Do we need ‘another name’ for socially engaged art? Erm, No…

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Eavesdropping, Aidan Moesby, Vinyl wall text, 2014

I’m intensely interested in perceptions of socially engaged art: past, present and future practice and theory. My research and practice is about exploring the roots of this practice, its place in societies, its ability to open up potential spaces on a myriad of levels from social to personal, and its potential to help support a shift towards a communitarian society free from the evils of neoliberalism. I am interested in the praxis of social practice - critical reflection (theory) AND social and collective action towards social transformation (practice). So I think about notions of marginality, play, psychodynamics, critical theory, dialectics, social justice, the commons, transition, critical utopias more. Oh, and of course socially engaged practice, like all forms of art and, increasingly, life, is a breeding ground for terminologies. This leads to dissensus – we do not agree; do not need to agree. Tensions are essential in theory and practice. They drive creativity. But, perhaps unfortunately, we need to describe and define what we have done, what we do and what we hope we will do tomorrow. We cannot escape the strictures of our languages. Words always offer liberation whilst they simultaneously hold us hostage.

So when I read this week that, ‘Socially engaged practice could change the world. But first we need another name to describe something that is part of everyday life.’ I was both sceptical and hopeful. I believe that socially engaged art as a form of living and sharing, as a means not an ends, can or might be able to help reenchant our world and, by actively supporting movements for broader social and cultural change, replace a neoliberal hegemony with a truly democratic and communitarian society. My rallying cry remains: THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO! But I am sceptical of why some people feel the need to attempt to rename any arts practice, or anything else in life for that matter. Words are important BUT they are also just words. Theory is bound by words in a manner that practice transcends.

Leo Burtin’s blog for The Guardian was written in response to a recent Devoted and Disgruntled discussion on socially engaged practice in which a satellite group discussed the question: ‘What’s another name for this goddamn arts practice?!’ A brilliant question. But, again, I wonder why some feel the need to rename the practice? Let’s face it, the name is deeply contested anyway with some seeing no (or little) difference between participatory arts, social practice, dialogic practice, transitional practice, and relational art – this list continues. Even activist art can be seen as a form of socially engaged arts practice – or not. In the end, it doesn’t matter on the one (practice-based) hand, yet is deeply important on the other (theoretical) hand. Somewhere in between sits the ‘arms-length’, bureaucratic body – a terribly contrary, sometimes contradictory place. Let’s face it, we all hate naming what we do, don’t we? When working with people, I NEVER use the words ‘socially engaged’, ‘community’ or even ‘art’ at all… Well, at least until people ask if they are doing art, at which point I often ask them if they think they are doing art and whether that matters. But, unfortunately, funders need to get a grip on what they’re being asked to give money for and need boxing ticking, and academics (like me) need to be able to position the practice in terms of broader theoretical frames. So, sometimes we must label ourselves and our work; sometimes there’s no need. Language, like practice, is always contingent.

When it comes to suggesting that socially engaged art or any form of art or, indeed, any singular practice can succeed in ‘creating community’ because ‘community doesn’t happen on its own’, I feel immediately wary. We must be careful not to become messianic; to believe in socially engaged art with a missionary zeal; to believe art can ‘change the world’ or even make ‘the world a better place’. I agree that socially engaged art practice can help people create a potential space where they may envision ‘radical transformation(s)’ and even support people who wish to make these transformations happen. It is not, for me, a vehicle for change, however. Nor, as I have explained above, do we need to worry about needing to ‘free ourselves from the kind of language which alienates other people’. All language can potentially alienate people whilst communicating shared understandings to others. It’s about choosing a language that responds to each situation, each context – a process that must always be different; always specific. A suggestion via Twitter that we should ‘ditch the definitions’ is, unfortunately, a little too simplistic. I am, however, concerned about claims that ‘it is possible to use art to create the kind of society that works for each and every one of us’. The spectre of soft instrumentalism reappears. I’m not sure we should ‘use art’ for any purpose and it would seem that a society that’s for everyone is a rather fanciful, perhaps, liberal ideal. But then language is always difficult…

To end, I would like to perhaps also query Leo’s suggestion that ‘there is a difference between community arts and socially engaged practice’. In suggesting that ‘community arts demonstrates clear benefits for the participants in a specific community’ whilst ‘socially engaged practice creates its own communities and generates the sort of value that cannot be immediately measured’, I think that Leo has confused the term ‘community art’ (singular; precursor to socially engaged art) with ‘participatory arts’. My research seeks to differentiate ‘participatory arts’ and ‘socially engaged art’ in terms of specificity of intent: the first aims to ‘do’, to ‘take part in’ something (anything); the second ‘to engage in/ with social issues’. Another example of how important language can sometimes be and why we (sometimes) need definitions. Otherwise we might, as Leo perhaps does in his blog, confuse Fun Palaces with socially engaged art practice. We might then begin to ask what would happen to a Fun Palace that ‘grew… into a village, a town, or a city?’ My flippant mind thinks: #FunVillage; #FunTown; #FunCity. Why stop there? #FunWorld?  Ok.  Stop there.

So, I’m sticking with ‘socially engaged art’ (or even ‘social practice’) sometimes; not mentioning any of this other times; and not confusing this practice with ‘participatory arts’ or Fun Palaces. I’m sticking with definitions when needed; ditching the definitions when they’re not needed. Because, for me, we shouldn’t waste time scratching around for a better name for an accepted field of arts practice. We should develop our practice our own way in response to and together with people. Call it whatever you like. Others will always find a label.