Art, theory, practice & politics: Differences, not "one culture". A response to François Matarasso

This blog post follows on from yesterday’s critique of Stella Duffy’s call for action towards the creation of a “new culture”.  It is a response both to François Matarasso’s thoughtful and challenging critique of my blog post and an attempt to answer the people who asked what my basis was for my critique, what my practice was, what alternative perspectives I might have.  I fear this post will prove unsatisfactory to many as I do not claim to offer singular nor even collective solutions that will ever be acceptable to “everyone”.  Nevertheless, here goes…

I am glad you find my thinking and writing interesting and that you disagree with some (perhaps much of it).  Similarly, I always have read and continue to read your blogs.  I find your depth of experience of and writing about a vast expanse of art, culture and policy – from community arts to regeneration, the social value of participating in the arts to the role art may play in developing more engaged citizens - a valuable source of inspiration, although, like you, I disagree with some of it.

You are right, of course, that we have different starting points: artistically, theoretically and politically.  As you are aware, my theoretical approach and my practice – my praxis – is firmly grounded by critical theory and radical art history one the one hand; by contemporary art (particularly the radical avant-garde) and activist (anti-)Art (capital intentional) on the other.  The everyday is a very important concept here, although it is always deeply and intentionally politicised.  Both my research and practice are also enmeshed with psychoanalytic theory – particularly the psychodynamics of D.W. Winnicott, the aesthetic experience of Arnold Berleant and Yuriko Saito, and the humanistic psychoanalysis of Erich Fromm.  I also cannot divorce my praxis from ‘the urban’ and notions of space as socially produced, hence my affinities for Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Peter Marcuse, Neil Smith, et al.  As I’ve mentioned, my praxis is also deeply and intentionally political.  My starting point comes from a commitment to libertarian socialism that acknowledges Marxism (particularly in its New Left guises) as a critically important political theory.  As such, my work cannot but begin with dialectical analysis and a critique of modernity, capitalism and their institutions which extends to globalisation and neoliberalism today.

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (1845) offer some crucial inspiration to my work.  Particularly the following passages, which, I think, are relevant to Stella’s call for change, for a “new culture”:

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.  This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

This, I hope, gives a little background to my practice and research in a way that is both useful to others who’ve asked what my practice and thinking involves and where it stems from as well as to you in better understanding my thinking.

All this said, I return to your criticism of my writing.  First, I would argue that the blog post is not an attack on Fun Palaces nor Stella Duffy.  It is a critique primarily produced via a (limited, I accept) discourse analysis.  Too often today, critique is misinterpreted as attack.  Sometimes, particularly in the arts, this is used as a defence alongside other anti-academic and politically dismissive narratives.  I do not call for Fun Palaces (nor any other form of art or community practice) to cease or to no longer be funded.  I do not deny the role such campaigns and initiatives play within the field of arts and cultural practice.  I wish only to argue that, contrary to your assertion, such campaigns and initiatives are linked to broader, instrumentalising state agendas – social capital, participation, community engagement, civic engagement, place, creativity, etc. – all terms either emanating from the state or appropriated by it.  Fun Palaces, for example, uses all the “right” words at the right time; it engages with the right organisations and discussions and situates itself within them (even if, as you suggest, they are considered “marginal” within the context of said discussions); its first three years were funded by the state (Arts Council England) and it is still funded by other foundations who are clearly aligned closely with state agendas (often irrespective of which political party is in power).  Such initiatives undermine professional arts practice by offering cheaper (volunteer-led) cultural perspectives that attract state and foundation funding for this very reason.

There is nothing wrong with amateur art nor non-organisation-led art and culture at all.  Indeed, as Gregory Sholette suggests, these myriad “dark” forms are and always have been alive and kicking – no matter how hard they’ve been kicked and decried by state and elite Art institutions.  I do not, as I’m sure you’re aware, support organisations and institutions at all – particularly in their present, hierarchical forms that cannot but reproduce exploitation, domination and subservience (whether authoritarian or participatory or otherwise).  I think it is great that people can and do self-organise to produce their own cultures (not one culture).  I also think there is no need to attempt to somehow co-produce a “new culture” (why singular?)  I think infinite cultural acts are already flourishing, everywhere.  I just think some do not see them or do not accept them.  That is why I reject the idea that Fun Palaces is somehow empowering people.  I think people need to empower themselves and I do not see Fun Palaces as adequately addressing this issue and nor do I think it (nor any other campaign or organisation) should.  To feel the need to intervene in society, in communities, in people’s lives is often paternalistic and colonising whether using creativity, fun, authority, military, religion, charity, or whatever else - although state and institutional arts and culture are particularly pernicious.  That is why I contest that my blog offers a rational and intentionally sharp critique of a campaign that seems to be “of the people” but is simply not of the people.  I think, contrary to you François, that Fun Palaces and all the other supposedly marginal cultural campaigns and initiatives are anything but marginal.  Indeed, I argue that they emanate from the centre and hope to colonise the real peripheries within all our cultures with a “new culture” that, whilst hopeful of cultivating civic responsibility, will inevitably reproduce the very thing that Stella (and the rest of the arts establishment of which she, like you and I, are a part) fears most: it will cultivate unrest at the margins; self-organised disobedience against intervention; artistic activism against colonisation and “new culture”.