‘There must be a transmutation of good will into action’

Maxine Greene (1917-2014) was an American philosopher with a special concern for education, art and social change. I’ve only recently discovered her work (it’s not easy to find), but already I’ve heard many echoes with community art and my own thinking. Her writing with its balance of hope and toughness feels very timely. She seems to be speaking to our multiple and intertwined crises, when she says that neither imagination nor intention is sufficient: ‘There must be a transmutation of good will, of what I call wide-­awakeness, into action.’

I object to closed systems, to fixities, to finalities. Definitions of art are always open to questioning. Indeed, an object, an arrangement of sounds or movements, although labeled as a work of art, does not serve as art for the individual unless it gives rise to an aesthetic experience. That means moving from an ordinary, commonplace experience (walking to work, calling a class to order) to an extraordinary experience, one involving perceptions, insights, feelings that highlight details of the surrounding world, and moments of “unconcealment” that reveal unexpected lights and shadows that alter the familiar shape of things.


John Dewey (1916) said that to be educated meant becoming different – reaching towards others in a public space, achieving a community that is forever incomplete. The arts can move the young to see what they have never seen, to view unexpected possibilities. They are always there on the margins to refuse the indecent, the unjust, to awaken the critical and committed to visions of things being otherwise. There can be no final solution; but there is time – always time – to reject somnolence, to choose to begin.

Maxine Greene, Prologue to Art, Social Imagination and Action

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