This article was first published in print in Sluice Magazine and then on their website in 2017. I've decided to publish it on my website because I hope its content still resonates in 2018. It addresses issues of instrumentalism in the arts, artwashing, living creatively and cultural democracy. As I wrote in 2017, I believe "it is still possible to conceive of art as part of living creatively, as part of everyday life, as local cultural democracy, as artistic autonomy." It's time to talk about how...Read More
I was invited to talk about The New Rules Of Public Art at The Stove's Parking Space event on Friday. Stayed around for some of Saturday too... Amazing people. Great atmosphere and spirit. Nice art, films and participation. All in a disused but still open NCP multistorey car park in the heart of the Scottish town of Dumfries...
Thank you for inviting me!
Yesterday, 9th September 2014, I attended Pilots to Practice at BALTIC – a ArtWorks North East conference about participatory arts. I presented a PechaKucha entitled above ground level: old as new, new as old – social practice in a post-industrial port (see my previous post below for the presentation). I also wrote a review of an ArtWorks publication about research into participatory artists’ practice for the #culturalvalue initiative. I was a bit critical in the review. I was (apparently) ‘provocative’ in my presentation. This is my reflection about the day. (Reflection is, it would appear, very big in participatory arts right now…)
I’m just going to be brief. My aim here is to attempt to scratch a niggling itch that developed at this conference. I’ve felt it before. It does not go away. I think it is, in fact, growing…
The itch results from the appropriation of ‘participatory art’ and ‘participation’ by everyone for everything in which people are in some way involved in art. There is nothing wrong with this. People can call what they do whatever they want. Most of the discussions here were about ‘loosely’ participatory, often artist or organisation-led, forms of participatory practice. There were some nice examples of ‘community art’ used for obliquely political purposes and of anger at the system. There was a good breakout session that briefly but effectively introduced ‘dialogic practice’. I tried to be honest and differentiate forms of social practice. People seemed to like it. It stimulated a brief discussion about the de-politicisation of socially engaged or community arts practice, which was interesting. But, nonetheless, the itch crept and crawled around me…
I think the scratchy itch is a product of artists who think social practice is about leading people, pied piper-like, into doing art their way, to their, sometimes seemingly narcissistic agendas; audience members having sudden epiphanies (echoed by the chair’s closing sermon, complete with mock-amens and ironic hallelujahs!); neutral research about the importance for space for artist reflection; a proposed participatory artist network called PALS; over-invested long-term project members hoping for further funding. I won’t go on. Scratch. Scratch.
Don’t get me wrong. Events like this (and there are many like this) are fascinating. Stirring me to do my practice differently. Fascinating for my research. Initiatives like ArtWorks are, of course, useful. They won’t change the (arts) world. They can’t. There are too many vested interests; too many believers. My family were (are) evangelists. I can spot preachers a mile away. I know ‘preaching to the converted’ when I see it.
My problem is that the preaching is (unlike that of my Grandmother) weak and bland. Not radical. Not potentially emancipatory. Blurry. Fuzzy. Safe. Not a paradigm-shift. Perhaps subtle elitism? Rebuilding the ramparts of an old status-quo. Be honest. This will not change the world.
When’s the next one?
This is a reblog of a post I wrote for #culturalvalue initiative which was first published on 2nd September 2014.
This was Eleonora Belfiore’s introduction…
Our regular contributor Stephen Pritchard has kindly agreed to review for The #culturalvalue initiative ‘Evaluation Survey of Artists’, a recent report by ArtWorks, one of the Paul Hamlyn’s Foundation’s Special Initiatives. The Foundation clearly has great ambitions for this project, whose web page states boldly: ‘This Special Initiative is an important intervention that will cause a paradigm shift in the way participatory work is viewed’. The report, and indeed Stephen’s post are therefore focused on the value that is attributed (or, as the case might be is not) to artistic practice that is participatory in nature and focused on fostering personal and social change, and – consequently – on the value that is attached to those artists who focus on this type of work. Because of the legacy of New Labour’s focus on the arts as a means to help deliver on socio-economic agendas, the question of the value of participatory art work with communities is often charged with accusations of ‘instrumentalism’, and the fear (that Stephen shares) is then that the artists might become hired hands charged with the delivery of soft social engineering and the kind of faux-radical type of community engagement that ensures that the fabric of society and the relations of power that govern it remain unchanged. Yet, the most interesting fact to emerge from the data in the ArtsWork report is, in my view, the sense that it is not just policy makers and funders who might fail to appreciate the value participatory arts (a complaint that is almost as old as this form of creative practice itself), but that other creative professionals in other corners of the cultural ecosystem might share in that lack of recognition and appreciation for participatory arts: struggles over cultural value, status and recognition of professional practice clearly are not limited to the arena of the competition for resources but extend to struggles over cultural authority and value amongst creative practitioners themselves.
This is my post…
Paul Hamlyn Foundation created the special initiative, ArtWorks: Developing Practice in Participatory Settings, in 2010 to ‘support the continuing professional development of artists’ (Paul Hamlyn Foundation, 2014). A ‘workforce scheme’, the project is funded and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Creativity Culture & Education (supported by Arts Council England) and the Cultural Leadership Programme (ibid.). In the words of PHF, this ‘important intervention’ is designed to ‘cause a paradigm shift in the way participatory work is viewed’, producing ‘enhanced quality and deeper understanding of what is required from artists in generating successful participatory projects’ (ibid). There are five ArtWorks Pathfinders, each with a differently focused action research project. The initiative ends in 2015. In June 2014, the foundation published ArtWorks Evaluation Survey of Artists, the first of several reports emanating from their extensive ‘conversation’ with and about participatory arts.
This post looks at how elements of the report relate to both my socially engaged practice as well as my current doctoral research project. I’ve followed the ArtWorks initiative with interest since it started. I attended their Changing the Conversation conference in 2013, thanks to a bursary from them. Several of their previous reports and provocations are referenced in my doctoral research literature review. I’m presenting, PechaKucha-style, at the ArtWorks North East Conference entitled, Pilots to Practice – learning approaches for artists working in participatory settings at BALTIC in September 2014. I took part in this research. Why mention all this? Well, I thought I should put my cards on the table. The cards say: Be critical; take part. Why am I critical? The field of social practice/ community arts/ participatory arts/ etc. is a broad church. Today, artists producing children’s workshops for major institutions form one node, radical activists another. There are many nodes in the field. For some people in the art world, much, if not all, of social practice is not art. I like tension and dissensus. Social practice offers plenty. This is good. I like DIY (or more precisely, Do It With Others); the commons; alternative forms of democratic society. Some elements of social practice produce these things and more in abundance. But much of the field is driven by instrumentalism, agendas designed to use ‘participatory art’ as a tool of soft state power and a means of obtaining increased government funding by ticking ‘engaging new audiences/ publics’ boxes – participatory art as a panacea for all life’s ills. This is neoliberal social change – not social justice. This is about maintaining, evening deepening, elitism and age-old institutional status quos within the arts – not a paradigm-shift.
Anyway, the report is detailed and interesting and has received a reasonable amount of attention in the arts media, so it’s worth digging into some of the discourse around the data. Having read the report, four questions sprung to mind:
How has the report been portrayed by PHF, the media and on social media?
What does it actually say about artists working in participatory settings?
What does this report mean for those working in the field of social practice?
The research was conducted over a short period early in 2014 and had a reasonably large core sample size of 868 respondents. The questionnaire was thorough and the data is undoubtedly well presented. I recommend that anyone interested in finding out more about the breadth of artists working in the field in the UK at present take a look at the report. It makes for fascinating reading which, for a practitioner working in the field, like me, feels very familiar. But what about my questions?
As I mentioned, there have been several responses to the report for other institutions. For example arts in criminal justice settings organisation, Arts Alliance, focused on the report’s findings that socially engaged artists often felt their work was undervalued and misunderstood within the arts, often received informal training and worked in ways that, and with commissioners who, regularly ignored standards and codes of practice. They pointed out that only one percent of socially engaged artists worked within criminal justice. Arts Professional’s headline was that socially engaged art is undervalued, accompanied by the rather strange (given the data) that ‘Artists urge employers and commissioners to invest more in their professional development’. Their report did not actually discuss the claim made in the strapline in particular detail, however. Social media, especially Twitter, responded (in general) very positively to the publication of ArtWorks’ report.
PHF in their July 2014 Briefing reported many of the headline statistics from their report and included a comment by ArtWorks Project Director, Dr Susanne Burns. In her comment, Burns pointed out that almost half of the survey respondents earned more than half their income from socially engaged practice, describing the practice as ‘a significant area of work generating major economic value for artists’. Much of her commentary centred on the need for better training, CPD, space for reflection, investment, etc. Her conclusion is worth quoting at length:
Work in participatory settings is valid practice in its own right. It constitutes a major element of many artists’ portfolios and affects the lives of many people across many areas of life. The status of the work must be raised. We must work together to ensure that its economic contribution, as well as its social value, is recognised and that the artists who undertake this work are supported to be the best they can be at all stages of their careers.
There is little to argue with here. Social practice is a major part of many artists’ creative activities and, increasingly, an essential way of earning a living whilst not getting paid anything/ enough when exhibiting their work. This is an area I believe that A-N’s #PayingArtists campaign needs to urgently address. The motives for some artists currently working within ‘participatory settings’ and the intentions behind instrumentalist projects such as Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places may, perhaps, be suspect on occasions – this is, however, another discussion for another day. The data quite clearly shows that socially engaged artists feel undervalued. This is unsurprising, given that the field is often belittled by many in the elite arts establishment. The data illustrates how artists feel that they are not understood by commissioners, nor given enough time to plan properly, nor listened to/ involved enough. For me, this relates to many personal experiences in which commissioners do not really know what you do, why you are doing it or what they really want to achieve from the commission. They are more interested in targets, outcomes, numbers, boxes ticked and nice photographs for their websites. This is not their fault. This is symptomatic of an evaluation-based culture seeking to provide instrumental results rather than participant experience.
The question of developing courses and degrees and career development opportunities for future socially engaged artists and CPD, standards of practice and formal qualifications for existing practitioners is, for me, something I’m rather sceptical of. I believe that constantly reflective and reflexive individual practice, married with ‘being the right type of person’ to work in the field, and a person-centred, organic, non-expert approach to learning from people is essential. I don’t believe this can be taught. Nonetheless, I fully understand why initiatives such as this and FE providers are keen to exploit the field as a potential source of new earnings and funding. Attempts to standardise or certify socially engaged artists or to produce ‘toolkits’ will, for me, always be likely to fail; always represent creeping instrumentalism.
So, my overall feeling about ArtWorks Evaluation Survey of Artists is that it contains excellent data that doesn’t indicate a great demand for the field to be formalised or institutionalised but rather stimulates further debate about examining and mapping the field in much greater detail and exposing the multitude of individual practices both working with and against the state in its insidious drive to promote ‘participation for all’. At present, socially engaged art is not recognised by Arts Council England or many other major institutions. It has a long history and is often inherently interdisciplinary – not ‘just art’. Many artists work in the field; many collectives, cooperatives, even constituted organisations, exist for socially engaged art; even (‘non-artist’) activists make socially engaged art. My feeling is that social practice should be recognised as a valid, varied and independent mode of art-making that should be recognised by ACE and others as separate from other art forms – not classified as part of a generic ‘Cross-art form’ category. This does not mean the field should be institutionalised or professionalised. Much of it already is…
This book offers a much more progressive approach to thinking about and learning about social practice…
Stephen Pritchard is an art historian, participatory arts maker, curator and writer with a background in critical literary studies. He has previously worked in textiles design and manufacture, international business management, quality systems design, and the contemporary arts. He describes himself as a participatory arts evangelist who’s made many a pact with many devil and that is what he likes – but this is probably not true. He’s toying with the idea of redefining himself as a gamekeeper-turned-poacher but this will more than likely come to nothing. His favourite number is zero.
Stephen is currently also executive director of participatory arts social enterprise dot to dot active arts CIC and is also just beginning the first year of his AHRC funded research doctorate entitled: Can participatory arts support sustainable social change? He is also working as a curator for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s Healing Arts initiative and is helping train recent graduates in curating exhibitions as part of a new initiative with Whistle Stop Arts. He has just finished a major participatory arts project in empty shops in Blyth, Northumberland called Old-New Curiosity Shop.
This blog post is explores elements of my doctoral research exploring the question of whether participatory art can support sustainable social change. It’s taken from some of the writing in the introduction to my second draft literature review…
Click the image above to see a database of more than 350 socially engaged arts projects.
Participatory art is said by many to be a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained. It also leads to an expanded field in which participatory art may be increasingly separate from social practice. (This is a BIG question which I will discuss in later posts.)
My starting point here is Creative Time’s Chief Curator and important influencer of US social practice, Nato Thompson’s declaration in Living as Form that socially engaged art ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19). But does this statement really reflect the history of this field of practice? If socially engaged art is, as Thompson claims, ‘growing’, in what ways, and to what and whose agendas? Is it really ‘ubiquitous’? Many practitioners in the field may well think otherwise. My literature review attempts to unpick chronologically, from the early 1980s onwards, whether socially engaged art is now virtually omnipresent within today’s art world as Thompson suggests.
The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by policy-makers, critics, academics and large arts institutions. Artists, art workers and smaller collectives and organisations are often disenfranchised and, perhaps as a result, disinterested by attempts to investigate, document, define, regulate and even contest the field.
Researching the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. How does socially engaged art interface with and and reflect upon other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography? Can a further ‘expanded field’ that encompasses critical theory, participatory action research, notions of the carnivalesque, post-development theory, permaculture, and more, lead to fruitful routes to new insights about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change?
All of this is important for social practice. It can help to positively (re)define social practice – perhaps raise it’s profile in the arts. It can also provide a mechanism for those wishing to regulate and professionalise the practice. Research can also help maintain, even expand, independent practice, activism and radicalism – forming new ways for individual practitioners to work together to resist attempts to institutionalise the field (or certain elements within the ‘expanded field’). Nonetheless, research (mine very much included) can exclude the very artists, practitioners, workers and small/ embryonic organisations that form the heart of the field of social practice. It can also exclude participants and audiences. This is something I am keen to try to address. I do not really know how to avoid exclusion but I think I know exclusion when I see it…
This is the second post about my work around developing my PhD research methodology. It is about trying to develop a critical theory from past and current theoretical perspectives that might apply to our present twenty-first century arts arts and cultural milieu, dominated as it undeniably is by neoliberalism, conservatism and state instrumentalism. This is a first draft that attempts to marry conflicting yet complementary aspects of critical theories that may be able to be developed during my research and may be explored in relation to my working hypothesis discussed in my last post. It is therefore, perhaps, worthwhile to reiterate my working hypothesis below before moving on to discussing the theoretical approaches in more detail…
It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:
Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and antagonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.
As mentioned previously, this research is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School. The research blends several key theoretical perspectives, so it essential that they are discussed in terms of how they form an interrelated theoretical position that is relevant to this research. This was first attempted in a presentation entitled social practice/ critical thinking at an AHRC conference at the University of Sunderland on 24th June 2014. Following the same format as this presentation, it is worth describing that the research is underpinned by a loose interpretation of critical theory that, whilst not fully accepting of every aspect of the philosophies of The Frankfurt School, Habermas or postmodernism, does not necessarily dismiss any or all of their contentions either.
The research takes as starting points the following key tenets of critical theory: the belief that our current socio-political life is dominated by a neoliberal democracy that is both a ‘total administration’ (Adorno) and ‘one-dimensional’ (Marcuse); the conflation of diverse forms of arts and culture into a ‘culture industry’ is ‘enlightenment by mass deception’ (Horkheimer and Adorno); a deep mistrust of ‘instrumental rationality’ (Marcuse); and an eagerness to embrace and develop interdisciplinary research and practice in relation to critical theory (Horkheimer and Marcuse). These principles of critical theory can be reimagined and exploded by situating these elements of critical theory within the concept of metamodernism which posits that, contrary to the predictions of many postmodernist thinkers, history hasn’t ended, nor has the modernist drive to create a neoliberal monoculture succeeded (Vermeulen and Akker). It is, in essence, a critical perspective that oscillates, in constant tension, between modernism and/ nor postmodernism. As such, metamodernism can be considered to derive from competing notions of revolving around the possibility of a post-historical condition – an area richly debated by post-Marxists, poststructuralists, feminists, cultural theorists, sociologists, psychologists, etc. such as Hardt & Negri, Žižek, Mouffe, Braidotti, Sloterdijk, Gauntlett, Sonderegger, Power, Laclau, Badiou, Rancière, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guatarri, etc. The cultural theorist Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker, described the metamodern as an attempt to reconstruct history; an opportunity to ‘reconceptualise the present and re-imagine the future by (re-)connecting the dots between previously deconstructed points of view’ (Vermeulen, 2011). His article in Frieze postulated three key philosophical ‘returns’ as central to future debates around reconstructing history: grand narratives – problematic allegorical possibilities of tomorrows in societies today from which conclusions can never be drawn and endings never reached; sceptical optimism – grounded in the modernist desire to find sense and meaning and/ nor the postmodernist mistrust of claims to have found sense and meaning; and affect – empathic sensibilities that, through deconstruction and reconstruction, may offer idealistic alternative ways of living that can never be fully understood or achieved (ibid.).
A third theoretical position for this research lies in the work of political theorist Chantal Mouffe, particularly her ideas about activism, antagonism & aesthetic resistance and their relationships to artistic practice. In her 2007 article Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces, she writes fervently in support of engagement with institutions as a means of challenging neoliberal consensus via artistic activism as a counter-hegemonic practice that might disarticulate the dominant hegemony (Mouffe, 2007). Expanding upon this position in Strategies of radical politics and aesthetic resistance in 2012, Mouffe proposes that critical arts practices can enable the creation of agonistic spaces capable encouraging dissent and challenging the ‘dominant consensus’ – the aesthetic as a mode of political activism which may, only as part of a series of broader political moments, help create a new hegemonic order (Mouffe, 2012). The fourth theoretical perspective at the base of this research is that of philosopher Jacques Rancière, particularly his aesthetic theory, and his insistence that notions of the modern and postmodern, art as autonomous, and the avant-garde should be ‘shredded’ (Berrebi, 2008). He observed a tension between ‘art as art’ and art blurring into other activities and forms of living, and concluded that it was too crude to oppose ‘autonomous art’ with ‘engaged art’ (ibid.). Rather, he posited the notion of the ‘politics of the aesthetics’ – two politics always in constant tension with each other: first, the form of aesthetics which is so similar to other experiences that it ‘tends to dissolve into other forms of life’; and second, a ‘resistant form’ in which ‘the political potential of the aesthetic experience derives from the separation of art from other forms of activity and its resistance to any transformation into a form of life’ (ibid.). His contention is that ‘critical art’ maintains a perpetual tension between the legible and illegible, the everyday and radically strange (ibid.). This tension can be perceived as a form of mediation between art and the individual/ society in the sense that, as art mediates relationally to itself, it also creates an essential ‘mediation of another’ (Ranciere, 2009, p. 131).
There are many other theoretical elements to this research - concepts inherently connected to the other four theoretical perspectives discussed above. For this reason, three more schools of thought are briefly mentioned here but are discussed in more detail in the literature review. They form a second tier of theoretic bases underpinning this research. Firstly, absurdism – a concept closely related to the existentialism of Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, Becket, etc. and founded upon an understanding that humanity is continually at conflict with the desire to find inherent value and meaning, and an inability to ever be able to attain it. Secondly, the carnivalesque – a revisiting of popular medieval culture by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as a means of illustrating how elitist modernist notions of autonomous art shed not only function but also popularism. For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque represents an always incomplete place of opposites in constant opposition, where all are equal; a celebration of and ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order… [marking] the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions’ (Bakhtin, 1984 , p. 7). Thirdly, the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott surrounding his concepts of ‘playing and reality’ and ‘potential space’ (Winnicott, 1999 ). Winnicott proposed that the ‘potential space’, existing between living and the environment, between inner and external realities, could create boundaries within which creativity and cultural experience could develop, facilitating personal development and a sense of a life worth living. He contrasted this place of possibilities with the negative effects of compliance with overbearing state instrumentalism.
Finally, it is important to recognise the many other third tier theoretical approaches and thinkers that influence this research, although, as above, it is impossible to expand upon their individual positions here. They are referenced at appropriate points throughout this thesis, particularly in the case studies and in the subsequent analyses and conclusions. Key poststructuralist, Marxist, Post-Marxist, cultural and critical intellectuals also influencing this research include Felix Guatarri and Giles Deleuze, Douglas Kellner, Hans Georg Gadamer, Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, Paulo Freire, and Frederic Jameson. The other three main theoretical approaches are particularly important in relation to investigating the case study organisations and testing the working hypothesis. They are critical pedagogy, participatory action research and post-development theory.
To conclude, it is important to attempt to try and situate this discussion about the various conflicting but not incompatible theoretical perspectives within the broader context of the relevance of critical theory in the complexities of our twenty-first century (almost) monoculture. Critical theory is founded upon the critique of positivism and interpretative approaches but it is not negative nor is it antiscientific; it can be conceived of as an alternative research programme (Morrow & Brown, 1994, pp. 142-143). Drawing on the ‘three analytic moments’ described by Raymond Morrow and David Brown, this research explores various approaches and ideas surrounding the investigation of the intersection of ‘social and system integration’ and the ‘mediations’ (ibid., p.221) as proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Search for a Method (Sartre, 1963) that ‘bridges the social psychological analysis of individual actors… and the macrostructural analysis of social systems’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, pp. 221-222). Indeed, the eclectic range of methodologies (spanning the interpretive social sciences and empirical sciences) which critical theory employs offers an approach that may be considered to be ‘in principle much more open and innovative than empiricist social science’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, p. 227). In a world dominated by a resurrected yet waning form of neoliberal totality in which the last vestiges of modernity vie with a postmodernism that has not led to a fractured end, it is critical theory that, perhaps, once again, offers the possibility of imagining alternative ways of being – ‘a theory of the necessity of overcoming distorted communication as part of an endless process of collective learning’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, p. 320). This research is oriented towards exploring the possibilities of the social practice of art as well as factors that may impede its development and that of society as a whole: part of the ‘theoretical construction of the social process’ proposed by Herbert Marcuse that necessitates ‘the critique of current conditions and the analysis of their tendencies’ and an orientation towards those possible in future (Marcuse, 2009 , p. 107). The potential here is for a critical theory that mediates between criticisms of present past and present conditions without accepting the postmodernist perspective that ‘one set of conditions is merely relative to another’ (How, 2003).
As sociologist Robert Lynd proposed (quoted by critical theorist Eike Gebhardt):
[I]t should not be our only concern to ask whether a hypothesis is true, possible or realistic; we should, perhaps, also ask the other way around: “what sort of earth” would it have to be in which this hypothesis (e.g., one describing a possible situation) would be realistic. Only history could verify such hypotheses – by realizing them
(Gebhardt, 1978, p. 406)
Comments, as always, are very welcome…
 For more discussion around these additional theoretical perspectives, see Literature Review.
This post is a first draft of part of my doctoral research methodology. I have been developing my thinking using a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches and theoretical perspectives that are both complementary and conflicting. This has led to the development of a research design founded on a working hypothesis that (hopefully) better expresses the nature of my research than the (deliberately ironic) research question might. Discussion of relevant theoretical approaches and methods will follow soon.
As always, comments and criticism are always encouraged…
Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?
The research question is obviously ambiguous; deeply problematic. This is intentional. It is undoubtedly a tricky question that alludes to the many critical issues facing the burgeoning field of ‘participation in the arts’. As described in greater detail below, this research is underpinned by critical theory that oscillates between the modernism of The Frankfurt School, its philosophical predecessors, and the critical aspects of postmodernism. In this sense, the research question can be read as an ironic representation of the complexities and abstruseness of our present socio-political milieu. A position perhaps mirrored by current manifestations of ‘the culture industry’ and by increasing state interventions into that field. The question mimics the ‘cultural newspeak’ that might emanate from today’s UK government departments and quasi-governmental organisations; developed vivaciously by arrayed policy-makers and advisory panels; repeated parrot-fashion by arts institutions and ‘arts leaders’. In this, perhaps flippant, sense, the answer to the research question is undoubtedly, ‘YES!’
However, this research does not aim to verify state claims for ‘participation in the arts’ as a panacea for all social (and, perhaps even, political) malady. It seeks to challenge these claims; to explore possible theoretical, ethical, political and practical alternatives that may shake the status-quo, maybe even fracture the present, ambiguous discourse around ‘participatory arts’. Clearly, then, it is essential that terms such as ‘participatory arts’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are coherently defined. These ambiguities are discussed at length in the literature review but it is important they are considered here so that the research has clear direction. To this end, there follows a series of statements about how this research defines what it is and what it is not interested in studying during the in-depth investigation of its chosen case studies. It is obvious, then, that the research question must be developed into a hypothesis that can be tested and refined during the research period. It is also worth noting that the research intention and hypothetical position have been discussed with the case study participants. It is, indeed, on the basis of the initial hypothesis and subsequent discussion around it that they agreed to contribute to this research.
Refining the research question
As mentioned above, the terms ‘participation’, ‘participatory art’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are incredibly slippery and multifarious. This section aims to briefly discuss some interpretations of these terms to illustrate how they are used to convey a myriad of meanings for an array of political, philosophical, scientific and ethical reasons. It then sets out to explicate the particular perspectives the research seeks to investigate as well as what it does not. At this point, it is important to be clear that the researcher does not wish to imply that the other interpretations are less valid or somehow inferior aspects of ‘participation in the arts’. They are simply different perspectives.
Looking first at ‘participatory art’, the term has been described by various people within the field of ‘the arts’, and with various interests in the field, very differently. Paola Merli, an academic interested in cultural policy, stated in 2002 that participatory art was used as ‘a form of governance’ by the UK government: a tool for ‘promoting social cohesion’; a ‘cultivated cultural activity’ rather than a ‘primary need’ (Merli, 2004 , pp. 17-21). Her position is developed from a critical attack on Francois Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? (1997) in which he describes participatory arts as being able to ‘contribute to social cohesion’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). Whilst Merli is clearly suggesting that participatory art is an apparatus of state instrumentalism – a critical position shared by this research – Matarasso’s report suggests this instrumentalism is distinctly beneficial for both participants and government. However, Merli’s proposition, derived from Bourdieu, that participation in the arts is a ‘nicety’ that fosters cultural satisfaction is, whilst an undoubtedly valid position in many cases, narrow in that it leaves little room for radical, counter-hegemonic arts activism. The situation today is that the UK government and ‘arm’s length’ organisations such as Arts Council England are actively promoting the instrumental and economic benefits of participation in the arts more widely than at the time of the Merli/ Matarasso debate. Arts Council England list seventeen ‘activities’ they currently use for ‘arts-based segmentation analysis’ to define and measure ‘arts participation’ as part of their Taking Part surveys which seek to identify and characterise ‘distinct arts consumer types’ in the ‘arts market’ (Arts Council England a, 2014). Interestingly, all the listed activities involve doing and taking part in art. Participatory arts projects are not measured separately. Radical arts activities are not mentioned. Similarly, their recently published report about the benefits of arts to society is also incredibly vague about how they define ‘participation in the arts’ yet it extolls such activities as having many (equally loosely defined) intrinsic, instrumental and economic benefits (Arts Council England b, 2014). So it is clear, perhaps, that, not only is participation in the arts a very broadly defined set of possible activities that does not particularly value participatory or socially engaged projects as meriting specific categorisation or measurement, but it is also deemed to be an important ‘nicety’.
‘Sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are two other ill-defined aspects of the research question that must be clarified so that a working hypothesis can be constructed. Sustainability is commonly used to describe the need to maintain or improve biological and/ or human productivity and/ or diversity. It is also a term used to describe ideas or other systems that can be defended or upheld. The term is used to relate ‘sustainability’ to ‘ecosystems’ in which economic, social and biological factors are brought together with the aim of ‘developing’ areas of the ecosystem so as to guarantee the continuing of the whole. These factors were developed by the United Nations in 1987 in their Bruntland Report (United Nations, 1987). Interestingly, culture was added as a fourth factor for sustainability and, more recently, the word ‘political’ has replaced ‘social’. The Bruntland Commission definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely quoted, describing sustainable development as:
[D]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
(United Nations, 1987)
Sustainability is also a ‘hot topic’ in UK arts policy, although it is, perhaps, most frequently used in relation to the drive towards ‘organisational change’ and ‘adaptive resilience’ in the face of state-imposed cuts to arts funding. Ex-Arts Council England director Mark Robinson is one of the main proponents of this type of arts management interpretation of sustainability. His 2010 report Making adaptive resilience real clearly demonstrates this linkage of the term sustainability to change within the field of the arts, stating, for example, that:
all parts of the sector should collaborate to improve understanding of systems-thinking broadly, and resilience and sustainability issues specifically, through research, publication and debate, training and development
(Robinson, 2010, p. 46)
Clearly, then, ‘sustainability’ is as common in socio-economic development and management as it is in concepts of environmentalism.
Cultural economics researcher Diane Ragsdale challenges the idea that all arts organisations, and large unwieldy institutions in particular, should be sustained at any cost, especially at the expense of smaller, newer organisations and individual artist-led projects (Ragsdale, 2013). Her position is discussed further in the literature review. It is Ragsdale’s ‘bottom up’ contention that this research takes as a point of departure when considering notions around ‘sustaining’ socially engaged arts practice and social justice. Her perspectives align with the desire of this research to test if and how socially engaged arts movements may be able to be self-sustaining, continually diversifying and self-renewing. As such, it is inherently linked to concepts around developing ‘social justice’ rather than a universal notion of ‘social change’. It is possible to consider many shifts in how we live as representing social change. Industrialisation, capitalism, communism, Nazism, welfare reform, privatisation, credit cards, the internet – a few examples of social change. The term is problematic because it is bereft of any moral or ethical philosophical so that anything can be considered to be social change. Social justice, on the other hand, may be considered to be about fairness and equality; an opposition to injustice. As such, the research takes as its starting point the ‘three critical domains of equality and equity’ proposed by the United Nations in 2006 as essential to the notion of social justice: ‘equality of rights’; ‘equality of opportunities’; and ‘equity in living conditions’ (United Nations, 1996, pp. 15-16). Whilst the report is discussed in more detail in the literature review, it is worth highlighting that this research is aligned to the historical roots of the social justice movement described by the United Nations as:
[A concept developed] in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine… an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity… a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists… Of particular importance in the present context is the link between the growing legitimization of the concept of social justice, on the one hand, and the emergence of the social sciences as distinct areas of activity and the creation of economics and sociology as disciplines separate from philosophy (notably moral philosophy), on the other hand. Social justice became more clearly defined when a distinction was drawn between the social sphere and the economic sphere, and grew into a mainstream preoccupation when a number of economists became convinced that it was their duty not only to describe phenomena but also to propose criteria for the distribution of the fruits of human activity.
(United Nations, 1996, p. 12)
Nonetheless, because the responsibilities of ‘administering’ social justice in the UK primarily relies on its technocratic and centralising government, the concept remains a matter of policy and inevitable instrumentalism that is alluded to in the above quote. One aspect of this research will be to work with case study participants by referencing critical perspectives from the UN report to explore how social justice is interpreted and how it is applied ethically and morally by socially engaged arts organisations.
In summary, this research is not interested in further ‘evidencing’ the predominant type of instrumental ‘participatory arts’ described above (and in more detail in the literature review), nor does it consider that all participatory or socially engaged arts activities must always be classified as secondary to some notional typography of ‘primary human needs’. Rather, this research is interested in radically activist arts practice that engages in counter-hegemonic interventions, seeks to develop and/ or enhance awareness of issues surrounding social justice, and/ or produces new ways of thinking about and/ or producing new forms of practice that can be considered self-sustaining. It is from these perspectives that the following working hypothesis has been developed.
The concept of using a working hypothesis for research based upon critical theory is problematic, particularly for Critical Theorists from The Frankfurt School. This is because, for Critical Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, a hypothesis was considered empiricist – a ‘positivistically reductive mode of inference’ (Strydom, 2011, p. 148). In common with empirical modes of inference, critical theory utilises traditional concepts of deduction and induction but places a critical emphasis upon abduction, rather than deduction, creating space for dialectically imaginative thinking in so doing (ibid.). It has been argued by Habermas (himself referencing the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce) that only abduction can generate new knowledge through a ‘critical process of “determinate negation”’ – a process that must embody ‘ongoing learning’ (MacKendrick, 2008, p. 175). It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:
Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and antagonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.
 For a list of all seventeen ‘activities’, see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/research-and-data/arts-audiences/arts-based-segmentation-research/faqs/#5
 For more about these developments, see the original text of United Nations’ Agenda 21 (1992) - accessible via http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=52 - and subsequent UN reaffirmations of support at subsequent ‘Rio’ summits
This link takes you to a really interesting piece by the BBC from 2012 exploring how Occupy use arts as a powerful means of producing counter-hegemonic discourse with big public impact. Features Illuminator 99%.
I have been a long-time admirer of the amazingly simple, incredibly expressive and exceptionally impactful work of activist arts movement Illuminator 99%. Their work epitomises, for me, the spirit of Occupy and other non-hierarchical counter-hegemonic movements. This video is the first of two I wish to post to (hopefully) stimulate some discussion around arts, activism and social justice.
This is the final section of my draft research which considers other disciplines relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) They are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; the carnivalesque and critical pedagogy. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.
This is the ninth and final post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? Previous posts are below. This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there. It will be refined. Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon. Please feel free to comment and criticise…
The fourth and final post in this section briefly discusses themes around the carnivalesque, critical pedagogy and radical interpretations of social practice for social justice…
The carnivalesque is another place where art and life are blurred - playfully disrupted by participation by everyone; an alternative world where rich may become poor and paupers, kings. It is a concept encourages radicalism and dissensus; a concept well-aligned to radical socially engaged art interventions. The classic definition of the carnivalesque appears in Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965):
‘Because of their obvious sensuous of character and their strong element of play, carnival images strongly resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval festivals often tended toward carnival folk culture, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus… belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself but shaped according to a certain pattern of play… it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators… Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people' (Bakhtin, 1984 , p. 7).
Perhaps, then, the socially engaged art can benefit from a closer relationship to the carnivalesque and performativity of practice? When linked to critical pedagogical theory and practice, perhaps, socially engaged art can find a route towards social change, or, perhaps, more critically, to social justice? Helguera certainly offers and alternative, yet all-encompassing vision of socially engaged practice, that exemplifies a critical, cross-disciplinary perspective with radical pedagogy and the theatrical performance characteristics of the carnivalesque. His book, Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011), seeks to bring together art and education critically. His conclusion is that the carnivalesque as described by Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World represents a form of cultural inversion in which ‘social hierarchies are temporarily broken through satire, celebration, and chaos’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 67), a form of performativity ‘derived from the history of performance art’ he believes should be central to socially engaged art but avoidant of subservience to any ‘cause’ that may turn practice into pure entertainment (Helguera, 2011, p. 68). Helguera is certain that ‘an aspect of play’ must be present in socially engaged practice – the type of playfulness that ‘upsets, even if temporarily, the existing social values (Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque”) that room is created for reflection, escaping the merely hedonistic experience of spectacle’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 70).
Here then lies a critical perspective that defines socially engaged art as a form of sometimes temporal, always disruptive practice that learns and, therefore, benefits from interacting with the knowledge from other disciplines, including ‘sociology, education, linguistics, and ethnography – to make decisions about how to engage and construct meaningful exchanges and experiences’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. xii-xiv). Helguera is clear that, for him, ‘[t]o argue… that good socially engaged art creates constructive personal relationships is wrong: an artist’s successful project could consist of deliberate miscommunication, in upsetting social relations, or in simply being hostile to the public’ (Helguera, 2011, p. xv). He is equally clear in his conviction that ‘[a]ll art, inasmuch as it is created to be communicated to or experienced by others, is social’ but that this does not explain the different experience of taking part in socially engaged art as opposed to, for example, viewing an exhibition (Helguera, 2011, p. 1). He sees socially engaged art’s ‘uncomfortable position’ situated somewhere between art and other disciplines as being ‘exactly the position it should inhabit’ because:
‘The practice’s direct links to and conflicts with both art and sociology must be overtly declared and the tension addressed, not resolved. Socially engaged artists can and should challenge the art market in attempts to redefine the notion of authorship, but to do so they must accept and affirm their existence in the realm of art, as artists’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 4-5).
This is an important position of flux; a critical perspective that explains socially engaged art as operating alongside and within other disciplines, problematising and making ambiguous issues so that it can help create new ways of seeing that are situated within ‘current political and social affairs’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 5-7). For Helguera, understanding the different natures of participation is essential in understanding how to work with participants. He describes this as follows:
‘An awareness of the voluntary, nonvoluntary, or involuntary predisposition of participants in a given project allows for the formulation of a successful approach to an individual or community, as approaches for participants with different predispositions vary widely. For example, if a participant is willingly and actively engaged as a volunteer, it may be in the interest of the artist to make gestures to encourage that involvement. If a participant has been forced to be part of the project for external reasons, it may be beneficial for the artist to acknowledge that fact and, if the objective is engagement, take measures to create a greater sense of ownership for that person. In the case of involuntary participants, the artist may decide to hide the action from them or make them aware at a certain point of their participation in the art project’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 16-17).
This advice is not only useful to socially engaged artists but also as a means of differentiating ‘participation’ in future policy-making and academic research. Similarly, Helguera’s views that successful socially engaged projects are usually developed with local communities over a long period, so do not often ‘travel’ well (Helguera, 2011, p. 20), and that projects often ‘serve very specific audiences’, even when apparently open to everyone (Helguera, 2011, p. 22), are important points to consider when critically researching and devising any participatory project. He suggests that any project operates on three levels: ‘one is its immediate circle of participants and supporters; the second is the critical art world, toward which it usually looks for validation; and the third is society at large, through governmental structures, the media, and other organizations or systems that may absorb and assimilate the ideas or other aspects of the project’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 22-23). Likewise, socially engaged practice, whilst seemingly similar to social work and perhaps even operating in similar ‘social ecosystems’, is a critically different field because, whilst social work may be described as:
‘a value-based profession based on a tradition of beliefs and systems that aim for the betterment of humanity and support ideals such as social justice, the defense of human dignity and worth, and the strengthening of human relationships. An artist, in contrast, may subscribe to the same values but makes work that ironizes, problematizes, and even enhances tensions around those subjects, in order to provoke reflection’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 35).
Helguera is at pains here to distance critically socially engaged art practice from social work because (and this is essential to this research and to broader contemporary issues such as UK arts policy and government drives to install participatory art as a panacea for social ills):
'The traditional argument against equating SEA with social work is that to do so would subject art to direct instrumentalization, relinquishing a crucial aspect of art-making that demands self-reflexivity and criticality… [precluding] the possibility that art can be deliberately instrumental and intentionally abandon any hopes of self-reflexivity… [whereas the] stronger argument is that SEA has a double function that social work lacks… [By] not just offering a service to a community (assuming it is a service-oriented piece); we are proposing our action as a symbolic statement in the context of our cultural history (and/or art history) and entering into a larger artistic debate… [Yet there are] similarities between the forms… [such as understanding] the mutual respect, inclusivity, and collaborative involvement that are the main tenets of social work’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 35-37).
Helguera is clear that, whilst critical pedagogy does not seek to make art, approaches such as those elaborated by Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), can offer ‘a path to thinking about how an artist can engage with a community in a productive collaborative capacity’ in which it is clear that socially engaged artists cannot ‘act as a neutral entity, an invisible catalyst of experience’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 52-53) because:
‘The expertise of the artist lies, like Freire’s, in being a non-expert, a provider of frameworks on which experiences can form and sometimes be directed and channeled to generate new insights around a particular issue’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 54).
From this perspective, Helguera develops the notion that ‘antisocial or antagonistic social action is a fundamental area of activity’ for socially engaged art; a place where confrontation involves ‘taking a critical position on a given issue without necessarily proposing an alternative’ – no answers, just new questions (Helguera, 2011, p. 59). Perhaps, then, Helguera’s marrying of critical pedagogy with socially engaged arts practice will not, like many other art forms, offer ‘accurate representation’, rather complicate ‘readings so that we can discover new questions’ because ‘it is when we position ourselves in those tentative locations, and when we persist in making them into concrete experiences, that interstices become locations of meaning’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 71). This idea, which Helguera develops as ‘Transpedagogy’, is unlike traditional conceptions of art as education – as interpretation or as learning to make art – but rather places ‘the pedagogical process’ at the centre of art-making, creating an ‘autonomous environment, mostly outside of any academic or institutional framework’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 78). This ‘expanded field of pedagogy’ frees art education (and, perhaps, broader forms of education) from traditional restrictions of teaching, connoisseurship and interpretation because, unlike the traditional field, it acknowledges education as a performative act, a ‘collective construction of knowledge, and an acceptance that knowledge is not ‘knowing’ but ‘a tool for understanding the world’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 80). This emerges in some forms of collective socially engaged practice as a ‘distancing… from art’; a ‘blurring of boundaries between disciplines’ indicative of ‘an emerging form of art-making in which art does not point at itself but instead focuses on the social process of exchange’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 81).
Perhaps, then, socially engaged art can, by incorporating approaches inherent in critical pedagogical and critical participation action research approaches, help people discover their own sense of understanding; their own independent forms of ‘expertise’? A position described by Horton, in conversation with Freire, as opposing many traditional approaches to social change in which:
‘Organizers are committed to achieving a limited, specific goal whether or not it leads to structural change, or reinforces the system, or plays in the hands of capitalists. The problem is confused because a lot of people use organizing to do some education and they think it's empowerment because that's what they're supposed to be doing. But quite often they disempower people in the process by using experts to tell them what to do while having the semblance of empowering people. That confuses the issue considerably’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 120).
Instead, Horton and Freire propose a position where ‘expertise is in knowing not to be an expert’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 128); explained by Horton as follows:
‘[E]xpert knowledge is different from having the expert telling people what to do… [which] takes away the power of people to make decisions… [so] there's no empowerment… no learning’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 130).
The position of Horton and Freire as outlined above, is central to Helguera’s Transpedagogical approach to socially engaged practice; a position also supported by Bishop, who reflects that critical pedagogy’s inherent ‘insistence on the breakdown of teacher/ pupil hierarchy and participation as a route to empowerment’ is analogous to contemporary with socially engaged practice (Bishop, 2012, p. 267). This positioning of learning as independent and democratic seems rather more suggestive of social justice than social change; a change of emphasis discussed recently by Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe who stated that socially engaged art needs a new language because:
‘Social practice has tried to take over the role of what it means to work socially in the context of a place but there’s no real place there. It’s social; it’s everywhere. That’s one of the biggest issues I have with social practice now is how it’s managed to take the context out of the meaning and the value out of the work. Almost in the same way as “social change” has taken the progressive impact out of things’ (Dela, 2014).
So maybe socially engaged art practice is better aligned to the concept of social justice? As Lowe recently asked Creative Time ahead of being presented with the Annenberg Prize for Art and Social, ‘why they call it social “change” instead social “justice,” which has a very specific meaning. “Change” is a little, well…what does it mean? Everybody wants change’ (Dela, 2014).
This is the sixth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? Previous posts are below. This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there. It will be refined. Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon. Please feel free to comment and criticise…
Sustainability in terms of arts practice is a confusing arena of competing perspectives and endless recommendations to employ ‘adaptive resilience’, collaborate more, form partnerships with academic institutions, grow audiences, etc. Much discussion is aimed at larger arts and cultural institutions, but what might sustainability of socially engaged practice look like? The section looks at a range of different perspectives in an attempt to situate sustainability within the discourse of social change.
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation ArtWorks conference, Changing the Conversation, explored artistic practice in participatory settings and sustainability was discussed in terms of taking ‘the long view’ – a position linked with the role of universities (Nicholson, 2013, p. 3). Nicholson described sustainability of socially engaged art as follows:
‘Artists working in participatory settings have always sought change, interrogated artistic convention, questioned social orthodoxies and challenged injustice. If this important aspect of our cultural landscape is to survive and flourish, it will be sustained by artists who not only understand the knowledge and skills they bring to each setting, but use their creativity to re-imagine and re-shape the world as they would like it to be’ (Nicholson, 2013, p. 6).
This position is important because it defines sustainability in a rather non-institutionalised manner as an independence of spirit interconnected with social change in similar terms to those used by Gablik and discussed above (Gablik, 1984 & 1992). Tambling also explored sustainable practice but from a much more skills-based and business-focused outlook. She saw universities as playing a pivotal role in developing ‘a genuinely sustainable business model’ in which more artists educated as participatory practitioners could ‘drive up demand’ so that more ‘schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons will allocate their budgets to buying this work’ (Tambling, 2013, pp. 2-5). Tambling’s vision of sustainability chimes with a consumer-driven approach in which the side-effect of an increased ‘market’ for participatory art is more artists getting paid work whilst participants get to take part too – a position directly contrasting with the autonomous role described by Nicholson above. It has an air of ‘corporate instrumentalism’ rather than ‘state instrumentalism’ but their rationales are similar in intention.
An excellent example of an academic approach to the issue of sustaining arts and health projects can be found in White and Robson’s Finding Sustainability (2011), a report that reflects upon the apparently successful Happy Hearts lantern parade in Gateshead which took place annually between 1994 and 2006. The academic authors found sustaining projects in the field of arts and community health for ‘long enough to understand and consolidate the practice and to undertake longitudinal research that can utilise and analyse participants’ testimony in a more rigorous ethnographic framework’ proved a major challenge given the short-term nature of project funding (White & Robson, 2011, p. 5). The lantern project was designed around an ‘asset model’ which, contrary to the traditional ‘deficit model’ previously used for health promotion ‘looks at communities’ capability and capacity to identify problems and activate their own solutions, so building their self-esteem’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 6). The authors are happy to make claims about evidencing instrumental outcomes that are achievable if participatory art projects are sustained based around the principle that ‘creativity can make committed expressions of public health, simultaneously identifying and addressing the local and specific health needs in a community’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 8).
Clearly stating the case for arts, community and university partnerships, the report finds that participatory arts can address ‘the social determinants of health’ via ‘a process of engagement that goes beyond the health services themselves and builds alliances for social change’ which creates ‘a significant opportunity for a university to engage meaningfully with its host communities in the development of social capital’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 8). The authors conclude that long-term sustainability leads to better quality and quantity of documentation as well as better dissemination of an ‘interdisciplinary analysis’ that can create ‘a richly detailed evocation of the process of the work, so that participants’ tales become vital testimony’ which contributes ‘persuasive advocacy for an arts in health project to be sustained through difficult times’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 17).
Another perspective common in the arts is that of sustainability as being ‘a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely or as relating to the length in which human (ecological) systems can be expected to be usefully productive (Paul, 2013); the author here does, however, point out the maintaining the status quo can lead to entropy. The prevailing attitude with many arts and cultural organisations at present is arguably one of sustaining what has already been created. This is a position critically questioned by Ragsdale in a recent conference keynote speech delivered in 2013 entitled Holding Up the Arts. She provocatively states that:
‘Sustainable gets tossed around quite a bit in the non-profit arts world these days, along with words like ecosystem and ecology. But… these terms seem to have become a bit of a panacea. We’re not sure exactly what sustainability of the arts ecosystem means, or how to achieve it…’ (Ragsdale, 2013, pp. 1-2)
Referring to cultural institutions, Ragsdale, suggests the sector may be ‘seeking the “unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die”’ whilst neglecting to consider other levels of the arts ecosystem (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 7). The implication here is that, in the fight for ever-reducing funding, large institutions are being sustained at the expense of newer, smaller organisations and individual artists. The danger could be perceived as cutting the arts tree off from its roots. Ragsdale explains this as:
‘an assumption embedded in the logics of foundations, government agencies, boards, donors, service organizations, and leaders of the arts and culture sector that the “supersystem” we are trying to sustain and grow is the infrastructure of existing arts institutions, beginning with the oldest and largest organizations and perhaps working our way down from there’ (Ragsdale, 2013, pp. 7-8).
She fears, perhaps with good justification, that by ‘upholding our institutions’, the sector may be ‘holding up necessary renewal and adaptation in our sector that might lead to more meaningful engagement by the public in the arts’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 8). Ragsdale implores arts organisations to drop elitist stances by engaging fully, honestly and openly with everyone in communities; by clearly stating that:
‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 14).
Ragsdale also warns against arguments in favour of economic impact because ‘[t]he more we use them the more we commodify what we do’, thus making it harder to convince policy-makers that the value of arts and culture does not relate to ‘directly spurring economic growth but in building the social cohesion and trust that underpin civil society and make (among other things) economic trading possible’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 14).
Perhaps, then, socially engaged art with its roots in interdisciplinary practice and community activism is or can be at the forefront of an independent mode of working which is inherently flexible and sustainable by a process of constant grassroots renewal?
This is the third post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my ongoing PhD research around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? Please feel free to comment and criticise…
The field of contemporary socially engaged art theory is another hotly contested area. There are two main players regularly cited as offering extremes of participatory art practice and experience: Grant Kester and Claire Bishop. Indeed, Toby Lowe has developed a ‘spectrum of participatory arts practice’ based on his reading of the two protagonists’ different perspectives (Lowe, 2012, p. 3) – see illustration below.
Are Kester and Bishop really as diametrically opposed in their readings of socially engaged art as this spectrum, and many other commentators, suggest? Rather like Matarasso and Merli, the ‘Kester/ Bishop’ debate has continued for more than ten years, during which time both academics have written extensively about their positions. However, this review focuses only on their most recent works to focus upon their most current perspectives: Kester’s The One and The Many (2011) and Bishop’s Artificial Hells (2012).
Kester situates the rise of socially engaged (or collaborative) art practice as a direct response to the current socio-political milieu dominated by ‘a powerful neoliberal economic order dedicated to eliminating all forms of collective or public resistance (institutional, ideological, and organizational) to the primacy of capital’ (Kester, 2011, p. 5). He sees this ‘as a time of both peril and opportunity, as the dominant political narratives used to explain and justify social and economic inequality, the distribution of resources and opportunities within society, and the relative responsibility of the state to the public at large, are being contested and destabilized’ – circumstances that, like previous moments in the history of modernism, have galvanised a ‘remarkable profusion of contemporary art practices concerned with collective action and civic engagement’ (Kester, 2011, pp. 6-7). Kester’s clear position is that contemporary socially engaged practice disrupts traditional notions of autonomy and the aesthetic but he is also concerned that ethical values are often displaced by some critics who favour techniques such as ‘distanciation and destabilization’ (Kester, 2011, pp. 9-10).
Kester is clear that art theory and criticism must adapt to meet the specific modes of production associated with socially engaged practice, utilising techniques from social sciences to assist in evaluating projects (Kester, 2011, pp. 10-11). Although he is wary of post-structuralism because its ‘concept of a textual politics (centered on a process of critical reading, or decoding)’ may insulate ‘the act of critique… from the exigencies of practice or direct action’ (Kester, 2011, p. 13). Political opposition, activism and site-specificity are referred to throughout The One and The Many as key factors behind the rise of socially engaged art in which practice is ‘centered on immersive interaction and a referential orientation to specific sites of social production’ to develop ‘challenging new collaborative art projects’ that ‘are located on a continuum with forms of cultural activism’ (Kester, 2011, p. 37). This results in multi-faceted practice that Kester believes is challenging to ‘many contemporary critics’ (Kester, 2011, p. 59).
Adopting a common standpoint when discussing development and regeneration policies, Kester expresses concern that authorities frequently link deteriorating infrastructure to economic and political ideologies of moral decline to the need for more control of the working class (Kester, 2011, p. 16). He is critical of international development aid and supportive of dependency theorists – a process he believes is driven by subordination to global capitalism, thereby decreasing autonomy in ‘developing’ countries (Kester, 2011, p. 117). A significant proportion of The One and The Many then investigates examples of ‘good’ participatory art projects (Dialogue, Park Fiction, Project Row Houses, etc.) that utilise ‘dialogic’ and ‘collaborative’ arts practice effectively to promote local autonomy, and examples of ‘bad’ practice (Superflex) where artists seem to reinforce Western superiority over developing countries with a missionary zeal.
The One and The Many also explores how community arts in the UK and Europe became institutionalised as part of 1990s urban regeneration strategy, resulting in the movement becoming ‘largely uncoupled from its roots in local activism’ (Kester, 2011, p. 197). Kester characterises Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? as the ‘bellwether expression of New Labour cultural policy’ that supported their ‘rhetoric of “social inclusion”’ by promoting “participation” in the arts as a tool for “self-determination” – a vehicle for social change ‘“planned” and administered by the state, on behalf of the disenfranchised’ - rather than instigated ‘by the constituents of the state, in response to their own demands and in resistance to the various complicities and interdependencies that define the state’s relationship to the market’ (Kester, 2011, p. 198). Kester’s implied support for social activism appears, however, to favour a soft and slow approach that recognises ‘there is no art practice that avoids all forms of co-option, compromise, or complicity’ (Kester, 2011, p. 2); concluding that socially engaged art should not seek to be revolutionary but should facilitate social change via a ‘slow process of learning and un-learning’ (Kester, 2011, p. 227).
Like many critics writing about socially engaged art, Bishop begins by sifting through the many labels ascribed to this mode of practice. She selects ‘participatory art’ – a term she believes to be less ambiguous than others – and defines the practice as one in which ‘people constitute the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theatre and performance’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 1-2). Unlike Kester, who does not favour participatory practices aligned to Bourriaud, Bishop makes it clear that many examples she refers to in Artificial Hells ‘have emerged in the wake of Relational Aesthetics’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 2). Bishop, like Kester and most other writers in the field, associates the ‘return to the social’ with a renewed focus on collaboration, project-based practice and participation; a continuum of ‘attempts to rethink art collectively’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 2-3). She defines key debates about contemporary participatory practice as situated in the ‘tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 3). Bishop is clearly concerned about forms of participatory art that often emphasise ‘process over a definitive image, concept or object’, preferring ‘to value what is invisible: a group dynamic, a social situation, a change of energy, a raised consciousness’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 6). Nonetheless, she concedes that the practice necessitates ‘new ways of analysing art that are no longer linked solely to visuality’ – an interdisciplinary approach - but insists that the aesthetics of ‘form’ and ‘reflections on quality’ must not be subjugated by policy-driven, outcome-based, positivist approaches (Bishop, 2012, p. 7). She underlines this position by stating that, whilst participatory practice should ‘channel art’s symbolic capital towards constructive social change’ it must also ‘discuss, analyse and compare this work critically as art, since this is the institutional field in which it is endorsed and disseminated’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 12-13).
In keeping with most other writing about contemporary socially engaged practice, Artificial Hells perceives New Labour’s cultural rhetoric as a means of justifying increased public arts expenditure by focusing on improving society and reducing social exclusion rather than encouraging ‘artistic experimentation and research as values in and of themselves’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 13). Of course, Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? again receives special treatment for making excessive claims to cure all society’s ills that ultimately led to participation in the arts becoming ‘a cornerstone of post-industrial economic policy’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 14). Bishop views the ‘social turn’ as creating ‘concrete goals in art, but also the critical perception that these are more substantial, “real” and important than artistic experiences’ and yet, as she thoughtfully points out, participatory projects are usually not compared directly with other social projects outside of the arts but instead often contested in terms of ‘ethical one-upmanship’ and ‘process over product’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 18-19). Bishop’s differences with Kester intensify with claims that he tends to compassionately identify with the ‘other’, favouring ‘a generalised set of ethical precepts’ over ‘the disruptive specificity of a given practice’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 23-25). Here, Bishop fears a normative stance, based upon consensus and respectful of difference, may become repressive towards social practices exploring ‘disruption, intervention or over-identification’ by labelling them “unethical”; the sceptical opposition to these narratives by critical theorists including Badiou, Rancière and Žižek may offer alternative perspectives, however (Bishop, 2012, p. 25).
Indeed, Bishop’s main argument in Artificial Hells would appear to revolve around a belief that socially engaged art should ‘operate in a space of antagonism or negation vis-à-vis society, a tension that the ideological discourse of creativity reduces to a unified context and instrumentalises for more efficacious profiteering’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 16) by redefining traditional notions of the aesthetic as ‘aisthesis: an autonomous regime of experience that is not reducible to logic, reason or morality’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 18). Her proposition that ‘unease, discomfort or frustration – along with fear, contradiction, exhilaration and absurdity – can be crucial to any work’s artistic impact’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 26) has profound implications for forms of participatory practice opposing instrumentalism. Focusing upon Rancière’s revision of the aesthetic as aisthesis (Ranciere, 2013 ), Bishop finds a solution to socially engaged arts ‘disavowed relationship to the aesthetic’ in his interpretation of the aesthetic as autonomous experience (Bishop, 2012, pp. 26-27) and the implied ‘ability to think contradiction: the productive contradiction of art’s relationship to social change, which is characterised by the paradox of belief in art’s autonomy and in it being inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to come’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 29).
Despite concerns about socially engaged art in its ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ instrumentalised forms, Artificial Hells is supportive of participatory arts practice, albeit in more radical forms than envisaged by Matarasso, Merli or Kester. Like Kester, Bishop passionately believes that participatory art can offer emancipation; offering the potential of ‘a communal, collective space of shared social engagement’ and that neoliberal states have effectively harnessed much of the field of social practice for their own ends (Bishop, 2012, pp. 275-277). But she is more pessimistic and radical in her opposition to socially engaged practice that conflates anti-capitalism and ‘the Christian “good soul”’ because such an amalgam leaves ‘no space for perversity, paradox and negation, operations as crucial to aisthesis as dissensus is to the political’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 39-40). Like others, Bishop mourns the loss of the anti-elitism of the community arts movement and its associated ideology of participation in the arts as a form of empowerment (Bishop, 2012, p. 177). The clear implication is that contemporary participatory art has a tendency towards self-censorship because ‘it is a difficult task to be countercultural while asking for state approval and support’ and a, perhaps unfounded, over cautiousness about participants’ abilities to comprehend ‘disruptive’ modes of practice (Bishop, 2012, pp. 188-190). For Bishop, ‘participatory art today stands without a relation to an existing political project (only a loosely-defined anti-capitalism) and presents itself as oppositional to visual arts by trying to side-step the question of visuality’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 284). A precarious situation of flux that Bishop perceives is only (partially) resolvable if those involved in the field:
'[P]roduce a viable international alignment of leftist political movements and a reassertion of art’s inventive forms of negation as valuable in their own right. We need to recognise art as a form of experimental activity overlapping with the world, whose negativity may lend support towards a political project (without bearing the sole responsibility for devising and implementing it), and – more radically – we need to support the progressive transformation of existing institutions through the transversal encroachment of ideas whose boldness is related to (and at times greater than) that of artistic imagination’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 284).
Undoubtedly, then, socially engaged art is ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19), shares many commonalities across specific practices and projects, and yet is riven by specific debates ethics, aesthetics and politics. Perhaps, in their recent books, Kester and Bishop may be moving towards a convergence of overall practice whilst maintaining specific differences that are perhaps better left unresolved. There is certainly renewed efforts by practitioners, academics and critics to define the history of socially engaged art and develop of critical language capable of better communicating the nature of this diverse field of practice – something lacking until now (Pasternak, 2012, p. 8). Perhaps a shared language for social practice will only really benefit policy-makers? Perhaps it is enough to experience the ‘symbolic gestures’ of socially engaged interventions to enable ‘powerful and effective methods of change’? (Thompson, 2012, p. 18)
Perhaps contemporary socially engaged art is ‘not an art movement’ in the sense that many critics attribute to the avant-garde movements frequently cited as its ancestors (Situationism, Dada, Constructivism, Fluxus, Conceptualism, etc.), but in fact ‘a new social order – ways of life that emphasize participation, challenge power, and span disciplines ranging from urban planning and community work to theatre and the visual arts’ that are ‘non-discipline specific’? (Thompson, 2012, pp. 19-21) Living as Form (2012) expounds the perspective of socially engaged practice as a ‘desire to merge art and life’ – linking this notion to previous moments within the history of the avant-garde (Thompson, 2012, p. 21). To Thompson, the blurring of any boundaries between art and living offer new possibilities that are both deeply interpersonal and essentially political in nature (Thompson, 2012, pp. 21-22). He believes that process-based practice moves the focus away from art as an essentially aesthetic experience but not to the extent to negate its importance completely (Thompson, 2012, pp. 22-23). To Thompson, critical analysis of socially engaged art is essential and offers the following questions as a starting point when attempting to assess such projects:
‘When is a project working? What are its intentions? Who is the intended audience? When is an artist simply using the idea of social work in order to progress her career? Are these socially engaged works perhaps a little too sympathetic with the prevailing values of our time and, thus, make themselves vulnerable to state instrumentalization?’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 32)
To Lind, socially engaged art ‘involves more people than objects’; its intention ‘social and political change’; better placed ‘outside traditional art institutions’ but ‘not entirely foreign to them (Lind, 2012, p. 49). She describes the practice as still a minor part of the arts ecosystem, ‘opposed to the spectacularized and comsumption-oriented mainstream institutions’ so as to retain its independence (Lind, 2012, p. 55). Cruz, also writing in Living as Form, believes the ongoing socio-economic situation necessitates a new, broader approach to artistic practice that includes other disciplines and ‘new conceptions of cultural and economic production (Cruz, 2012, pp. 57-60). In a similar vein to Bishop, he supports radical activism that produces ‘new aesthetic categories that can problematize the relationship of the social, the political, and the formal’ by a coupling of activists with autonomous artists (Cruz, 2012, pp. 60-61). Becker makes this argument in a more idealistic manner by claiming that artists are ‘creating microutopian interventions that allow us to dream back the communities we fear we have lost’ (Becker, 2012, p. 71).
To Holmes, socially engaged art should become one element in a ‘mobile force that oversteps the limits of any professional sphere or disciplinary field, while still drawing on their knowledge and technical capacities’ in a quest to ‘change the forms in which we are living’ (Holmes, 2012, pp. 73-74). His essay in Living as Form suggests this might be achieved using a four-pronged approach incorporating:
‘Critical research is fundamental to today’s movements, which are always at grips with complex legal, scientific and economic problems. Participatory art is vital to any group taking its issues to the streets, because it stresses a commitment to both representation and lived experience. Networked communications and strategies of mass-media penetration... because ideas and directly embodied struggles just disappear without a megaphone. Finally… the collaborative coordination or “self-organisation” of this whole set of social practices, gathering forces, orchestrating efforts and helping to unleash events and to deal with the consequences’ (Holmes, 2012, p. 74).
Jackson is more conciliatory. Her position makes clear that ‘there is no pure position for socially engaged artmaking’ (Jackson, 2012, p. 86); the question of ‘whether it should be “self-governing” or commit to governance by “external rules”’ is central to its future as a practice in which ‘[a]cts of aesthetic affirmation coincide with equally necessary acts of aesthetic refusal’ (Jackson, 2012, pp. 90-91). McGonagle, in Art of Negotiation (2007), identifies ‘[t]he emergence of another dynamic which hinges on negation and reciprocation, and not just production and consumption’ – an emancipatory move ‘to reconnect art and lived experience as social process’ from a ‘legacy of disconnection between contemporary art and society’ (McGonagle, 2007, pp. 6-7). He ascribes the role of the socially engaged artist as being ‘reconnected to a social continuum and also reconnecting the arts aesthetic and ethical responsibilities… the idea of artist as negotiator’ (McGonagle, 2007, p. 9). In the same book, Reiss further develops the notion of the multi-faceted position of socially engaged artists as straddling the fields of education, activism and research as well as their roles expanding to include becoming role-models and collaborators (Reiss, 2007, p. 12). She perceives ‘participation in the Beuysian sense where the “non-artist” becomes essential in the completion of the art work and in the negotiation of meaning and value in the art process’ (Reiss, 2007, p. 13) but is clear that the practice should remain separate from, and a challenge to, instrumentalist agendas (Reiss, 2007, p. 17).
The Art of Participation takes a much more traditionally arts-based approach when discussing socially engaged practice. Frieling is critical of participatory practice that seeks to create ‘lived’ experience by investing art ‘with nonart or political intent’ (Frieling, 2008, p. 34); particularly artists who make ‘(micro)utopian claims’ (Frieling, 2008, p. 48). Groys’ primary argument is with arts outsiders attempting to influence and ‘transform the fundamental condition of how modern art functions – namely, the radical separation of artists and their public’ (Groys, 2008, p. 19). Whilst, for Atkins, postmodernism has created a general sense of ‘highly individuated indifference, or channelled automatism’ that must be mediated by new forms of participation and new ‘critical perspectives that ensure the possibility of individual and collective engagement’ (Atkins, 2008, p. 64).
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative attempts to generalise the position of participatory arts practice as encompassing ‘the "signature" piece of an artist largely employing her/his audience as low-paid or even unpaid labour to the work of the artist fully integrated within her/his community where questions of ownership and authorship are largely irrelevant’ (Tiller, 2012, p. 7), whilst being equally at home ‘within accepted cultural policy frameworks e.g. schools, museums, galleries and other cultural institutions or working within a much more responsive and ad hoc practice reacting to the immediate needs of those on the very edges of society, e.g. in internal and crossborder conflicts, marginalised communities, with refugees and asylum seekers or development contexts dealing with issues such as sustainability, ecology and health’ (Tiller, 2012, pp. 8-9). ArtWorks’ report clearly seeks to extend participatory arts in every direction but tends, perhaps because many of its stakeholders work for arts institutions and academia, to favour working within ‘the wider context of social, political and economic change’ in an attempt to influence policy-makers (Tiller, 2012, p. 17). It was clear that ArtWorks’ supported an ‘all-inclusive’ approach to socially engaged practices during their 2013 conference, Changing the Conversation. Whilst the conference was not entirely consensual, provocations tended to excitedly promote ‘participation’ as ‘no longer confined to “marginalised” communities or institutional settings’ because ‘contemporary arts practices are re-defining the “participant”, breaking down distinctions between art forms and opening new forms of interactivity and engagement with different audiences, publics and communities’ (Nicholson, 2013, pp. 1-2). The main concern for this ‘participation for all’ outlook was to ensure projects were neither ‘simply taking existing metropolitan audiences to performance spaces they consider “edgy”’ nor using the ‘disadvantaged’ as material to further their artistic ambitions (Nicholson, 2013, p. 2).
Clements, in The Recuperation of Participatory Arts Practices, sees initiatives like ArtWorks as agendas to ‘widen participation’ by breaking down ‘barriers that affect engagement whether associated with class, age, gender, ethnicity, cultural knowledge or even the mythology that creativity is elitist and about special people’; he also acknowledges the practice is capable of being ‘a radicalising process which engenders transformation and emancipation as it can encourage resistance, democracy and citizenship’ (Clements, 2011, p. 19). Referring to 1960s and 1970s community arts movements as positive examples of collective cultural democracy, Clements laments their demise at the hands of state instrumentalism as contiguous to the loss of a ‘radical carnivalesque cultural activism and a broader spectrum of education which encourages self-determinism and cultural democracy’ (Clements, 2011, p. 19). Arguing that socially engaged art should ‘challenge the dominant ideological notion of individualised artistic intention which has traditionally determined engagement and understanding’ (Clements, 2011, p. 20), he criticises many cultural institutions and some established artists for ‘co-opting’ participatory ‘events’ as vehicles of ‘a vacuous mainstream populism and sometime celebrity spectacle de-radicalised as harmless fun’ (Clements, 2011, p. 28). Clements’ scepticism is supported by the rise in simple tick box guidance for those organisations seeking to implement participatory arts projects such as Getting In On the Act published by the James Irving Foundation in 2011 (Brown, et al., 2011) - referred to as ‘good practice’ in ArtWorks: International Next Practice Review (Tiller, 2012). This example of the hegemonic tendency to attempt to subsume counter-cultural movements appears to be directly at odds with the original aims of socially engaged art.
Perhaps, socially engaged practice should, as Gablik stated in 1984, ‘forgo the artifice of the gallery’ and ‘make art for [or with?] ordinary people instead of for other artists’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘discard the incestuous… “stylistic infighting” and begin instead to convey meanings… [for] the people rather than to a dwindling elite’ (Gablik, 1984, p. 28). This perspective, together with Gablik’s depiction of ‘radical art’ as a means to help ‘organise people who can speak for themselves, but lack the vehicles to do so’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 112) by social participation that involves ‘a significant shift from objects to relationships’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 7) may well offer as salient a description as any mentioned above – as relevant today as when first written. Gablik’s insistence that socially engaged practice must begin with community as a basis upon which to build ‘new modes of relatedness, in which the paradigm of social consciousness replaces that of individual genius’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 114) still resonates strongly with contemporary debates; a turning away from ‘competitive modes of institutionalised aesthetics’ that may avoid propagating today’s institutionalised ‘dominator system’ by ‘forgoing its rites of production and consumption as a model for making art, its mythology of professionalism and its power archetype of success’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 144).
Participatory art is a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained.
The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by practitioners, policy-makers, critics and academics. Research into the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. It is also important to consider how socially engaged art interfaces with and is influenced by other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography. This research also considers how critical theory, participatory action research, postdevelopment theory and notions of the carnivalesque might be fruitful routes to new insight about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change.
This literature review therefore attempts to survey key texts from across the many areas described above. It begins by taking the oft cited Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (Matarasso, 1997) as a starting point then develops from there across subsections covering: Socially engaged art – an ‘arts’ perspective; Art as Social change; Cultural policy; What might sustainable arts practice look like?; and Do other disciplines influence social engaged art practice?
I will serialise some of my thoughts arising from my literary research in regular blog posts covering the different aspects mentioned above. Comments and criticism are very welcome.
This mini-essay was first published on the #culturalvalue initiative website on 5th January 2014. I’m reblogging it here with their introduction.
Stephen’s witty and well researched mini-essay contribution to The #culturalvalue Initiative originated in a lively twitter conversation that followed the publication of Daniel Allington’s guest post, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective in early December 2013. The conversation started off as a debate on the merits of Bourdieu’s work in pushing forward the cultural value debate and soon broadened to the relative merits of different disciplinary approaches. I was fascinated by the exchange between Stephen and Daniel, but it soon became apparent that it was more complex than a twitter debate could cope with. So, I invited Stephen to write a short guest post response to Daniel’s piece so that interesting conversation could continue on this site. This would allow to keep a permanent record of it and to facilitate a wider participation in the discussion. As it is often the case when reflecting on complex matters, Stephen’s rejoinder to Daniel’s post has developed into a free-standing and rich longer piece of writing in its own right, and the result is the latest offering in our mini-essays series! In the dialogical spirit in which this piece was conceived, I hope readers will enage in the debate via the comments facility, but, if you need more room for your thoughts, just get in touch!
John Heartfield, Hurrah, the Butter is Finished!, cover for AIZ, Photomontage, December 19th 1935.
Reproduction, appropriation, new narratives, and opposition to hegemonies: techniques art has used to challenge the mass-produced cultural propaganda of fascism, late imperialistic capitalism and outmoded intrinsically conservative, individualistic and modernist beliefs about autonomy. This type of avant-garde approach had real cultural importance and it was dangerous. Mass-produced counterpropaganda threatens governments by challenging policy; by using the very tools of mass-marketing, it challenges the markets, exposing the shallow reproduction of consumerist messages.
This type of art is one example that may offer a different way to think about artistic practice and aesthetics, production and distribution, etc.; that may lead to alternative notions of “cultural value” – however that slippery term might be defined. This essay is not about reviving modernist debates about “art-for-art’s sake”, misreading and decontextualising Bourdieu’s structuralism, heroic artists apparently driven to create work to earn ‘the esteem of fellow producers’ by ‘deeply believing’ in “cultural value”, network analyses and diagrams, or circular arguments about the “intrinsically cultural” value of “culture”. Rather, this essay attempts to re-situate contemporary arts practices, particularly those that acknowledge art’s role as ‘a social product’ that ‘always encodes values and ideology’, at the heart of current debate about “cultural value”.
The arts are about audiences but also about participation through social engaging activities; about artists who, on the whole, struggle to make a living and often care greatly about the communities they are part of; about arts organisations (big and small) and their eternal struggle to convince politicians and economists of their multifarious values that extend well beyond financial return on investment, evidencing impact, missions, models, evaluation, etc.; but they are also about the production of radical anti-hegemonic thinking and challenging, rather than conforming to, state sponsored social agendas. Twenty-first century art is, like every aspect of our societies, in turmoil. Postmodernism makes it difficult for art to avoid negating itself and find meaning in many of its practices; political and economic interventions (including “instrumentalism” – defensive or otherwise) encourage the arts to conform to policies that are predominantly not about art or participants or artists or social change or communities; in-vogue (yet, from many business perspectives, out-dated) “governance” models that aim to minimise risk and support “resilience” are effectively imposed upon arts organisations and even artists by funders and policy makers; we are all encouraged to become “self-sustaining” and market-oriented; not to mention philanthropy, austerity, consumerism, popularism, etc. etc. And whilst fairness is desperately needed across every area of arts and culture, now is definitely not the time to argue reductively that we should conceive solely of ‘culture as an economic activity’.
Michel Ell, Des Kaisers neue Kleider, Woodcut, 1923.
The current dominant economic-driven narrative for the arts is a lot like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and we must avoid a situation where “cultural value” (indeed all elements of arts and culture) becomes ‘the most exquisite cloth imaginable’ and those who cannot see it are either ‘unfit for post’ or ‘inadmissibly stupid’. We all know that arts experiences cut from an unravelling economic cloth will be divisive and limp and that value-based investment policy may even lead to our measuring ourselves out of existence. But we can’t pretend to embrace this state imposed fallacy. We must play the innocent child and shout, ‘He doesn’t have anything on!’ The Emperor (state) will still, no doubt, continue his procession, prouder than ever, but will probably wear a different suit next time. If everyone stands quiet, it is quite possible that arts and culture will finally be subsumed by aesthetic and commodity production in a “return of the aesthetic” that, when ‘the aesthetic (and even culture as such) is necessarily blurred or lost altogether’, will also signal its end.
All is not lost for the arts and culture. The arts market is flourishing like Ragwort on overgrazed pasture, fertilised by shallow aesthetic surplus value, it has ‘attained complete autonomy, completely cut off from the real economy of value’. The arts market is the epitome of cynical postmodern consumerism and the cult of celebrity; it reviles “popularism” because populist art is unpretentious, encourages participation, is not a commodity and does not deify “experts”. And herein lies three challenges to “cultural value” debates, future policy decisions and the ways many existing arts organisations work:
· Pay full attention to socially engaged art practice, artists and the importance of participation. At present, these are barely mentioned. Perhaps because this practice may be ‘too useful and therefore too much of a departure from the art-for-art’s-sake norm’, it is not considered as “art” by some. But the ‘lens of validation’ is opening to participatory practices that previously ‘were tolerated on the margins or held outside the narratives of power in the art process.’
· Understand the important role for “critical postmodernism” from the perspectives of both practice and theory. Bürger’s notion of the antiaesthetic is inherently participatory and challenges ‘the autonomous “institution of art”… to reverse the bourgeois hierarchy of aesthetic exchange-value and use-value… [by replacing] originality with technical reproduction’. This approach does not purport to transmit exceptional knowledge. It is utilitarian, contextualising art as ‘social’. We need a postmodernism of resistance that heightens ‘the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’.
· Reimagine “sustainability” of arts and cultural practice and institutions. There are many who see sustainability as maintaining the status quo and preserving the big organisations at the expense of the small; big exhibitions, shows, events instead of small, grassroots initiatives that develop creative self-expression of people in communities most in need. As Diane Ragsdale recently said, ‘The arts are here to say, “We see you. We see this community. We see that for every one person that’s doing OK one person in this community is suffering. We do not exist exclusively for those that are doing OK. We exist for everyone. We exist for you.”’ All parts of the arts “ecosystem” must be sustained but sometimes this involves an ‘unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die’. We must decide whether public funding should be redirected towards those who need it most, perhaps at the expense of the elitist institutions.
Hopefully, this essay offers something to the “cultural value” debate. It is a polemic. It is meant that way. It seeks to try and explain why artists and some arts organisations feel a bit detached from discussions about policy. It aims to show that there are areas and, more importantly, people and communities that we must not neglect when “valuing” the arts and culture and deciding how and what we “invest” in.
We must support and value art that is truly useful and engaging; encouraging “non-artists” to participate in and lead future arts projects that add new value to the lives of people and communities; and artists who are also able to fulfil the roles of mentors, activists and educators. We must ‘reconnect art and lived experience as social process’, ensuring that ‘[s]ocial concerns are addressed through the creative process, rather than art being an instrument of social policy and a solution to deep-rooted social problems.’ This way of perceiving participation in socially engaged arts ‘involves a significant shift from objects to relationships’; it creates a radical space separate from consumerism and the arts market ‘in which the paradigm of social consciousness replaces that of individual genius.’ This is socially engaged practice inspired by critical postmodernist resistance that, as Dick Hebdige explains, ‘can help us rediscover the power that resides in little things, in disregarded details, in aphorism (miniaturised truths), in metaphor, allusion, in images and image-streams’. We must sustain the “arts ecosystem” by allowing some old wood to burn in small fires; a process of renewal. We must be wary of economic arguments about growth and instead proudly sing songs about our role as socially engaged artists and keeping helping people write new stories – their stories – because as Diane Ragsdale honestly said: ‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty.’
This essay was supposed to be 800 words long. It isn’t. But, sometimes, you must expand boundaries to enable participation in open debate.
Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/
Andersen, Hans Christian, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 
Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005
Beasley-Murray, Jon, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000
Belfiore, Eleonora, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf
Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 
Buchloh, Benjamin H.D., ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011
Gablik, Suzi, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984
Gablik, Suzi, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992
Hebdige, Dick, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992
Huyssen, Andreas, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
Jameson, Fredric, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998
Matarasso, Francois, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/
McGonagle, Declan, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007
O’Brien, Dave, Is 'creativity' arts policy's big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake
Ragsdale, Diane, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013 http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf
Reiss, Vivienne, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007
Stallabrass, Julian, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf
Wolff, Janet, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993
 For more on the difficulty of defining “cultural value”, see Francois Matarasso, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/
 “Art-for-art’s-sake” claims “true” (or “high”) art should only be valued for its intrinsic qualities and be completely separate from any moral, utilitarian and educational functions: a modernist and elitist perspective that typifies the discourse of white, middle-class men, notions of beauty, class, superiority, etc. and culminates, as Walter Benjamin suggested, in the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ of fascism - see Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 , p.38.
 For more on Bourdieu’s problematic term “cultural capital” and its inadequate account of the accumulation of surplus and therefore themes relating to wealth, profit and exploitation, see Jon Beasley-Murray, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000, pp.100-116
 Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/
 Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993, p.1.
 There are three prominent platforms for discussion and research about “cultural value” in the UK at the moment. They all have different definitions of the term and claim to have (slightly?) different agendas. The AHRC Cultural Value Project (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funded-Research/Funded-themes-and-programmes/Cultural-Value-Project/Pages/default.aspx) aims to investigate and evaluate cultural experience and engagement; The #culturalvalue Initiative (http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2012/08/30/cultural-value-a-central-issue-for-the-cultural-policy-community/) seeks, through open debate, to reinstate the voices and values of the humanities and social sciences in the face of overwhelming drives towards discourses of economic value; and the recently instigated Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/) will investigate culture’s “DNA”, using “ecosystem” as a metaphor, so they suggest how best to “invest” in all forms of culture. Artists to not tend to often play significant roles in these discussions. “Policy”, with all its many heads, usually dominates.
 For more on instrumentalism in the arts see, for example, Eleonora Belfiore, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf
 Dave O’Brien, Is 'creativity' arts policy's big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake
 Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 , p.65.
 Ibid., p.71.
 Fredric Jameson, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998, p.111.
 Jean Baudrillard, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005, p.57.
 Julian Stallabrass, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, p.9. http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf
 Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984, p.29.
 Declan McGonagle, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, p.6.
 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011, p.25.
 Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, pp.336-337.
 Diane Ragsdale, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013, p.14. http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf
 Ibid., p.7.
 Vivienne Reiss, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, pp.10-13.
 Declan McGonagle, Op. Cit., p.6.
 Vivienne Reiss, Op. Cit., p.17.
 Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992, p.7.
 Ibid., p.114.
 Dick Hebdige, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992, p.340.
 Diane Ragsdale, Op. Cit., p.14.
In attempting to look at whether participatory art can support sustainable social change, it is probably worth exploring different perspectives relating to this question. So I'll start by looking at different approaches to sustainability of arts practice. Future posts will then attempt to define participatory arts and concepts of social change. But for now it's all about sustainability... There are three distinct perspectives about how to sustain systems: make existing structures stronger through a myriad of methods of organisational change; support the development of a limited number of new organisations who will either gently become part of the existing structures or quietly fail; or, like obsolete power stations, demolish the old monolithic structures to make way for a new wave.
The first option is safest. It's also a consultant's dream where endless new changes can be steadily implemented in the hope of encouraging adaptability, mining new philanthropic pockets, securing firm investments, selling like a commercial business and becoming resilient to fickle futures. It's about sustaining the system as it currently exists by making the organisations restructure, remodel and rethink their missions. Done well, this can be really positive and new partnerships can arise (although often between other similar organisations.) But it can lead to protectionism, maintaining the status quo and staleness. This approach is a bit like building higher walls, digging a deeper moat and drawing up the gates. It is a siege mentality. Those outside will not survive or will go elsewhere.
Encouraging some new start ups can also be positive. It adds a new little wall around the old wall whilst it is repaired and improved. Trouble is that there can be a tendency to be a bit different from the long-standing organisations but still follow the same models and modes of working as them. This is partly because there is still a 'toolkit' mentality where best is... well... 'best practice'. Blueprints, road maps, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, time banking, etc. etc. are all useful for many new (and existing) organisations to collaborate and improve their chances of conserving their positions whilst 'helping' new start ups following in their ways - become like them. The trouble is the old order will support this process safe in the knowledge that they will not (often) be threatened by these little newcomers and will (often) speak on their behalf, maintaining some form of hierarchy. This is sustainability with a degree of 'selected openness' - a managed form of conservation which recognises the need for 'expanding the stock' - like planting new forests using tried and tested species.
And these first two perspectives form today's dominant mode of thought about sustaining the arts in the UK today. Often supported by central and local government initiatives, Higher Education institutions and especially by new consortia agreements and partnership working between organisations. It is certainly true that organisational sustainability can be improved by restructuring, sharing resources, joint fundraising, cost-cutting, partnering up, collaboration, increasing philanthropic support, attempting to better measure values, supporting new start ups using old models, etc. etc. but this is sustaining systems that grew up in a different era and have developed into complex organisations that cannot change quickly. I understand that it is important to have a range of arts providers from individuals to large organisations and to have a mix of new and established organisations and individuals involved in the arts but I see many of today's attempts to make the arts (and social change) sustainable as inherently unsustainable. This is because many of those driving 'change' want slow, coherent, thoughtful, careful change. Leaders of many organisations want to maintain hierarchies where artists, audiences, participants, communities - in other words individual people - are at the bottom of a pecking order. This is natural. This is how they were created and it worked and still works and should continue to work. But leaders perhaps need to remember they have a social mission in which they are working for everyone to enjoy art rather than to safeguard institutional wellbeing.
But there needs to be space for new ways of working and this is brings me onto a third way of thinking about sustainability. This approach is about accepting life cycles. Old fires will eventually die out. Adding new fuel to them can keep them going but not indefinitely. New fires in new places can be worrying - they may spread - they may get out of control! But I am not suggesting anarchic arson here. No bonfire of the vanities. But starting different fires can bring renewal to every part of a system (dare I say 'ecosystem'). Indeed, this is how many of today's established organisations began - as one time radicals who introduced new ways of working. Obviously, there are many different ways in which new approaches to arts and society can develop and some may be highly threatening and completely unsustainable - further unbridled neoliberalism being a prime example. This is not what I mean. I am talking about new ways of working that involve everyone and are for everyone; that do what people want; that might help support and build communities from within. This is not audience development, this is true participation. It is a way of being and doing that shares ownership, that listens, that does what people want, that stops doing some things and starts doing other things when people want. It is a society where art, sport, work, place, play, etc. are all part of social activity.
So perhaps art is most sustainable when it acknowledges life cycles and lets some parts die but supports (and, yes, I mean financially as well as more broadly) new ideas and forms of DIY working, networked non-hierarchies, individual artist initiatives and true participation that can reinvigorate the entire art world. Perhaps they could share these new structures with old organisations? Undoubtedly, the new models will (just like their predecessors) the old models, the blueprints, toolkits, et al. of tomorrow. They will no doubt die at some stage too or reinvent themselves in the wake of other new ways of working we may not even have thought about yet.
And perhaps if art was better integrated into community activities, it would be less threatened and more sustainable too? We must remember that the constant segregation of 'things we do' and 'creative things we do' is to some extent a modern construct. Necessary so our systems of government can measure things, fund things, cut funds to things, etc. - yes - but this can lead to unsustainable approaches to making art driven by economics, social outcomes, aesthetics, etc. This systematisation of art can separate it from society (or certain sections of society) which, whilst good for some, is not good for most people (artists included).
So perhaps sustainability is about realising things become unsustainable eventually and that only perpetual rebirth and renewal can ensure long-term sustainability? Lots of new little fires to complement the older bigger fires. Constant regeneration not catastrophic destruction. This can be exciting. It is difficult to measure and predict. But then so is life (really...)
In terms of my bigger question: 'Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?' I guess I am suggesting at this point that social change must be sustainable in the sense that it must always seek to keep changing - responding and developing to new challenges life will throw at us - keep renewing itself. I am also proposing that participatory art, when led by participants and supported by artists and new organic creative structures, can be sustainable as an artistic mode of working because it is specific to the needs and life span of each action. Perhaps then this way of working can support future social change in positive, time-limited ways so art and creativity again become part of the lives of everyone? This is the subject of future blogs however and I've gone on far too long already...
Participatory arts or, more precisely, socially engaged arts practice is resurgent. Participation in the arts is, like many times in the past since the Victorian era, being promoted as a panacea for many of the issues facing our communities. New initiatives such as ArtWorks, Cultural Value Project and Participation & Engagement in the Arts seek a sea change in UK cultural and educational settings. Research around if and how socially engaged art can ever be truly sustainable at grassroots levels within the communities it seeks to serve is, however, a bit more thin on the ground.
A key value of arts participation is its ability to stimulate creativity within communities developing social capital in so doing. There are many examples of socially engaging arts projects that, having achieved short-term success, were not sustained. Clearly, attempts to create social change in communities must focus on both people and places. As Roberto Bedoya explains so well, participatory art needs to find ways to embed creativity within communities and engage the many disparate elements that define them but UK research in this area is limited and, where existent (like in the recent RSA project in Peterborough), localised.
I believe we need to explore new ways in which participation in art, creativity and place can link to become part of people’s everyday lives, integral to our communities, encouraging long-term social change. To do this, it may be necessary to completely rethink our current structures for arts provision, to engage people in new ways, to relinquish control, to trust communities more, and a whole lot of other things too. Sustainability has different meanings and there are many ways to attempt to stimulate sustainable ways of doing things.
This is what I will write about in a series of posts in the coming weeks. I will ask a number of questions and propose some ways forward. My immediate thoughts are that participation in the arts may be able to support broader social change in constructive and sustainable ways and that creativity of action and thought may somehow become integral to the futures of people, places and communities. How this can be developed is uncertain and probably controversial. We shall see…