice of genuine perspective-taking is not just necessary for teenagers talking about violence in their communities; it is necessary for lawyers representing clients, facilitators or mediators acting as third-party neutrals, and anyone attempting to persuade or influence another person.

Lastly, art matters urgently in the world of dispute resolution because art is about agency. This spring semester, Brazilian Supreme Court Justice José Antônio Dias Toffoli spoke at HLS about his efforts to implement extrajudicial mediation and dispute systems design in a legal system rife with inefficiencies. The notion of agency was a theme of his talk and of the questions asked to him by folks in the room. Toffoli and those in the audience criticized a culture (not only in Brazil) of complete dependency on judges as the ultimate decision-makers in disputes of any kind. Conversely, Toffoli argued, alternative dispute resolution processes such as mediation give ownership to the parties themselves as agents in their situation.

To be sure, Toffoli would probably agree that there is a distinction to be made between giving parties ownership over process and giving them ownership over substance. ADR practitioners often need to play a heavy hand in enforcing a set of parameters and managing the process. But in facilitative mediation, once those parameters are in place, the mediators’ line to parties is essentially, “We’ve got your back, and we have faith in you—you can figure this out without us.” In many ways, this ethos is precisely the purpose of HNMCP’s political dialogue initiative. Our work in political dialogue and facilitation is about relinquishing the need to control conflict and actually give people the agency to engage in real time with each other’s differences.

To create a legal culture in which ordinary people, and not just judges or legal professionals, can and do take ownership over their conflicts, we need to instill new habits of thinking. Art is just one possible way to do this, but it is a powerful one. The HNMCP art contest is about setting certain parameters and then asking people to take complete ownership over their response. For the students and professionals who submitted, I would venture to guess that this art contest was one of very few moments in their year when they were given a prompt, a set of parameters, and then complete agency to create their most meaningful and authentic contribution to that prompt.

Skepticism about the HNMCP art contest has helped me gain some clarity about its significance. Imagination, perspective-taking, and agency are at least three important thought-habits that art can help to cultivate in its creators and its observers, making us more ready to engage with conflict and disputes.

As I argue that art matters for these three reasons, I’m also sensitive to the danger of defending something that should not even be in question. Part of my motivation for writing this piece is a feeling that people appreciate art but see it as a sort of cute afterthought to the real work of transforming conflict in the world. Much like the work of dialogue and bridge-building, art is a fundamental part of a thriving society and yet there is a sense that it must be justified, quantified, and rationalized.

While there is a danger in defending art, there is urgency in affirming it. Too often, I lack an articulate response to people who genuinely want to know what art has to offer in the world of Harvard Law School or conflict management more broadly. Clarifying my understanding of art’s value might help me and others to persuade some people of its importance.

And at this moment in particular, when so much of the fight for peace and justice has become about saying “no”—saying “no” to policies, laws, divisiveness, and structures—it is so important that we also spend time saying “yes” to something that we believe in. And so, this is my affirmation, in support of our art.


Narges Shafeghati
A Matter of Choice &




Adriel Borshansky is HNMCP’s Clinical Fellow. While writing this post, he was inspired by this film short about the importance of art in our lives.

Alike short film from Pepe School Land on Vimeo.