Time to drop innovation? Socially engaged art is not The Latest Thing…

Elizabeth Grady began a discussion on the ‘innovative’ socially engaged network a blade of grass entitled The Latest Thing. I contributed via Twitter then wrote Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes) in response to what I felt was a move towards attempting to position socially engaged art as ‘innovative’. Grady recently responded to my post and to Jethro Brice in a post oddly titled Unmaking Innovation: A Return to the New. Her response to my concerns about socially engaged art using ‘innovation’ as a descriptor of ‘the latest thing’ in this field of practice is, for me, deeply problematic. Put simply, I feel she misses the point. Innovation is an undoubtedly ubiquitous word today. Innovation is linked (as I described in my previous post on a blade of grass) to notions of introducing new ‘things’; novelties. It has been widely appropriated by neoliberalism, positivist sciences and capitalism as a positive term meaning new and, by inference, better.

In my original post, I argued that there is no benefit in relating socially engaged art to such an ideologically stained word.  Grady responded by stating that ‘to tie it [innovation] irretrievably to neoliberalism is to deny its elemental power and independent relationship to creativity’. I would argue that to use innovation as a means of describing ‘new’ forms of socially engaged practice (labelled in a comment at the bottom of one of the previous posts by Grady as ‘the best’), or any forms of socially engaged practice for that matter, ties the practice irretrievably (albeit unintentionally) to notions of novelty and artifice and, in so doing, denies the field its unique attributes of being a form of critical and independent social practice. Artistic creativity (by artists and people taking part) still happens in social practice but instead of simply describing the relationships, experiences and art works produced in this process, we substitute creativity for innovation. For me, there is no clear reason or benefit to use a ‘new’ word for the same thing (or set of things), especially a word that carries such obvious neoliberal baggage.

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Baron Prášil, Karel Zeman, Film still, 1961

To then attempt to liberate the word innovation from this baggage, as Grady does in her most recent post, is surely senseless. She is positive and hopeful that ‘by dissociating it [innovation] from a market-driven entrepreneurial perspective, we can perhaps recuperate both beauty and usefulness for the term’. I ask why? Why seek to do this? Why not use other, less ideologically laden words? Why actually argue about words at all? Our field of practice is about social justice, about independent interventions with people using all sorts of artistic and supradisciplinary techniques, about places, about people – not words. Isn’t it? Well, I would argue: yes and no. Words like innovation don’t matter to people taking part in socially engaged art; they do matter when we attempt to define or explain our practice amongst ourselves within the field or to others with an interest in the field (institutions, funders, potential commissioners, other disciplines, etc.)

For Grady, the solution to re-appropriating the word innovation for the (supposed) benefit of socially engaged art lies, surprisingly, in ‘old-fashioned art historical formal analysis’, which she argues is ‘one area of innovation which is not necessarily tied to a neoliberal agenda’. Really? The nineteenth-century formalism of the avowed ‘will-to-art’ positivist Alois Riegl? Or perhaps, straddling the centuries, the formalism of ‘father of art history’ (now disavowed by many art historians) Heinrich Wölfflin? Or what about Bloomsbury favourite Roger Fry? Or, the classic left-right formalist proto-neoliberal turncoat, Clement Greenberg? A man who believed modernist art was separate from history, society and politics? Greenberg, promoter of artistic autonomy; of art-for-art’s-sake? To be blunt: formal analysis is a deeply singular form of art historical criticism – a form that discards social, historical and political perspectives; a form entirely at odds with (at least for me) the principles of socially engaged art. Formalism is also an approach that was used to critique older forms of art. As a critical theorist, formalism is positivist, elitist and monolithic. It, for me, has no place in attempting to describe or analyse socially engaged art practice. And formalism can hardly be considered innovative!

Grady expands her rationale by explaining that, for her, formalism asks: ‘What is the form taken by the work, and what are the characteristics of that form? For a painting, you might say it’s color, line, composition, etc…’ She continues: ‘For socially engaged art I would say it [formal analysis] comes closer to the proximity of artists to various kinds of relationships. Who are the partners? To what degree does partnership happen? Who are the co-creators of the work? The participants? The contours of a project’s relationships are the “form” a socially engaged artwork takes, and its aesthetics are predicated on the qualities (and quality) of those relationships.’ I am horrified that Grady should claim formalism could be a potential guiding light for analysing ‘innovative’ socially engaged art. It cannot. Sociological, psychological, anthropological, ethnographic, critical approaches can be useful ways of thinking about socially engaged art, alongside cultural studies, critical theory, etc. But economics, no. Formalism, most certainly not.

So, I propose:

DROP INNOVATION. DROP THE LATEST THING.

ENGAGE, CHALLENGE, CONTEST, DISRUPT, DECONSTRUCT, RECONSTRUCT, FEAR, HOPE, WISH, DREAM – TOGETHER!