Carry on regardless: A response to "Rethinking Relationships" - a new report about the #civicrolearts

Two new reports were recently released about how the arts and creativity might engage with society and communities in more meaningful ways.  The first was Rethinking Relationships – an enquiry into the civic role of arts organisations commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; the second was Towards cultural democracy, commissioned by Kings College London.  Both reveal, for me, different and yet loosely interrelated attempts to find new ways to advocate for the arts or “everyday creativity”.  This is the first of two blog posts in which I begin to critically examine the reports.  The focus here is on Rethinking Relationships.

(If you're interested in the blog title, it's inspired by the Beautiful South song Good as Gold (Stupid as Mud), 1994.  Watch, listen and read the lyrics at the end of this blog post...)

The Dance Leeds, 2015

The Dance Leeds, 2015

Rethinking Relationships: Phase One of the Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations is the culmination of research that began in May 2016.  You can read the full report here or the executive summary here.  It is, for me, the most obvious attempt to advocate for the arts as a core part of civic life – whatever that means.  Specifically, this is a report about the civic role of art organisations.  The report involved Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) working with the Institute of Cultural Capital (ICC), What Next? (WN) and the RSA.  The advisory panel is impressive, containing not only art world stalwarts but also philanthropists and bankers.  I must admit to having participated in one of the discussion groups during this enquiry.  I called for the arts to be disobedient – to be “uncivic”.

I do not intend to dissect the report.  Rather I will examine its key principles and assertions.  Suffice to say that I do not find it to be particularly inspiring, nor is it radical.  For me, the report would be better titled “Reinforcing Existing Relationships: Arts Organisations Desperately Try to Claim They Care About Society”.  The report is littered with all the usual arts/business speak.  Take, for example, page 7.  It talks about “Supporting the development of practice” – arts organisations playing “a ‘connector’ role, in partnerships with social and commercial sector partners and public authorities” (This is code for art as a mediator of neoliberalism); about “Capacity building” and toolkits and guidance “for the boards of arts organisations to support them in considering what a civic role might mean for their organisations” (Don’t they know?  Shouldn’t they know?); “Funding” – “application, evaluation and accountability” – funding as an “ecology” (How can funding be considered as part of an ecology?); and “Public policy” – or “potential levers for making a difference” (More leverage for arts organisations as important pillars of public policy then?  Not particularly innovative.  More advocacy.  Yet more arts advocacy.)  Page 10 makes this clear, stating that the aim here is “to encourage, support and promote the civic role of arts organisations in order to secure a better future”.  A better future for whom?  For everybody or just for arts organisations?  What will this “better future” entail?  What will it look like?  Phrases like this are not only vacuous but also reminiscent of authoritarianism.

The report asserts that “We believe that arts organisations have a power that other organisations with missions to achieve social change do not” – apparently because they “draw out the best in us, to engender hope, to prompt empathy, to encourage kindness, to create safe, neutral places for the discussion of tricky issues and to inspire us to mobilise to create positive change” (p. 11).  It is clearly ludicrous to attempt to elevate arts organisations (or art for that matter) above all else as the primary driver of social change.  Mind you, social change is a broad field.  Social justice is very different.  What is “the best in us”?  Who defines it?  Do arts organisations really create “safe” places?  Are they really “neutral”?  Is anything neutral?  These questions do not matter to the writers of this report.  Rather they are focused on helping “arts organisations ‘future proof’” themselves (p. 12).  Isn’t this protectionism for existing arts organisations?

Yet the very notion of “civic role” is not particularly well recognised and notions of “the civic” are contested, as the report acknowledges on page 14.  Nonetheless, the report writers decided to press on with the term anyway.  The civic role of arts organisations is, according to this report, vital to “the importance of place and placemaking”.  Placemaking rears its homogenous head again!  The civic role of arts organisations is also, apparently, “associated with ‘civic virtues’”, with the “great Victorian philanthropists and pioneers who sought to make the arts available to all”, and the civic role engenders an “active engagement in democratic processes” (p. 19).  This section of the report reads like a paean to Matthew Arnold – it is deeply conservative.

What does this civic role of arts organisations look like?  Well, for Mary Cloake from the Bluecoat, it means this: “We allow people to buy their sandwiches in Tesco and sit in our garden … as a counterweight to huge swathes of the city where it’s no longer possible to just be yourself, because they’re owned or controlled by commercial interests” (p. 14).  How nice of the Bluecoat to “allow” people to buy their food in Tesco (why just Tesco?) and then permit them to consume them in the garden.  How very kind.  How very permissive.  How very civic-minded.  How very patronising!

Paraphrasing a quote by François Matarasso, the report argues that because art “allows us to come to our own view”, it can be considered as “the opposite of propaganda” (p. 21).  But can we seriously believe that art is really the opposite of propaganda or, rather, in this context, is it merely offering another depoliticising, individualistic form of neoliberal propaganda aligned with state ideology – with conservative ideology?  Furthermore, the civic role of arts organisations is defined in Rethinking Relationships in terms of “organisational mission and strategy” and “organisational values, governance and leadership” (p. 21).  Is this rethinking relationships?  I argue not.  Rather, this is restating hierarchies, reinforcing the status quo.  Is the civic role about reinforcing norms?  I would suggest that it often is and that this is exactly the emphasis in this report.

The ways in which arts organisations animate, enhance and enable processes by which people exercise their rights and responsibilities as members of communities (p. 22).

This is the “definition” Rethinking Relationships proposes.  Isn’t this deeply individualistic?  Isn’t this entirely depoliticised?  This enables the report to claim that arts organisations that understand their civic role can “Build social capital”, alongside “Capability” and a whole host of other fabulously orthodox neoliberal characteristics.

But my favourite part of the report (I’m being sarcastic) is its proposed “metaphors” which “attempt to convey the creativity integral to arts organisations and their ability to help us imagine and create more positive futures” (p. 24).  What are these symbols, these signposts to “more positive futures”?  Arts organisations become “colleges”, “town halls”, “parks”, “temples”, and “home” (pp. 24-25).  This is all getting rather dark.  My research around artwashing, social capital and spurious notions of civic duty and placemaking has documented many, many occasions in which arts organisations have claimed to be colleges, town halls, parks, temples and homes.  Not only that, but I have witnessed and continue to witness state-sanctioned “take-overs” of colleges, town halls, libraries, council homes, etc. by arts organisations.  These “metaphors” are therefore not only sanctimonious but also potentially deeply offensive.

Then up pops John Ruskin (p. 27).  First Matthew Arnold, now the veneration of Ruskin!  (The influence of the ghost of Grizedale Arts past and present looms large throughout this report.)  Like Arnold, Ruskin was a founder of conservativism (see, for example, this article entitled The cradle of conservativism).

Things start to unfold when Battersea Arts Centre’s David Jubb claims the organisation must “truly reflect the local community, as it did in the 1980s” (p. 28).  Battersea Arts Centre is, of course, currently working with luxury property developers at the Battersea Power Station’s Circus West Village.  This is not reflecting the local community.  This is artwashing gentrification.  Is this what the civic role of arts organisations really about? Artwashing gentrification, legitimising social cleansing and reinforcing social division?  Is this what “the civic” looks like in the twenty-first century?  Is this any different to Victorian conservativism?

Citing another state-led initiative, Creative People and Places (CPP), as an example of good practice, Rethinking Relationships goes on to propose that “the arts can make particular areas better places to live, for example, by building social capital and contributing to community cohesion (p. 30).  Next come the by now ubiquitous references to Fun Palaces and BBC Get Creative and to the slippery notion of everyday creativity (p. 31).  These initiatives appear in Towards Cultural Democracy, the other report which will be discussed in my next blog post.

The report then (and again this links to my next blog post) starts making claims around a shift from the democratisation of culture to cultural democracy (p. 57).  However, the examples of “cultural democracy” given do not reflect cultural democracy as a radical shift in power dynamics.  Referencing placemaking again, the report then claims that art’s role in placemaking is not about “the arts as a means of economic regeneration” and that art can improve “‘liveability’ and [build] social capital” (p. 59).  This section glosses over the complicit and deeply layered relationships that art and arts organisations in particular have with property developers, gentrification and social cleansing.  It goes on to mention CPP and Artplace (USA) as examples of successful “Place-based initiatives in arts and culture” (p. 62).  Whilst a few CPP projects can be linked with gentrification, the public-private initiative Artplace is, I argue, frequently involved (directly and indirectly) with gentrification and artwashing.

I argue that Rethinking Relationships hides hierarchy and self-entitlement behind happy, clappy images and artworld buzzwords.  This is arts advocacy, conservative style.  It harks back to bygone Victorian idylls whilst looking forward to “positive futures”.  Its tool is to make arts organisations play more of a role in “civic” life, as if this is a good thing.  The report cannot adequately define the civic and instead couches the role arts organisations might (although I argue that they already do) play in this nostalgic, romantically authoritarian notion of the civic in the metaphorical spaces of temples and homes and parks and colleges and town halls.  This is, for me, not only deceitful but also potentially manipulative.  Rethinking Relationships reinforces old, conservative norms and the long-established status quo.  It cements art’s position as a normative tool capable of pacifying people with moralising and self-entitlement.

No change here then.

Carry on as normal.

Everything and everyone must be civic nowadays.

 

The Beautiful South, Good as Gold (Stupid as Mud), 1994

Good As Gold (Stupid As Mud)

The Beautiful South

Don't know what I'm doing here
I'll carry on regardless
Got enough money for one more beer
I'll carry on regardless

Good as gold, but stupid as mud
He'll carry on regardless
They'll bleed his heart 'til there's no more blood
But carry on regardless

Carry on with laugh
Carry on with cry
Carry on with brown under moonlit sky

I want my love, my joy, my laugh, my smile, my needs
Not in the star signs
Or the palm that she reads
I want my sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss
Not in the next life
I want it in this
I want it in this

Got one note to last all week
I'll carry on regardless
The hill to happiness is far too steep
I'll carry on regardless

Dried his mouth in the Memphis sun
He carried on regardless
Tried to smile and he bit his tongue
But carry on regardless

Carry on with work
Carry on with love
Carry on with cheering
Anything above

I want my love, my joy, my laugh, my smile, my needs
Not in the star signs
Or the palm that she reads
I want my sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss
Not in the next life
I'll have it in this
I'll have it in this

I don't want silver, I just want gold
Carry on regardless
Bronze is for the sick and the old
But carry on regardless

I want my love, my joy, my laugh, my smile, my needs
Not in the star signs
Or the palm that she reads
I want my sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss
Not in the next life
I'll have it in this
I'll have it in this

Written by Dave Rotheray, Paul Heaton • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group