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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Socially engaged art–marginal practices & critical utopias

I delivered this talk about my research to the Northumbria - Sunderland AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training Student Conference on the 1st July 2015 at The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.  It’s about negating a negation – negative dialectics.  It’s also about some of the potentialities that socially engaged art may be able to explore as part of broader movements for social justice and emancipation from the shackles of our present neoliberal regime.

For me, our current technocratic and bureaucratic state is, at every level, unfair, unjust, unequal – not just maintaining status quos but tightening their strange-holds upon our ways of living.  The field of arts and culture is no exception.  It’s mutation (under the hands of politicians, policy-makers, funders, arts and cultural institutions, financial and business backers, etc.) into The Creative Industries is deeply troubling.  Horkheimer and Adorno saw this coming.  Totally administered arts.  Totally administered society.  My work is optimistic and hopeful.  The outcomes are always unknown.  But it is essential that I also explore, through negative dialectics, the acts of negation that have, to a large extent, imposed outside rules and policies upon artists, people, communities in the name of progress, economics, austerity, excellence, or whatever.

Enough said.

Please feel free to either take a look at my presentation online here or by clicking the image below (remember to click the ‘NOTES’ button in the bottom right corner of the PowerPoint Online window); or read a transcript of my talk below.

The images in the presentation are from my five longitudinal studies as well as some of my own.  They are meant to sometimes jar with the text; sometimes complement.  You decide.

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SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART – MARGINAL PRACTICES AND CRITICAL UTOPIAS

Hello. I’m Stephen Pritchard. This is my second year of research-based doctoral study. I am also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator. Five months into a six month period of paternity leave.

[I must not research.]

So, rather than present what you’ve (possibly) already heard me say before, I thought I’d try a more autoethnographic, prosaic form.

Snippets. Thread ends. Scraps of thoughts. Slices of other writing. Holes. Never wholes. Titbits of other talks. Scrambled. Jumbled. Sometimes lucid. Things from around the edges.

5 MONTHS AND NO RESEARCH. [REPEAT: I MUST NOT RESEARCH.]

THINKS: Start a little formally (to begin with…)

RESEARCH QUESTION: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? THIS WILL CHANGE.

The directions of research will not.

HERBERT MARCUSE: “How can art speak the language of a radically different experience, how can it represent the qualitative difference? How can art invoke images and needs of liberation which reach into the depth dimension of human existence, how can it articulate the experience not only of a particular class, but all of the oppressed?”

HYPOTHESIS: 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.

CHANGE IT! Too long. Wordy. Idealistic? NO. Utopian? Marginal practices? YES.

MOYLAN: “This alliance of margins without a center anticipates in both the personal and political dimensions the new values and the new society.”

THEORY: Deeply complex. Interdisciplinary.

Can theories of literary criticism, object relations, aesthetics, Critical Theory, political, contemporary visual culture, more, shed new light on the practice of socially engaged art? I think so.

Critical Utopias offer infinite potentialities.

METHODOLOGY: Critical theory. Dialectics. Autoethnographic – autobiography and ethnography – process AND product. Discourse analysis. Longitudinal studies. Short intensive discussions. Fragments of conversation. Gather artefacts, mementos, memories along the way.

Mountains of field notes.

Research subjects become in some ways objects: The Stove, Dumfries; Alex White-Mazzarella, global; Encounters, Totnes; Ovalhouse, London; Platform London.

Different trajectories. Similar practices AND uniquely different. All struggling to make art in an increasingly economics-driven field. Committed to being part of this research, we can all learn from each other.

PRESENTATIONS: ArtWorks conference at BALTIC, Warwick University, The Stove, and Arts Council England in London, more.

I’m lecturing at London Met and (hopefully) other universities in the autumn. I tweet. Blog.

We’re all (self) propagandists nowadays.

FIRST PAPER: A View is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, will be published by Taylor Francis in the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy in August.

TOM MOYLAN: “Critical utopian discourse becomes a seditious expression of social change and popular sovereignty carried out on in a permanently open process of envisioning what is not yet.”

The art world is an incredibly staid, unequal place. And art’s potentialities – like all things in life – always lie around its margins – in spaces (perhaps not yet created) where tension is always a welcome and frequent (re) visitor.

HERBERT MARCUSE: “The transcendence of immediate reality shatters the reified objectivity of established social relations and opens a new dimension of experience: rebirth of the rebellious subjectivity.”

ART AND INEQUALITY

Can art ever be truly equal? (Can anything?) Or, is art always about inequity; unfairness; elitism?

As a Critical Theorist, capitalism is always inherently unequal; insidiously alienating.

Art as commodity. Artist as a profession - division of labour. These sorts of things threaten creativity. Replacing society with individualism; with competition for resources THEY say are in short supply.

THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE, they say.

I say THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES! There are many alternatives. Tiny little alternatives. OUR alternatives. Different. NOT THEIR’S.

WE LIVE IN ONE OF THE WORLD MOST UNEQUAL COUNTRIES. Neoliberalism encourages inequality. Divide and rule. We are all increasingly, often unknowingly complicit…

Because, after all…

We’re all consumers nowadays.

Ours is a material world.

Capital is everything.

Economic value. Social value. Cultural value. Social Return on Investment. Impact. Innovation. Evaluation. Matrices. Big data. Wellbeing. Happiness. Resilience. Adaptive resilience. Sustainability. Philanthropy. Leadership. Quality. Great art. Excellence. Money. Money. Money! More and more and more…

… Oh, and CUTS!

Austerity is such a terrible word.

But, wait a minute… The Art World’s such a lovely place, isn’t it? Great Art and Culture For Everyone v2.0 anyone? The pink book? State produced bible to salve all society’s ills. Bring us all together? Art for all?

Not if THOSE IN THE KNOW have their way.

Can arts and culture think beyond economics and (nicely) enforced state policy? Beyond spurious ecosystem models. Beyond ‘making the right investments’?

SU BRADEN: “What is financed… is still seen by THEM as a means by which more people will be encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the arts on which the majority of money is already spent.”

She was talking about community art. Who get’s to decide. Limited participation.

So let’s put PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL…

Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t THEY?

Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% – should I say WE – members of the cultural class?

Participation in the arts lacks real meaning.

Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns!

Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal – issue-based – commonly working for social justice.

So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive?

I suggest participation lacks intent.

For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.

PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look – all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.

Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts – participatory arts – are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… people like us.

STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Another neoliberal veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained.

Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists.

Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.)

CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)

Keeps the funders happy anyway.

IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW.

Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans.

FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION.

Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they?

They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes.

Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour.

Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art!

BBC GET CREATIVE!

New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Creative Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences.

Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.

PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES.

Artists always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait?

MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism.

Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Social practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!

So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory arts programming are guilty of a terrible crime:

PARTICIPATING IN THE NEOLIBERAL PROJECT OF INDIVIDUALISM. THEIR ILLUSORY RAINBOW CLOAK OF ARTS AND CREATIVE INDUSTRIES SHOULD NOT FOOL YOU. LOOK CAREFULLY. IT IS ANOTHER CRUDE APPROPRIATION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE.

HORKHEIMER AND ADORNO: “All reification is a forgetting.”

WHAT IS SOCIAL PRACTICE?

Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

Potential spaces. Safe places where dangerous new realities might grow. Grassroots. Social justice. Collective. Autonomous. Communal.

Deeply suspicious of instrumentalism and state. Outside of institutions. Around and across margins.

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.

Unspoken, like innumerable tiny little secrets shared in moments outside the false strictures of coordinated civic time.

Uncertain.

Always uncertain…

Messes of thread.

Thank you.

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.

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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?

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‘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)…

SO WHAT’S MY ANGLE?

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.

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WHAT’S MY APPROACH?

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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

Radical arts activism, sustainability by renewal & social justice: refining doctoral research via critical theory towards a working hypothesis

This post is a first draft of part of my doctoral research methodology.  I have been developing my thinking using a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches and theoretical perspectives that are both complementary and conflicting.  This has led to the development of a research design founded on a working hypothesis that (hopefully) better expresses the nature of my research than the (deliberately ironic) research question might.  Discussion of relevant theoretical approaches and methods will follow soon.

As always, comments and criticism are always encouraged…

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Research question

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

The research question is obviously ambiguous; deeply problematic. This is intentional. It is undoubtedly a tricky question that alludes to the many critical issues facing the burgeoning field of ‘participation in the arts’. As described in greater detail below, this research is underpinned by critical theory that oscillates between the modernism of The Frankfurt School, its philosophical predecessors, and the critical aspects of postmodernism. In this sense, the research question can be read as an ironic representation of the complexities and abstruseness of our present socio-political milieu. A position perhaps mirrored by current manifestations of ‘the culture industry’ and by increasing state interventions into that field. The question mimics the ‘cultural newspeak’ that might emanate from today’s UK government departments and quasi-governmental organisations; developed vivaciously by arrayed policy-makers and advisory panels; repeated parrot-fashion by arts institutions and ‘arts leaders’. In this, perhaps flippant, sense, the answer to the research question is undoubtedly, ‘YES!

However, this research does not aim to verify state claims for ‘participation in the arts’ as a panacea for all social (and, perhaps even, political) malady. It seeks to challenge these claims; to explore possible theoretical, ethical, political and practical alternatives that may shake the status-quo, maybe even fracture the present, ambiguous discourse around ‘participatory arts’. Clearly, then, it is essential that terms such as ‘participatory arts’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are coherently defined. These ambiguities are discussed at length in the literature review but it is important they are considered here so that the research has clear direction. To this end, there follows a series of statements about how this research defines what it is and what it is not interested in studying during the in-depth investigation of its chosen case studies. It is obvious, then, that the research question must be developed into a hypothesis that can be tested and refined during the research period. It is also worth noting that the research intention and hypothetical position have been discussed with the case study participants. It is, indeed, on the basis of the initial hypothesis and subsequent discussion around it that they agreed to contribute to this research.

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Refining the research question

As mentioned above, the terms ‘participation’, ‘participatory art’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are incredibly slippery and multifarious. This section aims to briefly discuss some interpretations of these terms to illustrate how they are used to convey a myriad of meanings for an array of political, philosophical, scientific and ethical reasons. It then sets out to explicate the particular perspectives the research seeks to investigate as well as what it does not. At this point, it is important to be clear that the researcher does not wish to imply that the other interpretations are less valid or somehow inferior aspects of ‘participation in the arts’. They are simply different perspectives.

Looking first at ‘participatory art’, the term has been described by various people within the field of ‘the arts’, and with various interests in the field, very differently. Paola Merli, an academic interested in cultural policy, stated in 2002 that participatory art was used as ‘a form of governance’ by the UK government: a tool for ‘promoting social cohesion’; a ‘cultivated cultural activity’ rather than a ‘primary need’ (Merli, 2004 [2002], pp. 17-21). Her position is developed from a critical attack on Francois Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? (1997) in which he describes participatory arts as being able to ‘contribute to social cohesion’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). Whilst Merli is clearly suggesting that participatory art is an apparatus of state instrumentalism – a critical position shared by this research – Matarasso’s report suggests this instrumentalism is distinctly beneficial for both participants and government. However, Merli’s proposition, derived from Bourdieu, that participation in the arts is a ‘nicety’ that fosters cultural satisfaction is, whilst an undoubtedly valid position in many cases, narrow in that it leaves little room for radical, counter-hegemonic arts activism. The situation today is that the UK government and ‘arm’s length’ organisations such as Arts Council England are actively promoting the instrumental and economic benefits of participation in the arts more widely than at the time of the Merli/ Matarasso debate. Arts Council England list seventeen ‘activities’ they currently use for ‘arts-based segmentation analysis’[1] to define and measure ‘arts participation’ as part of their Taking Part surveys which seek to identify and characterise ‘distinct arts consumer types’ in the ‘arts market’ (Arts Council England a, 2014). Interestingly, all the listed activities involve doing and taking part in art. Participatory arts projects are not measured separately. Radical arts activities are not mentioned. Similarly, their recently published report about the benefits of arts to society is also incredibly vague about how they define ‘participation in the arts’ yet it extolls such activities as having many (equally loosely defined) intrinsic, instrumental and economic benefits (Arts Council England b, 2014). So it is clear, perhaps, that, not only is participation in the arts a very broadly defined set of possible activities that does not particularly value participatory or socially engaged projects as meriting specific categorisation or measurement, but it is also deemed to be an important ‘nicety’.

‘Sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are two other ill-defined aspects of the research question that must be clarified so that a working hypothesis can be constructed. Sustainability is commonly used to describe the need to maintain or improve biological and/ or human productivity and/ or diversity. It is also a term used to describe ideas or other systems that can be defended or upheld. The term is used to relate ‘sustainability’ to ‘ecosystems’ in which economic, social and biological factors are brought together with the aim of ‘developing’ areas of the ecosystem so as to guarantee the continuing of the whole. These factors were developed by the United Nations in 1987 in their Bruntland Report (United Nations, 1987). Interestingly, culture was added as a fourth factor for sustainability and, more recently, the word ‘political’ has replaced ‘social’[2]. The Bruntland Commission definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely quoted, describing sustainable development as:

[D]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

(United Nations, 1987)

Sustainability is also a ‘hot topic’ in UK arts policy, although it is, perhaps, most frequently used in relation to the drive towards ‘organisational change’ and ‘adaptive resilience’ in the face of state-imposed cuts to arts funding. Ex-Arts Council England director Mark Robinson is one of the main proponents of this type of arts management interpretation of sustainability. His 2010 report Making adaptive resilience real clearly demonstrates this linkage of the term sustainability to change within the field of the arts, stating, for example, that:

all parts of the sector should collaborate to improve understanding of systems-thinking broadly, and resilience and sustainability issues specifically, through research, publication and debate, training and development

(Robinson, 2010, p. 46)

Clearly, then, ‘sustainability’ is as common in socio-economic development and management as it is in concepts of environmentalism.

Cultural economics researcher Diane Ragsdale challenges the idea that all arts organisations, and large unwieldy institutions in particular, should be sustained at any cost, especially at the expense of smaller, newer organisations and individual artist-led projects (Ragsdale, 2013). Her position is discussed further in the literature review. It is Ragsdale’s ‘bottom up’ contention that this research takes as a point of departure when considering notions around ‘sustaining’ socially engaged arts practice and social justice. Her perspectives align with the desire of this research to test if and how socially engaged arts movements may be able to be self-sustaining, continually diversifying and self-renewing. As such, it is inherently linked to concepts around developing ‘social justice’ rather than a universal notion of ‘social change’. It is possible to consider many shifts in how we live as representing social change. Industrialisation, capitalism, communism, Nazism, welfare reform, privatisation, credit cards, the internet – a few examples of social change. The term is problematic because it is bereft of any moral or ethical philosophical so that anything can be considered to be social change. Social justice, on the other hand, may be considered to be about fairness and equality; an opposition to injustice. As such, the research takes as its starting point the ‘three critical domains of equality and equity’ proposed by the United Nations in 2006 as essential to the notion of social justice: ‘equality of rights’; ‘equality of opportunities’; and ‘equity in living conditions’ (United Nations, 1996, pp. 15-16). Whilst the report is discussed in more detail in the literature review, it is worth highlighting that this research is aligned to the historical roots of the social justice movement described by the United Nations as:

[A concept developed] in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine… an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity… a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists… Of particular importance in the present context is the link between the growing legitimization of the concept of social justice, on the one hand, and the emergence of the social sciences as distinct areas of activity and the creation of economics and sociology as disciplines separate from philosophy (notably moral philosophy), on the other hand. Social justice became more clearly defined when a distinction was drawn between the social sphere and the economic sphere, and grew into a mainstream preoccupation when a number of economists became convinced that it was their duty not only to describe phenomena but also to propose criteria for the distribution of the fruits of human activity.

(United Nations, 1996, p. 12)

Nonetheless, because the responsibilities of ‘administering’ social justice in the UK primarily relies on its technocratic and centralising government, the concept remains a matter of policy and inevitable instrumentalism that is alluded to in the above quote. One aspect of this research will be to work with case study participants by referencing critical perspectives from the UN report to explore how social justice is interpreted and how it is applied ethically and morally by socially engaged arts organisations.

In summary, this research is not interested in further ‘evidencing’ the predominant type of instrumental ‘participatory arts’ described above (and in more detail in the literature review), nor does it consider that all participatory or socially engaged arts activities must always be classified as secondary to some notional typography of ‘primary human needs’. Rather, this research is interested in radically activist arts practice that engages in counter-hegemonic interventions, seeks to develop and/ or enhance awareness of issues surrounding social justice, and/ or produces new ways of thinking about and/ or producing new forms of practice that can be considered self-sustaining. It is from these perspectives that the following working hypothesis has been developed.

Deveron - All Hail the Returning Hunter(slash)Gatherers, 2011

Working hypothesis

The concept of using a working hypothesis for research based upon critical theory is problematic, particularly for Critical Theorists from The Frankfurt School. This is because, for Critical Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, a hypothesis was considered empiricist – a ‘positivistically reductive mode of inference’ (Strydom, 2011, p. 148). In common with empirical modes of inference, critical theory utilises traditional concepts of deduction and induction but places a critical emphasis upon abduction, rather than deduction, creating space for dialectically imaginative thinking in so doing (ibid.). It has been argued by Habermas (himself referencing the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce) that only abduction can generate new knowledge through a ‘critical process of “determinate negation”’ – a process that must embody ‘ongoing learning’ (MacKendrick, 2008, p. 175). 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.


[1] For a list of all seventeen ‘activities’, see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/research-and-data/arts-audiences/arts-based-segmentation-research/faqs/#5

[2] For more about these developments, see the original text of United Nations’ Agenda 21 (1992) - accessible via http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=52 - and subsequent UN reaffirmations of support at subsequent ‘Rio’ summits

Critical theory

Other disciplines that might further develop socially engaged art practice

This section considers other disciplines that are relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) and 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; and the carnivalesque. 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 sixth 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 first post briefly discusses critical theory.  My research is based around this approach and its methodologies.  I use the term un-capitalised because my work is informed by a critical theory beyond that attributed solely to the Frankfurt School.

critical theory cartoon

Critical theory is at the heart of this research. It is, in its broader and narrower senses, an approach that provides ‘the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms’ (Bohman, 2013). For Horkeimer, Critical Theory is emancipatory, seeking ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’ (Horkheimer, 1982, p. 244). It is a critically interdisciplinary approach which, as, Bohman explains:

‘Critical Theorists have long sought to distinguish their aims, methods, theories, and forms of explanation from standard understandings in both the natural and the social sciences. Instead, they have claimed that social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach… permits their enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather… seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression. This normative task cannot be accomplished apart from the interplay between philosophy and social science through interdisciplinary empirical social research’ (Bohman, 2013).

Critical theory must meet three criteria continuously: ‘it must be explanatory, practical, and normative’; it must ‘explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation’ – a task only achievable ‘only through interdisciplinary research that includes psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as institutional forms of domination’ (Bohman, 2013). As Horkheimer explained, capitalism must become more democratic so that ‘all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus’ (Horkheimer, 1982, pp. 249-250); Jürgen Habermas continues to critically explore such forms of cooperative, practical and transformative action today. There is a reawakening of critical theory at present. In responding to:

‘a period in which philosophy cooperates with empirical sciences and disciplines, Critical Theory offers an approach to distinctly normative issues that cooperates with the social sciences in a nonreductive way. Its domain is inquiry into the normative dimension of social activity, in particular how actors employ their practical knowledge and normative attitudes from complex perspectives in various sorts of contexts. It also must consider social facts as problematic situations from the point of view of variously situated agents… This kind of normative practical knowledge is thus reflexive and finds its foothold in those ongoing, self-transforming normative enterprises such as democracy that are similarly reflexive in practice’ (Bohman, 2013).

Bohman roots this resurgence of interest in critical theory as a response to the ‘pernicious ideology’ presently at work in suggesting there is no alternative to our present way of living; a time when ‘the social scientifically informed, and normatively oriented democratic critic’ can suggest ‘novel alternatives and creative possibilities in place of the defeatist claim that we are at the end of history’ (Bohman, 2013). Critical theory can, perhaps, be seen as a solution to the call for a critical postmodernism that responds to and suggests alternatives to ‘scepticism concerning the transformative and critical powers of art, aesthetics, knowledge’ by seeking individualised alternatives that ‘end of any simple faith in what have sometimes been called the “grand metanarratives”’ (Hebdige, 1992 [1986-7], p. 337); creating ‘a postmodernism of resistance, including resistance to that easy postmodernism of the “anything goes” variety’ in so doing (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], p. 336). As such, critical theory can be considered as aligned to post-structuralism’s ‘refusal to grant structuralism its premise that each system is autonomous, with rules and operations that begin and end within the boundaries of that system’ (Krauss, 2011, p. 40), yet, perhaps, it is also different from post-structuralism in terms of its goals.

Can participatory art support sustainable social change? A brief introduction to my research…

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Participatory art is a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained.

The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by practitioners, policy-makers, critics and academics. Research into the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. It is also important to consider how socially engaged art interfaces with and is influenced by other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography. This research also considers how critical theory, participatory action research, postdevelopment theory and notions of the carnivalesque might be fruitful routes to new insight about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change.

This literature review therefore attempts to survey key texts from across the many areas described above. It begins by taking the oft cited Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (Matarasso, 1997) as a starting point then develops from there across subsections covering: Socially engaged art – an ‘arts’ perspective; Art as Social change; Cultural policy; What might sustainable arts practice look like?; and Do other disciplines influence social engaged art practice?

I will serialise some of my thoughts arising from my literary research in regular blog posts covering the different aspects mentioned above.  Comments and criticism are very welcome.