Social Dialogue Magazine
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Erik Jansen, Research Centre for Social Support and Community Care, HAN University of Applied Sciences, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Art and creativity as a capability: Utilizing art in social work education

In the current discourse creativity is generally conceived of as a means to an end, the latter often being economic productivity, individual performance or team achievement. This is particularly salient in the way creativity is conceptualized as an essential aspect of the ubiquitous 21st Century Skills (see Trilling & Fadel, 2012) in which it is conceptually linked with innovation: people in the workforce need creative competencies in order to be able to stand firm in tomorrow's complex and fluid world. However, if we consider creativity and its extension, the arts, such a definition falls short to adequately account for their rich phenomenology. The arts and creativity surely mean more to human beings than only economic value. The issue appears to be that in the current debate creativity and the arts are generally conceived of as being purely instrumental, whereas they also bear intrinsic or end value qualities. The latter, for instance, resonates the conception of art for art's sake.

In this contribution, I would like to problematize the dominant discourse by framing the discussion in terms of a model that we have been working on recently. In this model, I start from the question: what is the meaning of creativity and the arts for human wellbeing? Furthermore, I conceive of creativity as fulfilling multiple functions rather than being solely a means to an end. In line with this, such a more nuanced model of creativity and the arts may more adequately tap into the potential for their application in social work education. Therefore, the essential question for the arts in social work education may be reframed as follows: Can we obtain a frame of the value of arts and creativity in social work education that includes both wellbeing aspects and economic use? To this purpose, I will start with some basic tenets for the model, and then develop the model in some more detail. However, for a more extensive account I refer the reader to upcoming work.

A perspective from the capability approach

The model is built around the conceptual framework of the capability approach (CA; Sen, 1999; Nussbaum, 2011). This approach offers a take on human wellbeing as the degree to which one is able to live the life one has reason to value, i.e. to do what one wants to do and to be who one wants to be. Note that one’s actual reasons for valuing that life are never theoretically contested as they are part of the agency exercised by the person. What counts is that the person has such a conceptualization. Furthermore, human lives are plural, constituted by various valuable but incommensurable domains (e.g. health, social relations, and play) and human diversity in descent and life history is key to understanding what it means to be a human being. Also, any person is in principle able to determine her own priorities with regard to the life domains deemed most valuable, be it that individual persons may have different levels of capacity to do so, and moreover, have different (levels of) needs to satisfy in order to achieve wellbeing. In the broader picture, these basic tenets acknowledge human diversity as fundamental.

However, in the CA the process by which individuals actually achieve wellbeing is considered universal, as it involves converting one’s resources into realistic opportunities and actual functioning, respectively. To express this notion, in the CA a distinction is made between the freedoms or realistic opportunities a person has at her disposal, the so-called capabilities, and the actual functioning one achieves. In other words, potential wellbeing is discerned from achieved wellbeing. Whether one actually exercises one of her realistic opportunities is the consequence of a choice process between realistic alternatives to fulfill one’s life. This means there is always an aspect of freedom to act or agency involved. An essential aspect for evaluating a person’s wellbeing is therefore that instead of merely focusing on functioning, one also has to evaluate the level of one’s capabilities. Of course, the conversion of opportunities into functioning is constantly influenced by all kinds of contextual factors that expand or limit one’s capabilities or functionings or both, such as: disabilities or special talents, the physical or living environment or social constraints. Put otherwise: wellbeing is a function of both individual agency and contextual factors. The CA offers handles to evaluate wellbeing in all complexity. For instance, it acknowledges the plurality of and diversity in human lives, and provides a general framework to assess inequities in functioning rather that inequalities in the distribution of resources. Furthermore, capabilities are considered final ends, as they represent life domains that are valuable to pursue without requiring external or simplified valuation in terms of economic utility or personal happiness. The conversion process is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1

What to learn from the CA for art and creativity in social work education? Briefly, capabilities are deemed intrinsically valuable life domains or aspects of life valuable in themselves, and a deficit in one capability cannot be compensated for with the increase in another. Particularly the latter aspect will prove useful in conceiving creativity and the arts from a broader perspective than a merely instrumental one.

The capability to art and creativity

The model under development, and concisely sketched here, conceives of creativity and the arts as a capability, such that creativity and art are to be considered a life domain worth pursuing in itself. However, creativity and the arts also have this aforementioned instrumental side to them: they help us to achieve something else that we consider valuable. In terms of the CA this is not uncommon: capabilities are often clustered with other capabilities. For instance, the capability to maintain social relations enhances one’s capability to enjoy education and to exercise practical reason in daily life.

In Figure 2, our capability model of creativity and the arts is shown schematically. It entails three levels of value. The first level (the lower level in Figure 2) represents the instrumental value of creativity and the arts. This level refers to the aforementioned instrumental way of applying creativity and the arts to obtain other valuable assets such as economic prosperity, innovation, better team performance or personal growth. This level dominates the discourse on value and application of creativity and, to a lesser extent, the arts, as judged from the vast body of research on creativity and its applications, mainly in the social sciences, particularly social psychology and organizational studies.

Figure 2
Figure 2

I will step over the second level for now and progress to the third level (the upper in Figure 2). This third level represents the value that creativity and the arts have in and of themselves, often referred to as their intrinsic value, although this qualification is sometimes regarded as conceptually problematic. Qualification of this level pertains to what we could call: creativity and artistic activities as expression of humanness, i.e. what it means to be a human being. Apart from what creative or expressive efforts bring us, the mere fact that we are creative and capable of artistic production is testimony of our humanity. It might even be argued that it represents a uniquely human faculty. Because of the latter, it also links creativity and the arts with culture and expressions of cultural identity. Research relevant to this level pertains predominantly, but not exclusively, to the humanities, e.g. the philosophy of art and the cultural sciences.

As for the second, intermediate, level we find a certain kind of mixture between the instrumental and intrinsic levels, which can be called constructive. The constructive value of creativity and the arts pertains to the notion that meaning-producing acts or artefacts also construe social relations and structural positions: by inventing (non-) verbal concepts human beings perform a social act. This notion resonates strongly with post-modern philosophy and post-structural notions of relationality such as to be found in the works of Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, but also more recent constructivist thinkers. Key to their ideas is the notion that the perception of reality is a complex construction in which concepts provide us with the means to obtain control. Artistic and creative acts provide us with these concepts. Thus, the constructive level forms a “twilight zone” in between the social and the meaningful, in between the social sciences and the humanities.

Towards an arts-based curriculum in social work education?

So how can our current capability model of arts and creativity inform social work curriculum development? Apart from a willingness to include creativity and the arts as cornerstone in the curricular design, it may be helpful as a means of conceptualizing three educational levels: The intrinsic value of the arts helps social work educators to train students in acknowledging what it entails and means to be a person as a human being. This may for instance involve students experiencing and reflecting on the meaning of artistic products or exercising creative activities. Tapping into the constructive value offers insight into the socialization aspects of artistic and creative acts. To experience this, students may obtain insight in human relations and social positioning by studying artistic processes or the social effects exerted by creative articulations of concepts. Finally, the instrumental value of creativity and the arts may be learned by acquiring the skills to purposefully apply creative activities to influence people’s behavior. Note that all three levels entail acquiring insight into the effects that artistic and creative processes have on human beings both individually and in groups.


Although the capability model of creativity and the arts is still under development, some preliminary conclusions may be drawn in the context of art-based or art-informed curricula of social work. First, by utilizing concepts from the CA the model capitalizes on the close connection between art, creativity and human wellbeing, while simultaneously providing a conceptual interface with other disciplines in which capability thinking is gaining ground, e.g. economics, development studies, psychology, and health sciences. Second, it bridges the traditional epistemological divide between the humanities and the social sciences, because it acknowledges the multilevel and plural character of creativity and the arts as a human faculty. Third, and finally, it offers a broad perspective that also allows for ethical questions regarding art and creative practices related to the social domain, such as: Is access to creativity and the arts and arts education equally distributed? What are the consequences of damaging cultural heritage from a perspective of human rights?

I hope this contribution illustrates that a take on the arts and creativity from a perspective of human capabilities offers great and multifaceted potential for social workers and their clients, which therefore deserves to be developed in social work education. I would even dare to go further and claim that any social work curriculum employing concepts of the arts and creativity is to be considered incomplete if it does not, in one way or another, cover all three conceptual levels such as developed in our capability model of creativity and the arts.


Nussbaum, M. (2011). Creating capabilities: The human development approach. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2012). 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. New Jersey: John Wiley and sons.