Time to drop innovation? Socially engaged art is not The Latest Thing…

Elizabeth Grady began a discussion on the ‘innovative’ socially engaged network a blade of grass entitled The Latest Thing. I contributed via Twitter then wrote Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes) in response to what I felt was a move towards attempting to position socially engaged art as ‘innovative’. Grady recently responded to my post and to Jethro Brice in a post oddly titled Unmaking Innovation: A Return to the New. Her response to my concerns about socially engaged art using ‘innovation’ as a descriptor of ‘the latest thing’ in this field of practice is, for me, deeply problematic. Put simply, I feel she misses the point. Innovation is an undoubtedly ubiquitous word today. Innovation is linked (as I described in my previous post on a blade of grass) to notions of introducing new ‘things’; novelties. It has been widely appropriated by neoliberalism, positivist sciences and capitalism as a positive term meaning new and, by inference, better.

In my original post, I argued that there is no benefit in relating socially engaged art to such an ideologically stained word.  Grady responded by stating that ‘to tie it [innovation] irretrievably to neoliberalism is to deny its elemental power and independent relationship to creativity’. I would argue that to use innovation as a means of describing ‘new’ forms of socially engaged practice (labelled in a comment at the bottom of one of the previous posts by Grady as ‘the best’), or any forms of socially engaged practice for that matter, ties the practice irretrievably (albeit unintentionally) to notions of novelty and artifice and, in so doing, denies the field its unique attributes of being a form of critical and independent social practice. Artistic creativity (by artists and people taking part) still happens in social practice but instead of simply describing the relationships, experiences and art works produced in this process, we substitute creativity for innovation. For me, there is no clear reason or benefit to use a ‘new’ word for the same thing (or set of things), especially a word that carries such obvious neoliberal baggage.


Baron Prášil, Karel Zeman, Film still, 1961

To then attempt to liberate the word innovation from this baggage, as Grady does in her most recent post, is surely senseless. She is positive and hopeful that ‘by dissociating it [innovation] from a market-driven entrepreneurial perspective, we can perhaps recuperate both beauty and usefulness for the term’. I ask why? Why seek to do this? Why not use other, less ideologically laden words? Why actually argue about words at all? Our field of practice is about social justice, about independent interventions with people using all sorts of artistic and supradisciplinary techniques, about places, about people – not words. Isn’t it? Well, I would argue: yes and no. Words like innovation don’t matter to people taking part in socially engaged art; they do matter when we attempt to define or explain our practice amongst ourselves within the field or to others with an interest in the field (institutions, funders, potential commissioners, other disciplines, etc.)

For Grady, the solution to re-appropriating the word innovation for the (supposed) benefit of socially engaged art lies, surprisingly, in ‘old-fashioned art historical formal analysis’, which she argues is ‘one area of innovation which is not necessarily tied to a neoliberal agenda’. Really? The nineteenth-century formalism of the avowed ‘will-to-art’ positivist Alois Riegl? Or perhaps, straddling the centuries, the formalism of ‘father of art history’ (now disavowed by many art historians) Heinrich Wölfflin? Or what about Bloomsbury favourite Roger Fry? Or, the classic left-right formalist proto-neoliberal turncoat, Clement Greenberg? A man who believed modernist art was separate from history, society and politics? Greenberg, promoter of artistic autonomy; of art-for-art’s-sake? To be blunt: formal analysis is a deeply singular form of art historical criticism – a form that discards social, historical and political perspectives; a form entirely at odds with (at least for me) the principles of socially engaged art. Formalism is also an approach that was used to critique older forms of art. As a critical theorist, formalism is positivist, elitist and monolithic. It, for me, has no place in attempting to describe or analyse socially engaged art practice. And formalism can hardly be considered innovative!

Grady expands her rationale by explaining that, for her, formalism asks: ‘What is the form taken by the work, and what are the characteristics of that form? For a painting, you might say it’s color, line, composition, etc…’ She continues: ‘For socially engaged art I would say it [formal analysis] comes closer to the proximity of artists to various kinds of relationships. Who are the partners? To what degree does partnership happen? Who are the co-creators of the work? The participants? The contours of a project’s relationships are the “form” a socially engaged artwork takes, and its aesthetics are predicated on the qualities (and quality) of those relationships.’ I am horrified that Grady should claim formalism could be a potential guiding light for analysing ‘innovative’ socially engaged art. It cannot. Sociological, psychological, anthropological, ethnographic, critical approaches can be useful ways of thinking about socially engaged art, alongside cultural studies, critical theory, etc. But economics, no. Formalism, most certainly not.

So, I propose:



Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes.)

a blade of grass is a great online resource for socially engaged artists - frequently a site for interesting discussion and debate in and around the field. The Growing Dialogue section of their website is, in their words, a place for ‘moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice’. The latest strand of debate is entitled The Latest Thing. It’s about the relationship ‘innovation’ may have to socially engaged art. For me, it’s infuriating. There’ve been a string of posts and comments about ‘innovation’. I interjected via twitter early on, after the first provocation was published. This blog post is my response to the on-going discussion. I don’t want to rehearse the arguments made in the series of posts on the website by various ‘leaders’ (I dislike the term) in the field. I prefer to explore the discourse of ‘innovation’ in relation to the arts, socially engaged practice and social justice as another way of thinking about the (apparent) ‘latest thing’.



Break Down, Michael Landy, 2001


When curator and critic, Elizabeth Grady, opened the discussion with her blog post Interrogating Innovation in Socially Engaged Art, I responded, via twitter, as follows:

For me, ‘innovation’ is, today, too closely linked to neoliberalism. Radical action and justice shape socially engaged art?

Jethro Brice said in reply that we should ‘drop the ideology of innovation’ and ‘keep pursuing creative, discursive, engagement’. I said that ‘innovation was not a term that sits comfortably with social practice’. Mark Leach summed things up with the brilliantly simple, ‘I’m down with dropping ideologies’.

A flurry of further posts followed. I’m not going to discuss any of these posts in detail. Their titles give a flavour:

The problem I have in this debate is the word ‘innovation’ and how wholly or partly it is happily or doubtfully accepted as a driver of modern art, the avant-garde, socially engaged art, social change, social justice, etc., etc. Innovation is, according to Elizabeth Grady, ‘often found under its more common moniker, “change”’. This blurring is extremely problematic. Innovation is not the same as change. It is also worth clarifying that notions of ‘the ideology of innovation’ are problematic. Innovation is not an ideology but its use is ideological. Grady, in the same sentence in which she conflates innovation and change, also states that, ‘the assignment of value—good or bad—to the term “innovation”… is ideological’. Innovation is used as a foil for several ideologies, as we shall see. But, for me, innovation is not a term that relates (or at least should be related to) socially engaged art.

Socially engaged art is about working with people to explore and create experiences; about activism; about spaces and places; about dissensus, tension, oscillations; even aesthetics (in the broadest sense of the word. Social practice can be about technology. None of these things involve innovation. We do not innovate. Instrumentalised participatory art isn’t innovative either. It’s just another way of appropriating art done to, for or with people to support soft state power; a means of selling meagre forms of top-down ‘social change’. Social justice is never about innovation either. Modernism wasn’t about innovation. The avant-garde movements were not innovators.

Innovation is creeping, insidiously into every aspect of life. Clearly, as is apparent in this debate about ‘the latest thing’ in socially engaged art, innovation is also infiltrating this field (at least in the minds of some people). It’s now popping up like bindweed, twisting around the discourse of Arts Council England and other arts institutions. The expansion of digital technology and Big Data into ‘the cultural industries’ is undoubtedly one driver; the need to measure and better advocate for the arts another. The commonality: capitalism. That’s why it’s important to carefully explore what ‘innovation’ actually means, its origins and how the word is commonly used.

Are ‘innovation’, ‘innovate’, ‘innovative’ words loaded with meaning? Certainly. Are they commonplace nowadays? Definitely. Has this always been the case? No. So what’s changed?

Innovation is almost a de facto requirement in every aspect of our lives: from marketing to policymaking; manufacturing to business management; economics to education; and, of course, arts and culture. The word tends to be associated with ‘newness’ – new ideas, new technology, new systems, new things, etc. It is very closely related to technology. Unsurprising, then, that the usage of ‘innovation’ has increased (and continues to increase) exponentially since the 1960s. So what does the word mean? A glance at the Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘innovation’ reveals it has (or had) several meanings. It is commonly defined as:

The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms. †Formerly const. of (the thing altered or introduced).

The modernist movement in art might, in some (aesthetic) cases, be considered to fit with this description. The avant-garde artists would be horrified. Innovation in modern art is a concept tied to the formalist and historically linear theories of Clement Greenberg – to his 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch. The trouble is that innovation is a term frequently applied to modernist art, to society, history, etc. retrospectively, of in place of words like ‘invention’ or ‘creativity’.

Linked to the notion of innovation is ‘disruptive innovation’ or ‘obsolescence’. Progress of ‘the new’ quickly relegates the old to the scrapheap. This brings me to my root problem with innovation: today it is irrevocably linked to technology and thereby to consumerism. We are led by neoliberalism to believe innovation will eventually lead to salvation. It will not. Innovation will not lead to emancipation, nor equality, nor social justice, nor new forms of truly democratic living. Innovation will lead to the new that soon becomes the old; not necessarily better (whatever that might mean). It might seem that the cycle of innovation will never be broken. It will. It is just a word. A word which has engrained within it its own demise. Innovation will become obsolete, replaced by something else, something similar, something newer.

So to ascribe a word like ‘innovation’ to socially engaged art is a misnomer. An attempt to subsume an area of contemporary art practice that resists and challenges notions of the art market, of art as economic, of audiences as consumers, etc. into the mainstream, increasingly capitalist system of ‘the culture industry’. Many forms of the field (which I tend to label participatory art) are happy to be instrumentalised and justified for their supposed economic benefits. That’s fine. But, for me, there’s no place for ‘innovation’ in my socially engaged practice or my research. Socially engaged art is not ‘The Latest Thing’. Be suspicious of those who suggest otherwise.