Caught Doing Social Work? - Socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

This is the text from my workshop “Caught doing social work?” which was part of Manifesta 12’s M12 Education Club conference in Palermo on 19th October 2018. The workshop was held in the community centre in the ZEN social housing project. The text was used as mini provocations which led to a really interesting discussion about instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing.

 Workshop participants exploring a community garden installed as part of Manifesta 12 in the midst of the ZEN social housing project in Palermo. (Stephen Pritchard, 2018.)

Workshop participants exploring a community garden installed as part of Manifesta 12 in the midst of the ZEN social housing project in Palermo. (Stephen Pritchard, 2018.)

 

CAUGHT DOING SOCIAL WORK?


Cawing, Cawing, Always Cawing

Many people in the artworld believe that art can deliver social change.

Many are following yet another artworld trend – that of socially engaged art. This is perhaps best represented by Assemble winning the 2015 Turner Prize. An important moment in the turn (or perhaps return) towards “Useful Art”.

Many more see socially engaged art as a way of instrumentalising artistic practices in the name of state, corporate and other agendas.

The English state, for example, instrumentalises art as a means of “improving” the economy, health and wellbeing, social ills, education, the environment, urban places, crime rates, unemployment, on and on and on. Art can, some argue, offer salvation to all our ills: Panacea Art.

Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a way of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation; harnessed by big businesses to unleash the false fog of corporate social responsibility.

In this sense, socially engaged art becomes yet another tool employed to support the target-driven, cost-benefit values of the dominant neoliberal ideology that is strangling our lives in the noose of individualism and strapping us into the straitjacket of uncaring personal gain.

The problem with this perspective is, for me, three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby powered by political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental.

Beautifully crafted, state-funded tools impose the soft power that’s so important to neoliberalism.

Secondly, there is the question of what is social change? Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shifts. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism.

Thirdly, people who not part of the artworld are not usually listened to. Their words, thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears are ignored or sanitised.

Most people are disenfranchised by cultural policies “done to them”, not by, with and for them. This isn’t social justice. This isn’t democracy.

I believe in the radically political project (or perhaps projects) of cultural democracy. People-powered participatory democracy. Humanistic and socialist democracy.

The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state, opposing capitalism.

So, does our work support neoliberal ideology or contest and oppose it?


Missionaries, Mercenaries, Mediators and Mobilisers

We all learn and experience and express ourselves through cultural activities (whether “high” art or “popular” cultures and subcultures). Our creativity leads us to everyday revolutions that change our ways of being and living in our everyday cultures.

So why do we privilege artists to “engage” people in projects or “work” with people in ill-defined and misunderstood “social” spaces or places?

Are we, as artists working in “the social”, working as Missionaries preaching the Western European, white, middle-class, male, able-bodied gospel of the neoliberal creative industries and Creative Class?

Are we working as Mercenaries, engaging “disadvantaged” people and people in “difficult” places and communities somehow deemed to be in some way lacking in culture, for the sole reason that we need to make a living, a career, to make money?

Are we working as privileged Mediators capable of listening to people who are not listened to – who are ignored – with the sole purpose of helping amplify their frustrations, their anger, their fears, their hopes, their ideas, their demands for rights?

Are we working as Mobilisers – as political activists?

I ask, then, which side are you on?

Who Pays the Piper?

We are privileged. It’s how we use that privilege that matters. We must recognise that our practices are powerful and that we are influential. We must use our influence positively to bring about real and lasting change – radical change.

This is not the time to be instrumentalised by the state, by local authorities, by corporations, by NGOs, by those with vested interests in developing or profiting from our present neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of a neo-colonial Western culture propped-up by art and proliferated using the slow violence of socially engaged art.

We must not be mercenaries or missionaries.

We can be mediators only if we recognise the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.

We can be mobilisers working as part of a broad movement of movements for radical social and political and economic change.

We can help bring down the citadels.

We can be part of the demand for the Right to the City.

We can be part of the movement to take back the city.

We can challenge status quos.

We can call for the decolonisation of our racist Western culture.

We can call out those who proliferate inequity, selfish individualism and greed.

We can stand together with those who are denied the privilege given to us.

Are we, then, truly using our privilege to help bring about truly radical acts?


A Revolution of Everyday Life?

We must never help governments and developers displace people.

We must say no to those who want to use us to deliver their neoliberal agendas.

We must never work as NGO artists, subtly instilling Western culture and language and ways of living on different people from different places.

We are not social workers or community workers or community developers or doctors or nurses or psychotherapists or teachers or preachers or community consultants.

We are not foot soldiers of capitalism.

We are not place-makers.

We are not the servants of the neoliberal Creative Industries ideal.

We must never be story-harvesters.

And we are not social cleansers.

Human relationships, radical action and democratic grassroots participation must happen in our everyday lives.

We need a Revolution of Everyday Life: revolutions of everyday lives.

As artists, we can help bring about a revolution of our everyday lives, of everyone’s lives and ways of being and living.

We can help people self-organise, cooperate and reignite our understanding of ourselves as individuals who are stronger collectively.

But we must never get caught doing social work.

Have you been caught doing social work?


Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful. But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously in the name of “social work”.

We must say NO! We must remember our roots; revisit our histories. We must understand how and why our arts and cultures have been separated from our everyday lives.

We must be wary of those who seek to enforce their values upon our creativity or denounce it as inferior to other cultural activities.

The qualities of radical acts exist in the form of aesthetic experiences not shallow, monolithic Kantian aesthetics.

Our everyday acts and our everyday cultures transcend instrumentalism.

Our everyday lives take must not be determined by institutions – artworld or otherwise.

We are to them like dandelions. We are weeds.

Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age. We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.


What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.


T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1935. (From The Four Quartets, 1941.)