The carnivalesque and critical pedagogy–radical socially engaged art for social justice?

This is the final section of my draft research which considers other disciplines relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) They are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; the carnivalesque and critical pedagogy. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.

This is the ninth and final post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The fourth and final post in this section briefly discusses themes around the carnivalesque, critical pedagogy and radical interpretations of social practice for social justice…

The carnivalesque is another place where art and life are blurred - playfully disrupted by participation by everyone; an alternative world where rich may become poor and paupers, kings. It is a concept encourages radicalism and dissensus; a concept well-aligned to radical socially engaged art interventions. The classic definition of the carnivalesque appears in Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965):

‘Because of their obvious sensuous of character and their strong element of play, carnival images strongly resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval festivals often tended toward carnival folk culture, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus… belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself but shaped according to a certain pattern of play… it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators… Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people' (Bakhtin, 1984 [1965], p. 7).

Perhaps, then, the socially engaged art can benefit from a closer relationship to the carnivalesque and performativity of practice? When linked to critical pedagogical theory and practice, perhaps, socially engaged art can find a route towards social change, or, perhaps, more critically, to social justice? Helguera certainly offers and alternative, yet all-encompassing vision of socially engaged practice, that exemplifies a critical, cross-disciplinary perspective with radical pedagogy and the theatrical performance characteristics of the carnivalesque. His book, Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011), seeks to bring together art and education critically. His conclusion is that the carnivalesque as described by Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World represents a form of cultural inversion in which ‘social hierarchies are temporarily broken through satire, celebration, and chaos’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 67), a form of performativity ‘derived from the history of performance art’ he believes should be central to socially engaged art but avoidant of subservience to any ‘cause’ that may turn practice into pure entertainment (Helguera, 2011, p. 68). Helguera is certain that ‘an aspect of play’ must be present in socially engaged practice – the type of playfulness that ‘upsets, even if temporarily, the existing social values (Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque”) that room is created for reflection, escaping the merely hedonistic experience of spectacle’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 70).

Here then lies a critical perspective that defines socially engaged art as a form of sometimes temporal, always disruptive practice that learns and, therefore, benefits from interacting with the knowledge from other disciplines, including ‘sociology, education, linguistics, and ethnography – to make decisions about how to engage and construct meaningful exchanges and experiences’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. xii-xiv). Helguera is clear that, for him, ‘[t]o argue… that good socially engaged art creates constructive personal relationships is wrong: an artist’s successful project could consist of deliberate miscommunication, in upsetting social relations, or in simply being hostile to the public’ (Helguera, 2011, p. xv). He is equally clear in his conviction that ‘[a]ll art, inasmuch as it is created to be communicated to or experienced by others, is social’ but that this does not explain the different experience of taking part in socially engaged art as opposed to, for example, viewing an exhibition (Helguera, 2011, p. 1). He sees socially engaged art’s ‘uncomfortable position’ situated somewhere between art and other disciplines as being ‘exactly the position it should inhabit’ because:

‘The practice’s direct links to and conflicts with both art and sociology must be overtly declared and the tension addressed, not resolved. Socially engaged artists can and should challenge the art market in attempts to redefine the notion of authorship, but to do so they must accept and affirm their existence in the realm of art, as artists’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 4-5).

This is an important position of flux; a critical perspective that explains socially engaged art as operating alongside and within other disciplines, problematising and making ambiguous issues so that it can help create new ways of seeing that are situated within ‘current political and social affairs’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 5-7). For Helguera, understanding the different natures of participation is essential in understanding how to work with participants. He describes this as follows:

‘An awareness of the voluntary, nonvoluntary, or involuntary predisposition of participants in a given project allows for the formulation of a successful approach to an individual or community, as approaches for participants with different predispositions vary widely. For example, if a participant is willingly and actively engaged as a volunteer, it may be in the interest of the artist to make gestures to encourage that involvement. If a participant has been forced to be part of the project for external reasons, it may be beneficial for the artist to acknowledge that fact and, if the objective is engagement, take measures to create a greater sense of ownership for that person. In the case of involuntary participants, the artist may decide to hide the action from them or make them aware at a certain point of their participation in the art project’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 16-17).

This advice is not only useful to socially engaged artists but also as a means of differentiating ‘participation’ in future policy-making and academic research. Similarly, Helguera’s views that successful socially engaged projects are usually developed with local communities over a long period, so do not often ‘travel’ well (Helguera, 2011, p. 20), and that projects often ‘serve very specific audiences’, even when apparently open to everyone (Helguera, 2011, p. 22), are important points to consider when critically researching and devising any participatory project. He suggests that any project operates on three levels: ‘one is its immediate circle of participants and supporters; the second is the critical art world, toward which it usually looks for validation; and the third is society at large, through governmental structures, the media, and other organizations or systems that may absorb and assimilate the ideas or other aspects of the project’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 22-23). Likewise, socially engaged practice, whilst seemingly similar to social work and perhaps even operating in similar ‘social ecosystems’, is a critically different field because, whilst social work may be described as:

‘a value-based profession based on a tradition of beliefs and systems that aim for the betterment of humanity and support ideals such as social justice, the defense of human dignity and worth, and the strengthening of human relationships. An artist, in contrast, may subscribe to the same values but makes work that ironizes, problematizes, and even enhances tensions around those subjects, in order to provoke reflection’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 35).

Helguera is at pains here to distance critically socially engaged art practice from social work because (and this is essential to this research and to broader contemporary issues such as UK arts policy and government drives to install participatory art as a panacea for social ills):

'The traditional argument against equating SEA with social work is that to do so would subject art to direct instrumentalization, relinquishing a crucial aspect of art-making that demands self-reflexivity and criticality… [precluding] the possibility that art can be deliberately instrumental and intentionally abandon any hopes of self-reflexivity… [whereas the] stronger argument is that SEA has a double function that social work lacks… [By] not just offering a service to a community (assuming it is a service-oriented piece); we are proposing our action as a symbolic statement in the context of our cultural history (and/or art history) and entering into a larger artistic debate… [Yet there are] similarities between the forms… [such as understanding] the mutual respect, inclusivity, and collaborative involvement that are the main tenets of social work’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 35-37).

Helguera is clear that, whilst critical pedagogy does not seek to make art, approaches such as those elaborated by Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), can offer ‘a path to thinking about how an artist can engage with a community in a productive collaborative capacity’ in which it is clear that socially engaged artists cannot ‘act as a neutral entity, an invisible catalyst of experience’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 52-53) because:

‘The expertise of the artist lies, like Freire’s, in being a non-expert, a provider of frameworks on which experiences can form and sometimes be directed and channeled to generate new insights around a particular issue’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 54).

From this perspective, Helguera develops the notion that ‘antisocial or antagonistic social action is a fundamental area of activity’ for socially engaged art; a place where confrontation involves ‘taking a critical position on a given issue without necessarily proposing an alternative’ – no answers, just new questions (Helguera, 2011, p. 59). Perhaps, then, Helguera’s marrying of critical pedagogy with socially engaged arts practice will not, like many other art forms, offer ‘accurate representation’, rather complicate ‘readings so that we can discover new questions’ because ‘it is when we position ourselves in those tentative locations, and when we persist in making them into concrete experiences, that interstices become locations of meaning’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 71). This idea, which Helguera develops as ‘Transpedagogy’, is unlike traditional conceptions of art as education – as interpretation or as learning to make art – but rather places ‘the pedagogical process’ at the centre of art-making, creating an ‘autonomous environment, mostly outside of any academic or institutional framework’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 78). This ‘expanded field of pedagogy’ frees art education (and, perhaps, broader forms of education) from traditional restrictions of teaching, connoisseurship and interpretation because, unlike the traditional field, it acknowledges education as a performative act, a ‘collective construction of knowledge, and an acceptance that knowledge is not ‘knowing’ but ‘a tool for understanding the world’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 80). This emerges in some forms of collective socially engaged practice as a ‘distancing… from art’; a ‘blurring of boundaries between disciplines’ indicative of ‘an emerging form of art-making in which art does not point at itself but instead focuses on the social process of exchange’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 81).

Perhaps, then, socially engaged art can, by incorporating approaches inherent in critical pedagogical and critical participation action research approaches, help people discover their own sense of understanding; their own independent forms of ‘expertise’? A position described by Horton, in conversation with Freire, as opposing many traditional approaches to social change in which:

‘Organizers are committed to achieving a limited, specific goal whether or not it leads to structural change, or reinforces the system, or plays in the hands of capitalists. The problem is confused because a lot of people use organizing to do some education and they think it's empowerment because that's what they're supposed to be doing. But quite often they disempower people in the process by using experts to tell them what to do while having the semblance of empowering people. That confuses the issue considerably’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 120).

Instead, Horton and Freire propose a position where ‘expertise is in knowing not to be an expert’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 128); explained by Horton as follows:

‘[E]xpert knowledge is different from having the expert telling people what to do… [which] takes away the power of people to make decisions… [so] there's no empowerment… no learning’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 130).

The position of Horton and Freire as outlined above, is central to Helguera’s Transpedagogical approach to socially engaged practice; a position also supported by Bishop, who reflects that critical pedagogy’s inherent ‘insistence on the breakdown of teacher/ pupil hierarchy and participation as a route to empowerment’ is analogous to contemporary with socially engaged practice (Bishop, 2012, p. 267). This positioning of learning as independent and democratic seems rather more suggestive of social justice than social change; a change of emphasis discussed recently by Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe who stated that socially engaged art needs a new language because:

‘Social practice has tried to take over the role of what it means to work socially in the context of a place but there’s no real place there. It’s social; it’s everywhere. That’s one of the biggest issues I have with social practice now is how it’s managed to take the context out of the meaning and the value out of the work. Almost in the same way as “social change” has taken the progressive impact out of things’ (Dela, 2014).

So maybe socially engaged art practice is better aligned to the concept of social justice? As Lowe recently asked Creative Time ahead of being presented with the Annenberg Prize for Art and Social, ‘why they call it social “change” instead social “justice,” which has a very specific meaning. “Change” is a little, well…what does it mean? Everybody wants change’ (Dela, 2014).