Arise street-crack Buddleias–why socially engaged artists must attempt to storm the citadels

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I was invited to attend Storming the Citadels? Changing attitudes and frameworks to arts practices and research in community settings by Sophie Hope. As an admirer of Sophie’s research and a believer in many of the demands made in Owen Kelly’s classic 1984 text Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels, I travelled to Bloomsbury, London as a hopeful participant in an outpouring of revolutionary fervour. I read Slavoj Žižek’s It’s the Political Economy, Stupid! (2013) on the train. I reflected upon my feelings that Jeremy Corbyn might really be a last hope, not just for British (English?) politics but perhaps for art and cultural democracy. This was the first day of my return to research following my paternity leave. Six months of no research. Six months of joyfully privileged time spend with my new son, daughter and wife.

I also re-read Su Braden’s Artists and People (1978) – another classic example of inspiring writing about the community art movement. I pondered on why the privatised East Coast Trains service was a somehow unsatisfying experience when compared to travelling on effectively the same nationalised service not long ago. I was ready to be inspired by finally meeting and hearing from Su Braden as well as a host of other exciting speakers. Would this be the moment when we started talking seriously about tearing down the citadels brick by brick?

I guess my expectations are best described by a couple of Owen Kelly quotes. Firstly, his assertion that we must ‘describe accurately the shapes of the relevant citadels, and to indicate both the importance, and the real possibility, of taking them by storm’ felt as pressing now as it was back in 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 6). Like Kelly, I have a growing sense that, like the community artists, many within the field of participatory arts (perhaps even socially engaged art too) have ceased to think and act like ‘threatening revolutionaries’ in favour of directly and indirectly working for state institutions as ‘primitive guides whose role [is] to lead people through the badlands to the citadels of culture’ (Kelly, 1984, p. 25). Could we, following Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Žižek, find the strength to invest in ‘banks of rage’ in sufficient quantities to bring about our emancipation or would we, like so many other leftist movements, fail to accrue enough ‘rage-capital’ (Žižek, 2013, p. 26)?

When I arrived, I noticed several paintings on the walls bearing the initials ‘VB’. Vanessa Bell? In the Keynes Library at Birkbeck? This was the original haunt of the Bloomsbury group. A place steeped in modernist history. Its grandeur and heritage seemed to jar with any notion of storming citadels. Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps we must be on the inside? Can you storm citadels from the inside, I wondered? The ‘long table’ dinner party style conversation format also seemed a little off-putting; perhaps too polite.

STOP. SCENE SET. MOVE ON.

THIS IS NOT A DETAILED REVIEW.

PAGES OF NOTES.

PARE BACK.

SNIPPETS.

THAT’LL BE ENOUGH.

Ok. So here’s a flavour of what happened during an intensive day storming (or, perhaps, norming). Threads. Leading somewhere. Several directions. Sometimes I felt hopeful; often frustrated; increasingly uncomfortable. More on that later.

Research pairing five ‘community art pioneers’ with five current practitioners suggested an increasingly formalised practice; made safe; less critical; increasingly technical and bureaucratic; less politicised; more focused on target groups with specific identities; more short-term projects; outcomes expected; boxes must be ticked. Perhaps things may not have moved on very much? Community arts may have provided a ‘mouth piece for communities’. THINKS: Not sure.

Participatory work commissioned by large arts institutions and funded by Arts Council England contrasted with a concern that institutions ‘destroy innovation by distilling information’, creating artists as ‘delivery agents’. Much work in the field today seems to be short-term, ‘fast-turnaround’. Common theme: New Labour were responsible. Discomfort at thoughts of large arts organisations competing for funding with small youth work groups. Artist or activist first? Training in conflict resolution? [THINKS: No thanks.] Do we always ‘give funders exactly what they want’ – or are there degrees of subversion?

Instrumentalism (THE ‘I’ word). Great interjection: ‘We were about social change. But now the world seems worse!’ What went wrong? Was GLC funding really open and positive? Could this model work today? As practitioners, we ‘must be more than accessories to gentrification’. Perhaps we need to ‘radically rethink the role of community’. Outreach (THE ‘O’ word) – ‘putting a person (artist) in there’. [THINKS: Is this the participatory arts equivalent to ‘boots on the ground’?] Co-production (A ‘now’ word). Neoliberalism (THE ‘£’ word). Gentrification (again) followed by ‘creating a space’. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was an artist on every street corner?’ [GRIMACES. THEN THINKS: no.]

Another great intervention: ‘We’re tiptoeing round the edges, not storming the citadels!’ New Labour again. No participants here. [NODS HEAD.] Another powerful intervention: ‘services no longer exist and artists are being asked to fill the gaps’. [THINKS: so true - ARTISTS AS SOCIAL WORKERS – no!] ‘I’ve been a foot soldier too many times!’ An honest admission.

Science Fiction. Not knowing. Plural readings. Utopian. Questioning common sense ‘truths’. Metaphysical discussions. ‘Is “The Other” a threat or a good?’ Spaces – should they be risk-free or ‘not very safe’? [THINKS: we missed out by not exploring literary parallels in more detail here.]

Bold statements: ‘I don’t see myself as collaborative, participatory and certainly don’t see myself as a community artist’; and ‘What happens when I impose myself on a situation - to be the delivery agent?’ Honest. Powerful descriptions of an artist’s recent practice.

Community art: ‘We knew there was no… pay packet’; but ‘We did storm the citadels’; then ‘Some of us became local councillors’. [THINKS: Wow. Expectation turned upside down.] Dandelions and Roses. The second reference. ‘We toured the country. We weren’t staying.’ Community arts as transient act. At last, ‘Mural, mural or mural?’ Practice as stereotype. Honesty: ‘It was difficult to do anything other than celebrating’. Moment of awakening: ‘Someone said, “When are you going to stop gilding the ghettos?” I was devastated… So we rebelled.’ Association of Community Artists – no one took them seriously. Community arts ‘wasn’t a very big movement’, just ‘a few people making… a lot of noise’. [THINKS: great to hear this historical perspective.] Tory Enterprise Allowance offered community artists a little regular income to make work!

Commissioning ‘social art’ practices today: often artist-led; professionalization; artist as entrepreneur; artist as ‘service provider’; socially engaged art as departure from community art; socially engaged art ‘not a movement’; ‘shared methods – different rationales’. Owen Kelly’s called for ‘smaller haciendas’ (author of Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels (1984)) – ideas apparently ‘not transferable today’. [THINKS: I’m not so sure.] ‘We should distinguish between art and activism’. [THINKS: can we and why?] Question: Should commissioning (of socially engaged art) continue? Answer: Move away from commissioning. [THINKS: seems a bit over simplistic.]

Su Braden: Paris 1968; eccentric private donors and exchange economies; went to Africa; film company; Department for Overseas Development; Action Aid. [EPIPHANY.]

‘We need to work with government.’ [OPENLY DISAGREE.] We ended with my favourite quote from the day: as socially engaged artists we must be ‘violently intellectual’.

OK. SO HERE’S HOW MY MIND INTERPRETTED ALL OF THESE CONVERSATIONS.

Artists and people start out with good intentions – perhaps radical, democratic, autonomous, and even emancipatory.

SLIP.

They attempt to subvert instrumentalism – Trojan Horses, parasites, Robin Hood.

SLIP.

They (perhaps intentionally, perhaps inadvertently) become increasingly complicit with instrumentalism.

SLIP.

They join the status quo – regeneration, institutions, overseas development.

They (sometimes) leave the ‘narrow’ (a quote) field of the arts.

THIS SEEMED TO BE A FAMILIAR PATTERN. A PULL TOWARDS THE CITADELS; FROM MARGINS TO CENTRE. THIS IS NOT, PERHAPS, SOMETHING PARTICULARLY UNIQUE TO THE ARTS.

Perhaps, then, we begin believing we must storm the citadels – to ‘tear them down brick by brick’ so we can build ‘a series of smaller haciendas’, chanting NO MORE CITADELS (Kelly, 1984, p. 138).

Can we avoid this (perhaps inevitable) slide? I’m not sure. This is a work in progress.

I STILL HAVE HOPE.

Things are changing. Neoliberalism is weak. It has been exposed. The art world status quo likewise. Some in the arts say we should move towards economics. It drives all policy at the moment. Comply to survive. I suggest that this is an incredibly short-term way of thinking and doing – defeatist even. We can invest in our cultural bank of rage; combine it with the incredible investments of other movements for social justice and political change. We must define art’s citadels – new and old. The walls are crumbling but THEY are using the debris, OUR debris, to strengthen their defences.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR POLITENESS.

We must realise, following Žižek’s reinterpretation of Hegel, that: ‘WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR’ (Žižek, 2013, p. 27). Act now. Learn from the past. Believe in the commons.

WE ARE ALL EXCLUDED.

This is not for everyone. But then neither is socially engaged art.

citadel

 

REFERENCES:

Kelly, O., 1984. Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels. London: Comedia.

Žižek, S., 2013. It's the Political Economy, Stupid!. In: G. Sholette & O. Ressler, eds. It's the Political Economy, Stupid: The Global Financial Crisis in Art and Theory. London: Pluto Press.