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.

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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

What might sustainable arts practice look like?

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…

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Sustainability in terms of arts practice is a confusing arena of competing perspectives and endless recommendations to employ ‘adaptive resilience’, collaborate more, form partnerships with academic institutions, grow audiences, etc. Much discussion is aimed at larger arts and cultural institutions, but what might sustainability of socially engaged practice look like? The section looks at a range of different perspectives in an attempt to situate sustainability within the discourse of social change.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation ArtWorks conference, Changing the Conversation, explored artistic practice in participatory settings and sustainability was discussed in terms of taking ‘the long view’ – a position linked with the role of universities (Nicholson, 2013, p. 3). Nicholson described sustainability of socially engaged art as follows:

‘Artists working in participatory settings have always sought change, interrogated artistic convention, questioned social orthodoxies and challenged injustice. If this important aspect of our cultural landscape is to survive and flourish, it will be sustained by artists who not only understand the knowledge and skills they bring to each setting, but use their creativity to re-imagine and re-shape the world as they would like it to be’ (Nicholson, 2013, p. 6).

This position is important because it defines sustainability in a rather non-institutionalised manner as an independence of spirit interconnected with social change in similar terms to those used by Gablik and discussed above (Gablik, 1984 & 1992). Tambling also explored sustainable practice but from a much more skills-based and business-focused outlook. She saw universities as playing a pivotal role in developing ‘a genuinely sustainable business model’ in which more artists educated as participatory practitioners could ‘drive up demand’ so that more ‘schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons will allocate their budgets to buying this work’ (Tambling, 2013, pp. 2-5). Tambling’s vision of sustainability chimes with a consumer-driven approach in which the side-effect of an increased ‘market’ for participatory art is more artists getting paid work whilst participants get to take part too – a position directly contrasting with the autonomous role described by Nicholson above. It has an air of ‘corporate instrumentalism’ rather than ‘state instrumentalism’ but their rationales are similar in intention.

An excellent example of an academic approach to the issue of sustaining arts and health projects can be found in White and Robson’s Finding Sustainability (2011), a report that reflects upon the apparently successful Happy Hearts lantern parade in Gateshead which took place annually between 1994 and 2006. The academic authors found sustaining projects in the field of arts and community health for ‘long enough to understand and consolidate the practice and to undertake longitudinal research that can utilise and analyse participants’ testimony in a more rigorous ethnographic framework’ proved a major challenge given the short-term nature of project funding (White & Robson, 2011, p. 5). The lantern project was designed around an ‘asset model’ which, contrary to the traditional ‘deficit model’ previously used for health promotion ‘looks at communities’ capability and capacity to identify problems and activate their own solutions, so building their self-esteem’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 6). The authors are happy to make claims about evidencing instrumental outcomes that are achievable if participatory art projects are sustained based around the principle that ‘creativity can make committed expressions of public health, simultaneously identifying and addressing the local and specific health needs in a community’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 8).

Clearly stating the case for arts, community and university partnerships, the report finds that participatory arts can address ‘the social determinants of health’ via ‘a process of engagement that goes beyond the health services themselves and builds alliances for social change’ which creates ‘a significant opportunity for a university to engage meaningfully with its host communities in the development of social capital’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 8). The authors conclude that long-term sustainability leads to better quality and quantity of documentation as well as better dissemination of an ‘interdisciplinary analysis’ that can create ‘a richly detailed evocation of the process of the work, so that participants’ tales become vital testimony’ which contributes ‘persuasive advocacy for an arts in health project to be sustained through difficult times’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 17).

Another perspective common in the arts is that of sustainability as being ‘a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely or as relating to the length in which human (ecological) systems can be expected to be usefully productive (Paul, 2013); the author here does, however, point out the maintaining the status quo can lead to entropy. The prevailing attitude with many arts and cultural organisations at present is arguably one of sustaining what has already been created. This is a position critically questioned by Ragsdale in a recent conference keynote speech delivered in 2013 entitled Holding Up the Arts. She provocatively states that:

‘Sustainable gets tossed around quite a bit in the non-profit arts world these days, along with words like ecosystem and ecology. But… these terms seem to have become a bit of a panacea. We’re not sure exactly what sustainability of the arts ecosystem means, or how to achieve it…’ (Ragsdale, 2013, pp. 1-2)

Referring to cultural institutions, Ragsdale, suggests the sector may be ‘seeking the “unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die”’ whilst neglecting to consider other levels of the arts ecosystem (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 7). The implication here is that, in the fight for ever-reducing funding, large institutions are being sustained at the expense of newer, smaller organisations and individual artists. The danger could be perceived as cutting the arts tree off from its roots. Ragsdale explains this as:

‘an assumption embedded in the logics of foundations, government agencies, boards, donors, service organizations, and leaders of the arts and culture sector that the “supersystem” we are trying to sustain and grow is the infrastructure of existing arts institutions, beginning with the oldest and largest organizations and perhaps working our way down from there’ (Ragsdale, 2013, pp. 7-8).

She fears, perhaps with good justification, that by ‘upholding our institutions’, the sector may be ‘holding up necessary renewal and adaptation in our sector that might lead to more meaningful engagement by the public in the arts’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 8). Ragsdale implores arts organisations to drop elitist stances by engaging fully, honestly and openly with everyone in communities; by clearly stating that:

‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 14).

Ragsdale also warns against arguments in favour of economic impact because ‘[t]he more we use them the more we commodify what we do’, thus making it harder to convince policy-makers that the value of arts and culture does not relate to ‘directly spurring economic growth but in building the social cohesion and trust that underpin civil society and make (among other things) economic trading possible’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 14).

Perhaps, then, socially engaged art with its roots in interdisciplinary practice and community activism is or can be at the forefront of an independent mode of working which is inherently flexible and sustainable by a process of constant grassroots renewal?