Dandelions & dissent: A review of 'Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement' edited by Alison Jeffers & Gerri Moriarty

Dandelions & dissent: A review of 'Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement' edited by Alison Jeffers & Gerri Moriarty

This review was first published in November 2017 for Artworks Alliance. It was the first review of the book which is published by Bloomsbury and can be purchased here. I am publishing it on my blog in the hope of stimulating new discussion around cultural democracy, community arts and everyday art and creativity - an area I'm working on quite a lot at the moment.

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Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

I believe that there is not enough emphasis placed upon understanding the theoretical and historical perspectives and contexts of 'participation' that are, for me, crucially important to both practice and research that engages with people, place, power and politics.  Similarly, I also believe that, whilst this field is situated within 'the social', there is not enough emphasis on how practice and research may fit with broader understandings of art and society, nor, for that matter, with wider theoretical from other interrelated disciplines.  Too often I attend conferences or read articles about socially engaged art, participatory art and Creative People and Places only to find an often insular, narrow discussion of practice which often is positioned within existing frameworks of practice and research which themselves are often ultimately defined by the state.

This article therefore attempts to open up new ways of thinking about community development and social engagement in art programmes like Creative People and Places.

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Arise street-crack Buddleias–why socially engaged artists must attempt to storm the citadels


I was invited to attend Storming the Citadels? Changing attitudes and frameworks to arts practices and research in community settings by Sophie Hope. As an admirer of Sophie’s research and a believer in many of the demands made in Owen Kelly’s classic 1984 text Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels, I travelled to Bloomsbury, London as a hopeful participant in an outpouring of revolutionary fervour. I read Slavoj Žižek’s It’s the Political Economy, Stupid! (2013) on the train. I reflected upon my feelings that Jeremy Corbyn might really be a last hope, not just for British (English?) politics but perhaps for art and cultural democracy. This was the first day of my return to research following my paternity leave. Six months of no research. Six months of joyfully privileged time spend with my new son, daughter and wife.

I also re-read Su Braden’s Artists and People (1978) – another classic example of inspiring writing about the community art movement. I pondered on why the privatised East Coast Trains service was a somehow unsatisfying experience when compared to travelling on effectively the same nationalised service not long ago. I was ready to be inspired by finally meeting and hearing from Su Braden as well as a host of other exciting speakers. Would this be the moment when we started talking seriously about tearing down the citadels brick by brick?

I guess my expectations are best described by a couple of Owen Kelly quotes. Firstly, his assertion that we must ‘describe accurately the shapes of the relevant citadels, and to indicate both the importance, and the real possibility, of taking them by storm’ felt as pressing now as it was back in 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 6). Like Kelly, I have a growing sense that, like the community artists, many within the field of participatory arts (perhaps even socially engaged art too) have ceased to think and act like ‘threatening revolutionaries’ in favour of directly and indirectly working for state institutions as ‘primitive guides whose role [is] to lead people through the badlands to the citadels of culture’ (Kelly, 1984, p. 25). Could we, following Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Žižek, find the strength to invest in ‘banks of rage’ in sufficient quantities to bring about our emancipation or would we, like so many other leftist movements, fail to accrue enough ‘rage-capital’ (Žižek, 2013, p. 26)?

When I arrived, I noticed several paintings on the walls bearing the initials ‘VB’. Vanessa Bell? In the Keynes Library at Birkbeck? This was the original haunt of the Bloomsbury group. A place steeped in modernist history. Its grandeur and heritage seemed to jar with any notion of storming citadels. Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps we must be on the inside? Can you storm citadels from the inside, I wondered? The ‘long table’ dinner party style conversation format also seemed a little off-putting; perhaps too polite.







Ok. So here’s a flavour of what happened during an intensive day storming (or, perhaps, norming). Threads. Leading somewhere. Several directions. Sometimes I felt hopeful; often frustrated; increasingly uncomfortable. More on that later.

Research pairing five ‘community art pioneers’ with five current practitioners suggested an increasingly formalised practice; made safe; less critical; increasingly technical and bureaucratic; less politicised; more focused on target groups with specific identities; more short-term projects; outcomes expected; boxes must be ticked. Perhaps things may not have moved on very much? Community arts may have provided a ‘mouth piece for communities’. THINKS: Not sure.

Participatory work commissioned by large arts institutions and funded by Arts Council England contrasted with a concern that institutions ‘destroy innovation by distilling information’, creating artists as ‘delivery agents’. Much work in the field today seems to be short-term, ‘fast-turnaround’. Common theme: New Labour were responsible. Discomfort at thoughts of large arts organisations competing for funding with small youth work groups. Artist or activist first? Training in conflict resolution? [THINKS: No thanks.] Do we always ‘give funders exactly what they want’ – or are there degrees of subversion?

Instrumentalism (THE ‘I’ word). Great interjection: ‘We were about social change. But now the world seems worse!’ What went wrong? Was GLC funding really open and positive? Could this model work today? As practitioners, we ‘must be more than accessories to gentrification’. Perhaps we need to ‘radically rethink the role of community’. Outreach (THE ‘O’ word) – ‘putting a person (artist) in there’. [THINKS: Is this the participatory arts equivalent to ‘boots on the ground’?] Co-production (A ‘now’ word). Neoliberalism (THE ‘£’ word). Gentrification (again) followed by ‘creating a space’. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was an artist on every street corner?’ [GRIMACES. THEN THINKS: no.]

Another great intervention: ‘We’re tiptoeing round the edges, not storming the citadels!’ New Labour again. No participants here. [NODS HEAD.] Another powerful intervention: ‘services no longer exist and artists are being asked to fill the gaps’. [THINKS: so true - ARTISTS AS SOCIAL WORKERS – no!] ‘I’ve been a foot soldier too many times!’ An honest admission.

Science Fiction. Not knowing. Plural readings. Utopian. Questioning common sense ‘truths’. Metaphysical discussions. ‘Is “The Other” a threat or a good?’ Spaces – should they be risk-free or ‘not very safe’? [THINKS: we missed out by not exploring literary parallels in more detail here.]

Bold statements: ‘I don’t see myself as collaborative, participatory and certainly don’t see myself as a community artist’; and ‘What happens when I impose myself on a situation - to be the delivery agent?’ Honest. Powerful descriptions of an artist’s recent practice.

Community art: ‘We knew there was no… pay packet’; but ‘We did storm the citadels’; then ‘Some of us became local councillors’. [THINKS: Wow. Expectation turned upside down.] Dandelions and Roses. The second reference. ‘We toured the country. We weren’t staying.’ Community arts as transient act. At last, ‘Mural, mural or mural?’ Practice as stereotype. Honesty: ‘It was difficult to do anything other than celebrating’. Moment of awakening: ‘Someone said, “When are you going to stop gilding the ghettos?” I was devastated… So we rebelled.’ Association of Community Artists – no one took them seriously. Community arts ‘wasn’t a very big movement’, just ‘a few people making… a lot of noise’. [THINKS: great to hear this historical perspective.] Tory Enterprise Allowance offered community artists a little regular income to make work!

Commissioning ‘social art’ practices today: often artist-led; professionalization; artist as entrepreneur; artist as ‘service provider’; socially engaged art as departure from community art; socially engaged art ‘not a movement’; ‘shared methods – different rationales’. Owen Kelly’s called for ‘smaller haciendas’ (author of Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels (1984)) – ideas apparently ‘not transferable today’. [THINKS: I’m not so sure.] ‘We should distinguish between art and activism’. [THINKS: can we and why?] Question: Should commissioning (of socially engaged art) continue? Answer: Move away from commissioning. [THINKS: seems a bit over simplistic.]

Su Braden: Paris 1968; eccentric private donors and exchange economies; went to Africa; film company; Department for Overseas Development; Action Aid. [EPIPHANY.]

‘We need to work with government.’ [OPENLY DISAGREE.] We ended with my favourite quote from the day: as socially engaged artists we must be ‘violently intellectual’.


Artists and people start out with good intentions – perhaps radical, democratic, autonomous, and even emancipatory.


They attempt to subvert instrumentalism – Trojan Horses, parasites, Robin Hood.


They (perhaps intentionally, perhaps inadvertently) become increasingly complicit with instrumentalism.


They join the status quo – regeneration, institutions, overseas development.

They (sometimes) leave the ‘narrow’ (a quote) field of the arts.


Perhaps, then, we begin believing we must storm the citadels – to ‘tear them down brick by brick’ so we can build ‘a series of smaller haciendas’, chanting NO MORE CITADELS (Kelly, 1984, p. 138).

Can we avoid this (perhaps inevitable) slide? I’m not sure. This is a work in progress.


Things are changing. Neoliberalism is weak. It has been exposed. The art world status quo likewise. Some in the arts say we should move towards economics. It drives all policy at the moment. Comply to survive. I suggest that this is an incredibly short-term way of thinking and doing – defeatist even. We can invest in our cultural bank of rage; combine it with the incredible investments of other movements for social justice and political change. We must define art’s citadels – new and old. The walls are crumbling but THEY are using the debris, OUR debris, to strengthen their defences.


We must realise, following Žižek’s reinterpretation of Hegel, that: ‘WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR’ (Žižek, 2013, p. 27). Act now. Learn from the past. Believe in the commons.


This is not for everyone. But then neither is socially engaged art.




Kelly, O., 1984. Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels. London: Comedia.

Žižek, S., 2013. It's the Political Economy, Stupid!. In: G. Sholette & O. Ressler, eds. It's the Political Economy, Stupid: The Global Financial Crisis in Art and Theory. London: Pluto Press.

My life as research: tracing the edges of socially engaged & participatory arts practice

I was asked to present a brief précis of my current research at Northumbria University last week.  I thought it might be of interested to some people.  So here it is.  It’s an edited version of the presentation.  The images are a mix of my own, from my case studies and old film stills.

It is first perhaps worth explaining that this is my second year of research-based doctoral study.

As well as being a PhD candidate, I’m also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator with as strong a literary background as art historical.  I like to create, write, think, antagonise, agonise – although not necessarily in that order.  For me, my research is practice; my practice is research.  There are clear boundaries, blurring only occasionally, perhaps shifting a little with and against my research.  This is good.  For me potentiality often lies around the margins, where tension is an always welcome guest.


I began my research in October 2013 with a question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Why?  Because I was immersed within the field of participatory (or socially engaged) arts (I still am) and I was agonising over the encroachment of policy-led, New Public Management Newspeak into my practice and, indeed, the broader arts world… ‘Evidence’, ‘resilience’, ‘cultural value’, ‘economic value’, ‘inclusion’, ‘exclusion’, ‘diversity’, ‘sustainability’, ‘well-being’, ‘outputs’, ‘outcomes’ – on and on… Creeping instrumentalism.  Even seemingly positive words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘social change’ suddenly became murky through ubiquity.  My question can be simply modified to become a statement – a mantra – for many interested in this field: PARTICIPATORY ART SUPPORTS SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL CHANGE.  Really?

The research question seems as it is: superficial.  What are ‘participatory arts’? A homogenous entity?  Or does the term represent a broad range of artists working with a myriad of artistic practices spanning everything from face painting to radical political activism?  What is ‘participation’ anyway?  And does the term ‘socially engaged art’ or, even, ‘social practice’ better describe certain forms of issue-based, independently determined making art together with people?  Similarly, ‘sustainability’ can take many forms from ecological concerns to maintaining narrow art world status quos ushered in by an allegedly well-meaning Maynard Keynes.  The paramount question about ‘sustainability’ is: Whose sustainability?  Who or what is being sustained, by whom, for what purpose?  And, of course: What is the role of the state?  Does ‘social change’ relate to state agendas and issues of power?  Could notions of ‘social justice’ provide an ethical alternative?


‘Participatory arts’ were spurned from the ashes of the Community Arts movement.  A lack of self-organisation and theoretical grounding for their multi-faceted approaches to working with people left them open to incorporation by the state on the one (inclusive) hand and marginalisation by the state on the (radically political) other.  Arts policy played an ever-increasing part in this – it still does.  Nonetheless, socially engaged art developed on the margins of the 1990s art world to represent, perhaps, a return to more radical forms of working with people.  Some call it ‘the latest thing’ – it is not!  The field’s historical and political contexts are deeply rich; profoundly influencing many of today’s socially engaged artists.  If this history is interesting to you, I recommend you read Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels by Owen Kelly (1984)…


I am trying to align past and present theory with current socially engaged practice.  By exploring and interrelating theoretical and practical perspectives, I hope to illuminate the field of socially engaged practice AND influence current policymakers.  The notion of Critical Utopias forms a locus for my research.  Taking Herbert Marcuse’s The End of Utopias as a starting point, I’m exploring the notion that utopia was a derogatory term used as a tool for suppression and control.  Yet, when reawakened and set free, utopian thinking might, perhaps, offer real potential for emancipation from the dominant neoliberalism paradigm.  For Tom Moylan, tracing a vein similar to the utopianism of Paulo Freire:

The critical utopias give voice to an emerging radical perception and experience that emphasize process over system, autonomous and marginal activity over the imposed order of a centre, human liberation over white/ phallocentric control, and the interrelationships of nature of human chauvinism… The critical utopias refuse to be restricted by their own traditions, their own systematizing content…

(Moylan, 1986, p. 211)

These perspectives align very closely to critically engaged forms of participatory and social arts practice.



My approach is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School.  Interdisciplinary in nature, my research attempts to fuse a range of theoretical perspectives, taking the following key tenets of critical theory as points of departure: 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).  Dialectics are central to my thinking.  For me, they, along with many other elements in traditional and contemporary critical theory, offer new ways of understanding our current milieu; of (re)imagining alternatives to the suffocating cloak of neoliberalism.

There are too many other theoretical approaches to cite here.  Suffice to say that they span the Marxist politics of, for example, Frederic Jameson and Chantal Mouffe to the psychoanalytic approaches of Jacques Lacan and Donald Winnicott.  There are many paths to ‘playing’ and ‘reality’ (or realities).  Compliance is not one.


So, from my original research question, and, like a good empirical researcher, I produced the following working hypothesis which I am testing and refining during my fieldwork:

Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic 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.

It is lengthy and wordy but useful to my research.

Critical theory can also be considered, in its weaker sense, a distinctive methodology based upon dialectics.  Following this approach, my methodology rejects ‘the qualitative-quantitative distinction as a way of differentiating methodologies’ and is aware of and opposed to the problematic dominance of ‘societal demands for knowledge that can produce technical control’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994).  It instead seeks ‘a theory of social and cultural reproduction’ that is ‘part of a process of social production’ whilst acknowledging the impossibility of ignoring ‘the history and systematic aspects of research’ (ibid.).

My methods are empirical - ethnographic.  My investigation revolves around intensive field research that is autoethnographic - an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience to understand cultural experience.  It challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others, instead treating research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act.  It uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography.  As a method, autoethnography becomes both process and product.


(I then gave excerpts from my five longitudinal case studies.  A mix of organisations and artists.  They were presented as autoethnographic narrative.  Reflections from my field notes.  I have self-censored them for now…)

As well as the longitudinal case studies, I also have conducted and will undertake more informal discussions with people from across all areas of my research.  Each session has a focus relevant to the person’s relationship to my research.  Although short, these focused discussions form critical aspects of my overall thesis.


But there are also many fragments. Pieces of conversations with other artists, academics, arts organisations, policymakers, etc. that I collect along the way. They are usually the products of chance occurrence; fleeting words. They are incredibly stimulating and often serve to refocus or challenge my research in incredibly unpredictable ways.


I love collecting as many artefacts along my journey. Some are useful pieces of evidence; others mementos that may or may not stimulate some memory of past encounters. Unspoken meaning often lies dormant in these objects, waiting to find the right moment… Or perhaps not…

Of course, everything must be validated – verified. My field notes are ‘signed off’ by participants after they have read and made necessary corrections and amendments. This process is incredibly useful in developing relationships and maintaining or reinstating some degree of professional distance.


I hope my research will be of interest and value to academics, policymakers, socially engaged artists and arts organisations. My thesis will need to navigate a careful path so as to appeal to this diverse range of people. Perhaps my autoethnographic approach will help make the research accessible?

And so, the next year or so of my life will be taken up intensively researching my longitudinal case studies, continuing to develop my focused discussions with other individuals and reading as much about the field, other relevant disciplinary approaches and theory as possible. Talking, experiencing, thinking, writing, reading, doing… Then writing up the final thesis.

My life as research…


‘Pilots to Practice’–reflections about an ArtWorks PHF participatory arts conference

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?