Rethinking critical theory for our current arts & cultural situation: exploring socially engaged activism, tension & social justice

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…

 

Hypothesis

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.

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Theory

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.[1] 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 [1965], p. 7). Thirdly, the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott surrounding his concepts of ‘playing and reality’ and ‘potential space’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971]). 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.[2]

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 [1968], 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…


[1] To see an annotated version of the presentation, see http://www.colouringinculture.wordpress.org

[2] For more discussion around these additional theoretical perspectives, see Literature Review.

The carnivalesque and critical pedagogy–radical socially engaged art for 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…

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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 [1965], 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).

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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).

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