Art as Social change

This is the fourth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my ongoing PhD research around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  The other posts are below.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…


Whether art, or any other activity for that matter, can ever change contemporary society, has been and remains a source of much discussion. Whilst the arts perspective has been reviewed previously, other fields such as sociology, politics, philosophy, etc. have increasingly (perhaps because of state interventionism discussed previously) become interested in discussing this question from an arguably more academic perspective. This section reviews some of the key works about art and social change, starting with a deeply critical essay, Art and Social Change (2005).

In Art and Social Change, Dillemuth et al. criticise many contemporary cultural and education institutions as being ‘nothing more than legal and administrative organs of the dominant system’; by taking part in these activities, we ‘internalise their values, transmit their ideologies and act as their audience/public/social body’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 378). The socially accepted façade of these institutions purports to represent our society but hides the ‘dysfunctional relics of the bourgeois project’, encouraged by neoliberalism to ‘become even more obscure, more unreliable and more exclusive’; indivisible from the state (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 378). The authors contest that the cultural and education sectors have betrayed their responsibilities to society that once claimed to be based upon ‘transparency, accountability, equality and open participation’ in favour of survival by submission to the state (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 379). Their solution is self-organisation; their manifesto culminating in a call for a fluidly flexible, agile ‘non-identity’ that is ‘[m]utually reinforcing, self-valorising, self-empowering, self-historicising and, as a result, not compatible with fixed institutional structures’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, pp. 380-381). This is, perhaps, social change, radically reimagined.

When Wolff categorically states that ‘[a]rt is a social product’ and that ‘it is not useful to think of artistic work as essentially different from other kinds of work’ (Wolff, 1993, pp. 1-2), she dissolves art into life. She confidently claims that ‘the sociological study of the arts has done a good job in exposing many of the extra-aesthetic elements involved in aesthetic judgement – the values of class, or the influence of political or moral ideas, for example’ (Wolff, 1993, p. 7); that the artist has never ‘worked in isolation from social and political constraints of a direct or indirect kind’ (Wolff, 1993, p. 27). But surely, this is an overtly sociological position which, as is typical of much of this type of research, avoids discussing many (or any) examples of specific artistic practice in relation to presented hypotheses. Adopting a similar tenet, Belfiore and Bennett, in The Social Impact of the Arts (2008), focus on developing the notion of instrumentalism as being at least 2,500 years old; not a contemporary phenomenon driven by the need to secure arts funding from the state (Belfiore & Bennett, 2008, p. 194). Their historical review concludes that:

‘the “negative tradition” – that is, the view persisting over time that the arts have a negative influence on individuals and society as a whole – resounds as strongly as the “positive tradition”, which maintains that the arts are “good for you” and which can be seen as predominant in today’s debates over cultural and educational policy’ (Belfiore & Bennett, 2008, p. 191).

This sociological approach to appraising contemporary arts (and socially engaged) practice as being part of a long continuum is useful on the one hand, narrowly reductive on the other. Many works around cultural regeneration and place take a similarly neutral stance. For example, Erasing the Traces, Tracing Erasures portrays the cultural regeneration of Newcastle/Gateshead as a project whichby attempting to re-make the region’s image and, simultaneously, key into networks of mobile capital by courting the tourist market and disposable income of locals’ helped create a new arts landscape in which buildings like The Sage ‘simultaneously erase and evoke, eradicate and re-inscribe notions of cultural memory and belonging as it pertains to contemporary cities’ (Thompson, 2010, p. 56). Such viewpoints stem from Bourriaud’s oft criticised theory of relational aesthetics which disparages radical ‘[s]ocial utopias and revolutionary hopes’ and ‘everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies’ because any position ‘that is “directly” critical of society is futile, if based on the illusion of a marginality that is nowadays impossible, not to say regressive’ (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 31).

Neutralising sociological perspectives such as those of Wolff, Belfiore and Bennett, Thompson, Bourriaud, et al. stand in stark contrast to the critical postmodernist perspective of ‘a postmodernism of resistance, including resistance to that easy postmodernism of the “anything goes” variety’ (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], p. 336). Huyssen’s call to ‘abandon that dead-end dichotomy of politics and aesthetics which for too long has dominated accounts of modernism, including the aestheticist trend within poststructuralism’ clearly aims to increase ‘the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’ (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], pp. 336-337). This position perhaps relates more to contemporary discussions about socially engaged art by practitioners than by many sociologists; offering alternative ways of envisioning art and social change rather than historicising it. It also links with critical theory (discussed in more detail in a forthcoming post.)

The Gifts of the Muse (2004) is a classic report about funding the arts as a means of ‘serving broad social and economic goals’ alongside an increased emphasis on the need for institutions to demonstrate the value of the arts; discussing potential instrumental and intrinsic benefits; recognising that intrinsic values are often neglected in favour of outputs and goals, even though they have a ‘central role… in generating all benefits deriving from the arts’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, pp. xi-xii). McCarthy et al. make a coherent case that the arts are not valued by audiences and participants for their instrumental benefits but because they create meaning, pleasure and satisfaction which can lead indirectly to broader individual and community benefits (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. xv). Sustained access to and involvement is essential to the report’s findings, as are three stages of access to the arts: ‘gateway experiences’ which are ‘most conducive to future arts involvement if they happen when people are young (that is, of school age, particularly pre-teen)’; ‘fully engaging’, high quality follow-on experiences that help ‘change individual tastes and enrich subsequent arts experience’; and ‘the intrinsic worth of the arts experience’ described as vital for long-term involvement in the arts (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. xvii). The report’s authors contrast this perspective with the aforementioned list of instrumental benefits purported to ‘be an antidote to myriad social problems’, economically important, etc., critiquing the arts for using ‘the language of the social sciences and the broader policy debate’ as justification for their continued existence (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 1).

In fact, McCarthy et al. are deeply scathing about evidence-based research on instrumental benefits, expanded beyond economics to include ‘cognitive, attitudinal and behavioral, and health benefits at the individual level, and social and economic benefits at the community level’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 7), noting that this research does not explain how participation in the arts generates these supposed benefits, nor does it ‘specify the circumstances in which benefits accrue, the populations most likely to benefit in such circumstances, and the level of arts involvement needed to generate benefits’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 21). They go on to suggest that methodological problems mean that many of the claims ‘about the arts’ instrumental benefits are unsubstantiated’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 33). In contrast, the authors explain that the intrinsic effects of the arts cannot be investigated using ‘the more objective view of the social scientist’ - a politically-driven ‘social science model that focuses on measurable outcomes’; the intangibility of intrinsic benefits being difficult (if not almost impossible) to accurately define (McCarthy, et al., 2004, pp. 37-38). The report also suggests that the modernist notions of aesthetics and ‘art for art’s sake’ has made art seem, to many people, ‘remote, esoteric, and removed from life’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 38).

The Gifts of the Muse, also places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of introducing children to arts and other creative activities early in their lives (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 54); the authors contend that ‘most of the claimed learning and behavioral benefits are generated by arts experiences in schools’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 71). The importance of creative experiences to children is a point discussed further later in this chapter in relation to the works of D.W. Winnicott.

So is social change achievable, measurably or even desirable?  Are the arts any better equipped than other fields to support social change?  Who drives change anyway?  Is social change always a concept of the state – driven by instrumentalism?  Is social justice different, more democratic?  More to follow…