Opportunty areas Pt 3: The Artists and The Puppet Masters - A Cautionary Tale

Heartland, The The, 1986

Beneath the old iron bridges, across the Victorian parks,
& all the frightened people running home before dark,
Past the Saturday morning cinema--
that lies crumbling to the ground,
& the piss stinking shopping centre in the new side of town.
I've come to smell the seasons change, & watch the city,
as the sun goes down again.

Here comes another winter, of long shadows & high hopes,
Here comes another winter, waitin for utopia,
waitin for hell to freeze over.

This is the land, where nothing changes,
the land of red buses & blue blooded babies,
This is the place, where pensioners are raped,

& the hearts are being cut, from the welfare state,
Let the poor drink the milk, while the rich eat the honey,
Let the bums count their blessings, while they count the money.

So many people, can't express what's on their minds,
Nobody knows them & nobody ever will,
Until their backs are broken & their dreams are stolen,
& they can't get what they want, then they're gonna get angry!
Well it ain't written in the papers, but its written on the walls
The way this country is divided to fall,
So the cranes are moving on the skyline--
Trying to knock down--this town
But the stains on the heartland, can never be removed,
from this country, that's sick, sad, and confused.

Here comes another winter, of long shadows & high hopes,
Here comes another winter, waitin for utopia,
waitin for hell to freeze over.

The ammunition's being passed, and the lords been praised,
But the wars on the televisions will never be explained,
All the bankers gettin sweaty, beneath their white collars,
As the pound in our pocket, turns into a dollar.

This is the 51st state--of the U. S. A.
[repeat and fade]

Written by Matt Johnson

Doctor Faustus, Cast of Puppets, Milan Klemenčič

Doctor Faustus, Cast of Puppets, Milan Klemenčič

This is the final part of a three-part series about "opportunity areas".  The first two blog posts in the series, Unearthing socially engaged art’s complicity in the gentrification of Elephant & Castle nd 'There for the taking', focused on three artists who I suggested were complicit in gentrification by working for state-funded initiatives like Creative People and Places and with property developers Delancey in the soon-to-be-demolished shopping centre at Elephant and Castle.  I know quite a few people felt I had been unfair, aggressive, vitriolic, indignant and cynical.  I was at pains to explain that the tale I told was not unique nor unusual.  Socially engaged art is commonly used as a form of placemaking.  The examples I described in the work of Eva Sajovic, Rebecca Davies and Sarah Butler were mundane.

The set, the site, the artists, the participants, the funders, the property developers, the art - all cut and paste nowadays. 

And yet the massive gentrification of Elephant and Castle was/is not particularly arts-led.  Its roots are long and pre-planned without the need for cultural intervention.  This is common.  Not all regeneration is arts-led whether the appearance of galleries, pop-up projects, or socially engaged community engagement initiatives.  Sometimes artists unintentionally become pioneers of gentrification.  Sometimes planners and developers build art and artists into a cultural regeneration agenda that sells artiness up front and intentionally.  Sometimes artists become creative placemakers, adding a little bit of arty edginess or community spirit to spaces in the hope of making them attractive to future gentrification agendas or just making local places that are way down the gentrification hit-list a little bit nicer.  But, I argue, artists as creative placemakers also perform as cleaners for the actions for developers and gentrifiers - alongside regeneration nd after much of the work has been done.  This is middle-class gentrification-by-placemaking.  It is this model that is becoming favoured in the UK; subtle and insidious, creative placemaking tends to use socially engaged art as its weapon of choice with local artists performing as its (community/social) workers.  Of course, artists can also resist gentrification, placemaking and artwashing, and frequently they do this very effectively.  (This is the main concern of my research.)

So, the previous two posts have attempted to illustrate an increasingly common mode of employment for artists.  Eva, Rebecca and Sarah may be involved in what I can identify as the early foundations of placemaking around the Elephant and Castle; and Sarah has developed her practice and consultancy across UK creative placemaking after establishing herself within regeneration agendas.  These are examples of genuine attempts to develop artistic and arts professional careers in an incredibly competitive, fragile and precarious creative industries marketplace - art as free market economics - art as socio-economic wellbeing - art as the golden hen nd ag of gold nd golden harp in Jack and The Beanstalk - consistently creating, never running out and sweetly lulling of its owners.  The examples in my blog, serve to show how artists are increasingly used as badly paid, sometimes unpaid, pawns for agendas they may not agree with but have little choice other than to become part of in order to make a living, to try to make ends meet.  The division of artistic labour as production: divide and rule, as always.

We are all aware of artists being the pioneering foot soldiers of capitalism.  We all know when, for example, art organisations receive substantial sums from local councils to open new permanent or even temporal cultural spaces, that this is part of planned attempts at cultural regeneration (read: gentrification).  To be clear, however, I do not blame artists.  They are exploited as we are (almost all) exploited by the systems of neoliberalism.  It alienates us from each other.

But...

Placemaking is the creative industry tool for cleaning up, because, when the main wave of regeneration-based gentrification is over, THEY still have to clean up!  Placemaking's softly liberal (even slightly left-leaning) intentions have been hijacked by property developers and local councils as a means to hover up what’s left in long-gentrified communities as well as to “spruce up” future gentrification targets to hopefully entice regeneration to begin.  It's soft gloss is a perfect complement before, during nd after the displacement and dispossession of the cycle of gentrification.

So this is a cautionary tale that's, perhaps, not really cautionary nor a tale...

The moral:

Artists are Puppets, We are ALL Puppets; The Puppet Masters Pull the Strings in EVERY direction, all at the same time...  THEY KNOW WHO WE ARE AND WE KNOW WHO THEY ARE [but we are too frightened to speak out and do what we have been taught: DO WHAT YOU ARE TOLD AND BE QUIET!]

Artists and many arts organisations are seduced by the bright lights of the creative industries, the lure of state-funding-led cultural expansionism, and the globally dirty money of corporate interests.  Eva, Rebecca and Sarah represent hundreds, if not thousands, of artists eking a living from instrumentalised arts and cultural policies that drive them to do the sort of work they’ve been doing at Elephant.  No one talks about it.  Heads down and on we go.  Say nothing.  My blog post is about this.

And, yet, there are many effective and unique forms of self-organised opposition to gentrifiers and to artists and arts organisations who become implicated as supporters (to one extent or another) of gentrification and artwashing.  In many cases, activist artists use the very same socially engaged art techniques against complicit socially engaged artists.  It is often only the intentions between those resisting and those complicit that RADICALLY differ.

Meanwhile, we all chase the next little pact with the devil whilst the puppet masters tweak, tangle, yank and cut our strings back to precarious filaments threatening to snap at every second...

Until their backs are broken & their dreams are stolen,
& they can't get what they want, then they're gonna get angry!
Well it ain't written in the papers, but its written on the walls
The way this country is divided to fall ...

When will our backs be broken?  When will we get angry!

Are there really any real opportunities left open to us anymore?

 

Postscript:

(In 1986, I was 14 years old and living in South Tyneside as Thatcher's cuts, closures, wars and destruction of society ravaged the area.  So many once proud working people - working class people - thrown away, scrapped, divided and lost.  Heartland by The The was one song I played again and again and again.  It spoke to me then and it still speaks to me now.)