Rethinking critical theory for our current arts & cultural situation: exploring socially engaged activism, tension & social justice

This is the second post about my work around developing my PhD research methodology.  It is about trying to develop a critical theory from past and current theoretical perspectives that might apply to our present twenty-first century arts arts and cultural milieu, dominated as it undeniably is by neoliberalism, conservatism and state instrumentalism.  This is a first draft that attempts to marry conflicting yet complementary aspects of critical theories that may be able to be developed during my research and may be explored in relation to my working hypothesis discussed in my last post.  It is therefore, perhaps, worthwhile to reiterate my working hypothesis below before moving on to discussing the theoretical approaches in more detail…



It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:

Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and antagonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.




As mentioned previously, this research is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School. The research blends several key theoretical perspectives, so it essential that they are discussed in terms of how they form an interrelated theoretical position that is relevant to this research. This was first attempted in a presentation entitled social practice/ critical thinking at an AHRC conference at the University of Sunderland on 24th June 2014.[1] Following the same format as this presentation, it is worth describing that the research is underpinned by a loose interpretation of critical theory that, whilst not fully accepting of every aspect of the philosophies of The Frankfurt School, Habermas or postmodernism, does not necessarily dismiss any or all of their contentions either.

The research takes as starting points the following key tenets of critical theory: the belief that our current socio-political life is dominated by a neoliberal democracy that is both a ‘total administration’ (Adorno) and ‘one-dimensional’ (Marcuse); the conflation of diverse forms of arts and culture into a ‘culture industry’ is ‘enlightenment by mass deception’ (Horkheimer and Adorno); a deep mistrust of ‘instrumental rationality’ (Marcuse); and an eagerness to embrace and develop interdisciplinary research and practice in relation to critical theory (Horkheimer and Marcuse). These principles of critical theory can be reimagined and exploded by situating these elements of critical theory within the concept of metamodernism which posits that, contrary to the predictions of many postmodernist thinkers, history hasn’t ended, nor has the modernist drive to create a neoliberal monoculture succeeded (Vermeulen and Akker). It is, in essence, a critical perspective that oscillates, in constant tension, between modernism and/ nor postmodernism. As such, metamodernism can be considered to derive from competing notions of revolving around the possibility of a post-historical condition – an area richly debated by post-Marxists, poststructuralists, feminists, cultural theorists, sociologists, psychologists, etc. such as Hardt & Negri, Žižek, Mouffe, Braidotti, Sloterdijk, Gauntlett, Sonderegger, Power, Laclau, Badiou, Rancière, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guatarri, etc. The cultural theorist Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker, described the metamodern as an attempt to reconstruct history; an opportunity to ‘reconceptualise the present and re-imagine the future by (re-)connecting the dots between previously deconstructed points of view’ (Vermeulen, 2011). His article in Frieze postulated three key philosophical ‘returns’ as central to future debates around reconstructing history: grand narratives – problematic allegorical possibilities of tomorrows in societies today from which conclusions can never be drawn and endings never reached; sceptical optimism – grounded in the modernist desire to find sense and meaning and/ nor the postmodernist mistrust of claims to have found sense and meaning; and affect – empathic sensibilities that, through deconstruction and reconstruction, may offer idealistic alternative ways of living that can never be fully understood or achieved (ibid.).

A third theoretical position for this research lies in the work of political theorist Chantal Mouffe, particularly her ideas about activism, antagonism & aesthetic resistance and their relationships to artistic practice. In her 2007 article Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces, she writes fervently in support of engagement with institutions as a means of challenging neoliberal consensus via artistic activism as a counter-hegemonic practice that might disarticulate the dominant hegemony (Mouffe, 2007). Expanding upon this position in Strategies of radical politics and aesthetic resistance in 2012, Mouffe proposes that critical arts practices can enable the creation of agonistic spaces capable encouraging dissent and challenging the ‘dominant consensus’ – the aesthetic as a mode of political activism which may, only as part of a series of broader political moments, help create a new hegemonic order (Mouffe, 2012). The fourth theoretical perspective at the base of this research is that of philosopher Jacques Rancière, particularly his aesthetic theory, and his insistence that notions of the modern and postmodern, art as autonomous, and the avant-garde should be ‘shredded’ (Berrebi, 2008). He observed a tension between ‘art as art’ and art blurring into other activities and forms of living, and concluded that it was too crude to oppose ‘autonomous art’ with ‘engaged art’ (ibid.). Rather, he posited the notion of the ‘politics of the aesthetics’ – two politics always in constant tension with each other: first, the form of aesthetics which is so similar to other experiences that it ‘tends to dissolve into other forms of life’; and second, a ‘resistant form’ in which ‘the political potential of the aesthetic experience derives from the separation of art from other forms of activity and its resistance to any transformation into a form of life’ (ibid.). His contention is that ‘critical art’ maintains a perpetual tension between the legible and illegible, the everyday and radically strange (ibid.). This tension can be perceived as a form of mediation between art and the individual/ society in the sense that, as art mediates relationally to itself, it also creates an essential ‘mediation of another’ (Ranciere, 2009, p. 131).

There are many other theoretical elements to this research - concepts inherently connected to the other four theoretical perspectives discussed above. For this reason, three more schools of thought are briefly mentioned here but are discussed in more detail in the literature review. They form a second tier of theoretic bases underpinning this research. Firstly, absurdism – a concept closely related to the existentialism of Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, Becket, etc. and founded upon an understanding that humanity is continually at conflict with the desire to find inherent value and meaning, and an inability to ever be able to attain it. Secondly, the carnivalesque – a revisiting of popular medieval culture by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as a means of illustrating how elitist modernist notions of autonomous art shed not only function but also popularism. For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque represents an always incomplete place of opposites in constant opposition, where all are equal; a celebration of and ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order… [marking] the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions’ (Bakhtin, 1984 [1965], p. 7). Thirdly, the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott surrounding his concepts of ‘playing and reality’ and ‘potential space’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971]). Winnicott proposed that the ‘potential space’, existing between living and the environment, between inner and external realities, could create boundaries within which creativity and cultural experience could develop, facilitating personal development and a sense of a life worth living. He contrasted this place of possibilities with the negative effects of compliance with overbearing state instrumentalism.

Finally, it is important to recognise the many other third tier theoretical approaches and thinkers that influence this research, although, as above, it is impossible to expand upon their individual positions here. They are referenced at appropriate points throughout this thesis, particularly in the case studies and in the subsequent analyses and conclusions. Key poststructuralist, Marxist, Post-Marxist, cultural and critical intellectuals also influencing this research include Felix Guatarri and Giles Deleuze, Douglas Kellner, Hans Georg Gadamer, Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, Paulo Freire, and Frederic Jameson. The other three main theoretical approaches are particularly important in relation to investigating the case study organisations and testing the working hypothesis. They are critical pedagogy, participatory action research and post-development theory.[2]

To conclude, it is important to attempt to try and situate this discussion about the various conflicting but not incompatible theoretical perspectives within the broader context of the relevance of critical theory in the complexities of our twenty-first century (almost) monoculture. Critical theory is founded upon the critique of positivism and interpretative approaches but it is not negative nor is it antiscientific; it can be conceived of as an alternative research programme (Morrow & Brown, 1994, pp. 142-143). Drawing on the ‘three analytic moments’ described by Raymond Morrow and David Brown, this research explores various approaches and ideas surrounding the investigation of the intersection of ‘social and system integration’ and the ‘mediations’ (ibid., p.221) as proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Search for a Method (Sartre, 1963) that ‘bridges the social psychological analysis of individual actors… and the macrostructural analysis of social systems’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, pp. 221-222). Indeed, the eclectic range of methodologies (spanning the interpretive social sciences and empirical sciences) which critical theory employs offers an approach that may be considered to be ‘in principle much more open and innovative than empiricist social science’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, p. 227). In a world dominated by a resurrected yet waning form of neoliberal totality in which the last vestiges of modernity vie with a postmodernism that has not led to a fractured end, it is critical theory that, perhaps, once again, offers the possibility of imagining alternative ways of being – ‘a theory of the necessity of overcoming distorted communication as part of an endless process of collective learning’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, p. 320). This research is oriented towards exploring the possibilities of the social practice of art as well as factors that may impede its development and that of society as a whole: part of the ‘theoretical construction of the social process’ proposed by Herbert Marcuse that necessitates ‘the critique of current conditions and the analysis of their tendencies’ and an orientation towards those possible in future (Marcuse, 2009 [1968], p. 107). The potential here is for a critical theory that mediates between criticisms of present past and present conditions without accepting the postmodernist perspective that ‘one set of conditions is merely relative to another’ (How, 2003).

As sociologist Robert Lynd proposed (quoted by critical theorist Eike Gebhardt):

[I]t should not be our only concern to ask whether a hypothesis is true, possible or realistic; we should, perhaps, also ask the other way around: “what sort of earth” would it have to be in which this hypothesis (e.g., one describing a possible situation) would be realistic. Only history could verify such hypotheses – by realizing them

(Gebhardt, 1978, p. 406)

Comments, as always, are very welcome…

[1] To see an annotated version of the presentation, see

[2] For more discussion around these additional theoretical perspectives, see Literature Review.