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The Cultural Dimension

Culture refers to the forms of behavior, beliefs and abilities that individuals have acquired as members of a society. What is acquired takes on symbolic and cognitive forms of existence within patterns of interaction and power that give shape to social life (Eriksen, 2015). While there may be some universal categories that broadly define one’s culture, such as kinship, gender or economic organisation, each culture is defined by particularistic and relative elements that comprise of these broad categories. The cultural dimension therefore cannot be arranged in terms of foundational or mature elements. It is, instead, essential that the artist-facilitator tunes in to the cultural elements which give meaning and value to the lives of the participants. These cultural elements can become doorways towards more authentic communication, and participants can also draw inspiration from them to create their artistic processes and forms. The list below elaborates on some common areas of culture that individuals have acquired to give meaning and significance to their lives. This list is not exhaustive and the artist should listen out for other possible cultural dimensions which he or she may not be familiar with due to generational changes or differences in race, religion, ethnicity or nationality.

1) Language

Artists-facilitators should be mindful of the nuances of communication and seek to find the best way to put the participants at ease. Singapore is a multi-ethnic country and often our participants come from various ethnic groups. While we are encouraged to use English as a neutral language of communication, peppering our speech with colloquial forms of Malay, Chinese or dialect helps to bring humor and warmth to our sessions.

2) Popular culture

In working with communities across all ages, participants will bring up memories of their favorite songs or movies. Young teenagers will sing songs by One Direction or Justin Bieber when making their art work. Elderly participants sing along to Cantonese tunes in their dance or music sessions. They talk about famous actresses or actors of their time, like how more current generations talk about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. All these are elements of popular culture – cultural products from different parts of the world and different segments of time that were part of our growing up and growing pains. Paying attention to the forms of popular culture your participants associate with, or consume, would therefore give you clues as to what they are accustomed to and value as their way of life. This indicates to your participants that you are interested in their lives, encouraging them to reciprocate the same interest to what you bring to them through the arts.

3) Identity

A person’s life take meaning from status and roles, which can be ascribed or achieved. Status refers to the position of an individual within a social relationship and the associated rights and obligations attached to that status. Roles refer to the dynamic behavior an individual enacts as a result of limitations or opportunities afforded by the status (Eriksen, 2015). Status and roles can be ascribed from birth, having been born into a certain caste, tribe, ethnicity, race, nation or family. They can also be achieved. For example, gaining a higher social or economic status through recognized talent or educational achievement.

Individuals identify with collectives based on the status and roles that they partake in. All individuals would have an affinity to kinship structures, identifying with their roles such as daughters, sons, spouses, brothers or sisters. Individuals also have multiple collective identities as they also partake in religious, professional or recreational collectives, and gain status and roles within these collectives. Understanding a participant’s collective circles of membership in various sectors can give insight into the elements of personal identity of the participant. It definitely lends insight into expressions of the participant, which may be associated with various ingrained roles that have been played by him or her.

4) Aesthetics

Aesthetics refers to a sense of consolidation of form towards expression. The consolidation of form can take on both cohesive or conflicting elements in the creation of a product of artistic expression. The measures of aesthetic value depends on aspects of culture, be it traditional, modern and formalistic or bricolage (contemporary). Contemporary approaches to aesthetics questions the fixity of modern form and formality, opening up aesthetics as an approach to new ways of seeing and new ways of revaluing the value of aesthetics. In this way, proliferations of forms of art that tap on traditional, modern, collective, individualistic resources have become common to the contemporary arts scene. Participants’ engagement in art by delving into established forms of aesthetics, or developing new languages of expression, all contribute to an ever widening pool of aesthetic engagement, experimentation and creation that is a the result of the group’s particular experiences and choices (Armstrong, 2004).

5) Politics

Forms of expression (aesthetics and collective identity) created by a collective that has been marginalized becomes political especially if they present an issue of inequality or social disparity through their art. The art produced thus has the intention of communicating a social issue, seeking to influence public points of view on it. Its representational presence seeks to shift the norms of culture of that particular place and time towards a social situation that is defined to be more progressive or equal, based on the group’s values.

* For more details with regards to to each element of the Cultural Dimension, please refer to Person-centered Arts Practices With Communities: A Pedagogical Guide (


Armstrong, I. (2004) The Radical Aesthetic. Blackwell Publishing, UK.

Eriksen, T. H. (2015) Small Places, Large Issues. Pluto Press. UK.

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