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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This article seeks to reveal the limitations of state-initiated arts and cultural projects as well as spurious notions of ‘empowerment’ by examining them in terms of homogeneity, universality and technocracy.  It focuses on issues of instrumentalism with the arts and explores how state-initiated ‘community engagement’ programmes like Creative People and Places may effectively reproduce state agendas linked to social capital theory and thereby to neoliberalism.  It asks a series of questions: Whose values really underpin cultural value?  Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘we’ trying to ‘engage’?  Whose culture are ‘we’ trying to (re)make and why?  Do ‘we’ need new infrastructure; more managers?  Do people in areas of low cultural engagement have their own forms of culture that some may just not consider ‘cultured’?  If cultural democracy offers a different view of people power, so why is it loathed by the state?

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Unlock the all-inclusive fun of a “new culture” with added “genius in everyone” NOW! (A reply to Stella Duffy's New Year provocation & arts "campaigns" like Fun Palaces)

Unlock the all-inclusive fun of a “new culture” with added “genius in everyone” NOW! (A reply to Stella Duffy's New Year provocation & arts "campaigns" like Fun Palaces)

A new year.  A cultural event.  Not all cultures.  Our culture’s.

Traditionally, at least in our culture, a time of misadvised, soon misplaced resolutions.  Most are very personal.  The one I want to talk about here is “for everyone”.  Yes, that’s right, everyone!  It’s an all-inclusive provocation.  A call for change, for cultural change.

The call comes from Stella Duffy on behalf of her Fun Palaces campaign.  The campaign manifesto claims:

We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better.

We believe we can do this together, locally, with radical fun – and that anyone, anywhere, can make a Fun Palace.

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PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL: STATE-SANCTIONED ART - A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE

PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL: STATE-SANCTIONED ART - A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE

This was my prosecution witness statement from the excellent Participation on Trial event organised by the lovely Chrissie Tiller and Goldsmiths from May 2015.

I think it remains as relevant to me as it did more than a year ago but I would say that I was a little over-generous in my support for socially engaged art - a term now so completely appropriated by the Institution of Art that it effectively is THE SAME AS participatory art.  Perhaps my views have hardened?  Anyway, I now have claimed socially engaged art is DEAD - twice!  Undoubtedly, I will do so again...

The (eventual) verdict was “GUILTY – BUT WHO CARES?”  Do you care?

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Cultural policy

This is the fifth 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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The academic discourse surrounding how and, indeed, if the arts might influence social change and the ‘intrinsic’ versus ‘instrumental’ questions (outlined in previous posts), cross into policy discussions about culture and value that perhaps shift the focus even further from the practice of socially engaged art and, for that matter, the arts in general. This section begins by returning to Matarasso’s later work as an illustration of how present policy discussions centre on the concept of ‘cultural value’ rather than ‘social impact’ or ‘social change’.

In 2012, Matarasso wrote On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’ in response to the burgeoning ‘cultural value debate’. He is critical, in his essay, about ‘value’ being perceived as ‘good’ even though ‘human beings do not agree on what is good’ and, if there is no definition of good, potential value cannot be measured (Matarasso, 2012). This ‘slipperiness’ about cultural value, for Matarasso, creates opportunities for tacit positions to go uncontested. Differing in emphasis from his position in Use or Ornament?, Matarasso extols arts and culture as ‘necessarily experiential’, existing ‘only in the intertwined experience of creator (artist, performer, author, maker) and re-creator (audiences, readers, viewers and listeners)’ (Matarasso, 2012). He believes that the ambiguity of the arts means it cannot be considered to have any ‘universal character, method, purpose, meaning or even existence’ and therefore ‘no universal value (good), unless one associates it with a universal deity’; cultural value cannot therefore ‘be measured against a universal scale’ nor can the effects of culture ‘be tested or replicated, except in certain limited terms’ (Matarasso, 2012). In this essay, Matarasso is stating a direct opposition to a policy position he was once demonised for supporting, if not creating: no longer the champion of instrumentalism; now a firm believer in art’s intrinsic nature.

The ‘cultural value debate’ has continued developing apace since Matarasso wrote the aforementioned essay. There are new initiatives appearing in the UK almost every other month at present. A brief overview of the stated aims and objectives of the key current initiatives around cultural value is therefore essential to understand how socially engaged art relates to this debate and its broader future policy implications.

The AHRC Cultural Value Project is clear in adopting a structural approach to ‘experience’, stating that it:

‘seeks to establish a framework that will advance the way in which we talk about the value of cultural engagement and the methods by which we evaluate that value. The first part of the framework will be an examination of the cultural experience itself and its impact on individuals and its benefit to society. The Project will take as its starting point the different forms of cultural experience, such as, for instance, the aesthetic and cognitive dimensions of our cultural encounters… In giving priority to the cultural experience itself, the Cultural Value Project will take the lead in developing a rigorous approach to what many see as the most important aspect of art and culture’ (AHRC, 2013).

The #culturalvalue Initiative, created by Belfiore, celebrates the new opportunities in this field and wishes to broaden the debate beyond economics. It states that:

‘the very existence of a set of cultural policies is predicated on the notion of cultural value, and the belief in the social importance of its preservation and nurturing… Yet, although how to articulate value is a central concern for cultural organisations in receipt of public funding… the sector finds it difficult to have a serious and honest discussion on the issue. As a result… the public debate on the value of the arts and culture has been intellectually colonised by the discipline of economics, at the expense of the humanities and social sciences’ (Belfiore, 2013).

The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value is led by many senior figures from across arts and culture as well as economics, public policy, sociology, etc. It has identified four trends to investigate and report upon in coming years: Investing; Valuing; Education; and International Trends. The overarching mission is to:

‘explore the “DNA” of the cultural landscape in England from both sector and public perspectives and imagine how it might be better connected and understood using the metaphor of an ecosystem… What kinds of investment do we need to ensure the future of culture and how can we work to ensure that all forms of culture are inclusive and accessible for all?’ (UoW, 2013)

Economics is central to most discussions about cultural value. UNESCO recently reported that the culture sector creates two types of impact: non-economic and economic; the key motive for renewed state intervention in the sector is apparent in UNESCO’s claim that:

‘[t]he growing interest in cultural industries and their rapid acceptance as a fairly general model for addressing development problems at the economic and political level, have contributed that cultural industries become a key component in the formulation of economic policy and strategic development planning.’ (UNESCO b, 2012, p. 7)

Alongside UNESCO’s research into measuring the economic benefits of arts and culture sits Measuring cultural participation (2012). It aims to develop ‘a conceptual foundation and a common understanding of culture that will assist the measurement of a wide range of cultural expressions – irrespective of any particular economic and/or social mode of production’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 8); it points to the ‘scientific measurement scale, the psychological general wellbeing index’ as a long-existing tool for measuring positive impacts of arts participation, irrespective of ‘artistic competence’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). But surely these are big claims to make, especially as the PGWBI is a generic psychological tool for measuring perceived wellbeing that does not measure any specific responses to either cultural activity or participation. Indeed, UNESCO go on to conclude that any attempt at even local standardisation will be difficult ‘[g]iven that most active participation tends to happen in a dispersed and uncoordinated way through small, often predominantly social, organizations that are neither recognised nor funded by governments as sustainable “institutions”’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). Is this international recognition that participation is independent and, if so, a territory to be colonised by new forms of instrumentalism? Certainly, the report’s authors identify ‘a disjuncture between three coexisting but fundamentally different sets of values – intrinsic, instrumental and institutional’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 10) and are perplexed by linguistic problems not just between different international interpretations of ‘participation’ but also between its active and passive forms of meaning (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 19).

Measuring cultural participation makes clear that UNESCO are not interested in artistic quality nor ‘[o]pposed concepts and cultural hierarchies (active/passive, high/low, professional/amateur)’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 20). The report is also clear that participation can only be understood ‘in a meaningful, wider context’ by investigating ‘a range of issues which can be understood only by using qualitative methods’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 49). The report concludes that no single ‘standard’ model will be able to describe ‘[t]he inter-relationships between cultural participation, participation as a whole, social inclusion and civil society’; attempts to measure participation in cultural activities must therefore use local ‘lenses and tools’ based upon ‘[s]cientific findings’ presented ‘in the best and widest possible way to encourage effective policies’ (UNESCO a, 2012, pp. 73-74).

A crisis of the legitimacy of cultural value was identified back in 2006 by Holden. He argued this could only be addressed by creating a democratic consensus through better and broader arguments about the value of culture that politicians could understand and support (Holden, 2006, p. 9). He explained that cultural value has three forms - ‘intrinsic value, instrumental value and institutional value’ – and is ‘created and “consumed”’ in ‘a triangular relationship between cultural professionals, politicians, policy-makers and the public’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). The solution lay, for Holden, in creating ‘a different alignment between culture, politics and the public’ that nurtures ‘greater legitimacy directly with citizens’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). But it would appear that, since then, cultural policy and cultural value have, in fact, moved further away from people outside a very narrow sphere of the arts, into a highly professionalised world of ‘cultural leaders’ and ‘public policy-makers’.

O’Brien’s 2010 report to the DCMS, Measuring the value of culture, warned that ‘the cultural sector will need to use the tools and concepts of economics to fully state their benefits in the prevailing language of policy appraisal and evaluation’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 4). His report argues for increased state instrumentalism as well as an adoption of economic measures delivered ‘using the language of public policy and cultural value’ because only can ‘funding decisions… be made that are acceptable to both central government and the cultural sector’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 5). Whilst acknowledging the value of narratives as useful in articulating cultural value, O’Brien warns they ‘fail to represent the benefits of culture in a manner that is commensurable with other calls on the public purse’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 9). His stringent solution: find a way of fitting ‘the unique aspects of culture, outside of the social and economic impacts, into the economic language of the welfare economic paradigm suggested by the guidance in Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the Green Book’ (O'Brien, 2010, pp. 16-17). He concludes by requesting that the DCMS ‘rectify this issue by producing detailed guidance on measuring cultural value with stated preference techniques, making it clear that this will be the standard approach to valuation for central government’s consideration of policy for the cultural sector’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 48). The voice of public policy abounds.

Public arts policy-maker and funder, Arts Council England (ACE), were surprisingly late in joining the ‘cultural policy debate’, publishing The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, in April 2014. Their report has been much maligned since publication because of its drive to increase instrumentalism and its poorly conducted research. ACE make their position clear from the start, describing the intrinsic value of arts and culture as being ‘in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers’, whilst stating that ‘[q]uantifying the [instrumental] benefits and expressing them in terms of facts and figures that can evidence [their] contribution… is something that arts and culture organisations will always have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4). They reinforce their drive towards measuring instrumental values by stating:

'When we talk about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world… But while we do not cherish arts and culture because of the impact on our social wellbeing and cohesion, our physical and mental health, our education system, our national status and our economy, they do confer these benefits and need to show how important this is… on different scales – on individual, communal and national levels – so that we can raise awareness among the public, across the cultural, educational and political sectors, and among those who influence investment in both the public and private sectors… to help people think of our arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource… [and] to see where the impact of our work is felt, and where we don’t yet reach’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4).

The remainder of the report, which should perhaps be titled The Value of State Support for the Arts, gives very little in terms of ‘evidence’ of instrumental measures. Beginning with five ways in which arts and culture might lead be economically beneficial - ‘attracting visitors; creating jobs and developing skills; attracting and retaining businesses revitalising places; and developing talent’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7) – the examples descend into exceptionally tenuous realms. The published examples directly relating to participation in the arts and social change include statements such as:

'Those who had attended a cultural place or event in the previous 12 months were almost 60 percent more likely to report good health compared to those who had not, and theatre goers were 25 percent more likely to report good health’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7).

'People value being in the audience to the arts at about £2,000 per person per year and participating at £1,500 per person. The value of participating in sports is about £1,500 per year.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7)

'High-school students who engage in the arts at school are twice as likely to volunteer… and 20 percent more likely to vote as young adults… Employability of students who study arts subjects is higher and they are more likely to stay in employment… There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)

'Schools that integrate arts across the curriculum in the US have shown consistently higher reading and mathematics scores compared with similar schools that do not… Participation in structured arts activities increases cognitive abilities… Students from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree…’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)

So, apparently, going to ‘a cultural place or event’ makes you healthier; it is more valuable to watch a cultural event than participate creatively or take part in sport; art at ‘high-school’ makes young people really ‘good’ all-round citizens; integrated art teaching improves literacy and numeracy; structured art arts improves (structured) thinking; and, amazingly, by participating in school arts, poor students are much more likely to gain a degree (presumably in any subject). Is this a (re)turn to state instrumentalism in the mode of Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? It would certainly appear so with ACE themselves concluding that:

'We know that arts and culture play an important role in promoting social and economic goals through local regeneration, attracting tourists, the development of talent and innovation, improving health and wellbeing, and delivering essential services. These benefits are “instrumental” because art and culture can be a means to achieve ends beyond the immediate intrinsic experience and value of the art itself’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 11).

The report does, however, warn that there is little evidence to support claims that ‘preventative interventions which use arts and culture to reduce the need for other public services’ do not, in fact, ‘demonstrate the associated reduction in public spending’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 23).

This review also briefly considers the role of art in regenerating public spaces as part of public policy. The Art of Regeneration (1996), written several authors including the ubiquitous Matarasso, identified the increasing role of the arts in urban regeneration which, whilst initially mainly focused upon expensive, large-scale capital works, was becoming increasing interested in ’participatory arts programmes which are low-cost, flexible and responsive to local needs’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). This was a clear policy change – ‘a shift in emphasis in regeneration strategies towards seeing local people as the principal asset through which renewal can be achieved’ with arts activities becoming ‘effective routes to a wide range of social policy objectives’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). Here, perhaps, lies the seeds of Use or Ornament? This participatory approach to regeneration led to a movement, particularly strong in the US, and now growing in the UK, known as ‘creative placemaking’, which the NEA defines as:

‘In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired (Nicodemus, 2012).

Bedoya is more cautious about the motives behind creative placemaking. His essay, Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging (2012), reminds practitioners to ensure they apply an authenticity and ‘ethos of belonging’ when working in this area to ensure residents ‘achieve strength and prosperity through equity and civility’ (Bedoya, 2012). Bedoya warns against a ‘build it and they will come’ culture based upon speculative economics as ‘suffocating, unethical, and [supportive of] a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place”’ (Bedoya, 2012). He is at pains that creative placemaking must not become ‘a development strategy but… a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities and sites of imaginations’ (Bedoya, 2012). Clearly then, creative placemaking, with its routes in policies aligned with regeneration and participation, may well always be a form of ‘instrumentalism-lite’ at best; a means of gentrification and state interventionism at worst.

Belfiore’s 2012 essay, “Defensive instrumentalism”, offers a thoughtful evaluation of the question of instrumentalism as cultural policy. She argues for a more nuanced, ‘philosophical approach to the notions of “impact”, “instrumentalism”, and the underlying assumption that the arts can be used as a tool to effect real transformation on individuals’ sense of self, place, belonging, morality, etc., and ultimately on communities and society’; describing UK cultural policy as being, for more than a century, dominated by increasingly normative forms of institutionalisation now ‘embedded within powerful cultural and educational organisations, national curricula and public sensibility’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 104). The result, contends Belfiore, is the present UK arts funding system in which ‘the recipients of the largest grants, which account for a very substantial portion of the available funding, have changed little since Keynes, and:

‘the exquisitely ideological question of making the (political) case for the arts has been translated in the rather more technical (and therefore apparently neutral) issue of arts impact assessment, with the focus firmly on the methodological problems of evaluation rather than on thorny questions of cultural value, and the political problem of how to address the as of yet unresolved issue of widening access and participation to the publicly supported arts’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 107).

Linking the current cultural policy situation with that under New Labour, Belfiore unveils a ‘new guise of economic instrumentalism’ – a form of ‘“defensive instrumentalism” that leaves no room for a positive and constructive vision’ (Belfiore, 2012, pp. 108-109). Perhaps, then, debates about cultural value and instrumentalism reflect the complete 'commodification of public policy’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 110). Yet none of these debates and policies ever mention socially engaged arts practice; participation is mentioned fleetingly and often incoherently.

Is sustainability about adding new fuel to old fires?

Firenze-Denaro-BotticelliIn attempting to look at whether participatory art can support sustainable social change, it is probably worth exploring different perspectives relating to this question.  So I'll start by looking at different approaches to sustainability of arts practice.  Future posts will then attempt to define participatory arts and concepts of social change.  But for now it's all about sustainability... There are three distinct perspectives about how to sustain systems: make existing structures stronger through a myriad of methods of organisational change; support the development of a limited number of new organisations who will either gently become part of the existing structures or quietly fail; or, like obsolete power stations, demolish the old monolithic structures to make way for a new wave.

The first option is safest.  It's also a consultant's dream where endless new changes can be steadily implemented in the hope of encouraging adaptability, mining new philanthropic pockets, securing firm investments, selling like a commercial business and becoming resilient to fickle futures.  It's about sustaining the system as it currently exists by making the organisations restructure, remodel and rethink their missions. Done well, this can be really positive and new partnerships can arise (although often between other similar organisations.) But it can lead to protectionism, maintaining the status quo and staleness. This approach is a bit like building higher walls, digging a deeper moat and drawing up the gates. It is a siege mentality. Those outside will not survive or will go elsewhere.

Encouraging some new start ups can also be positive. It adds a new little wall around the old wall whilst it is repaired and improved. Trouble is that there can be a tendency to be a bit different from the long-standing organisations but still follow the same models and modes of working as them.  This is partly because there is still a 'toolkit' mentality where best is... well... 'best practice'.  Blueprints, road maps, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, time banking, etc. etc. are all useful for many new (and existing) organisations to collaborate and improve their chances of conserving their positions whilst 'helping' new start ups following in their ways - become like them.  The trouble is the old order will support this process safe in the knowledge that they will not (often) be threatened by these little newcomers and will (often) speak on their behalf, maintaining some form of hierarchy.  This is sustainability with a degree of 'selected openness' - a managed form of conservation which recognises the need for 'expanding the stock' - like planting new forests using tried and tested species.

And these first two perspectives form today's dominant mode of thought about sustaining the arts in the UK today.  Often supported by central and local government initiatives, Higher Education institutions and especially by new consortia agreements and partnership working between organisations.  It is certainly true that organisational sustainability can be improved by restructuring, sharing resources, joint fundraising, cost-cutting, partnering up, collaboration, increasing philanthropic support, attempting to better measure values, supporting new start ups using old models, etc. etc. but this is sustaining systems that grew up in a different era and have developed into complex organisations that cannot change quickly.  I understand that it is important to have a range of arts providers from individuals to large organisations and to have a mix of new and established organisations and individuals involved in the arts but I see many of today's attempts to make the arts (and social change) sustainable as inherently unsustainable.  This is because many of those driving 'change' want slow, coherent, thoughtful, careful change.  Leaders of many organisations want to maintain hierarchies where artists, audiences, participants, communities - in other words individual people - are at the bottom of a pecking order.  This is natural.  This is how they were created and it worked and still works and should continue to work.  But leaders perhaps need to remember they have a social mission in which they are working for everyone to enjoy art rather than to safeguard institutional wellbeing.

But there needs to be space for new ways of working and this is brings me onto a third way of thinking about sustainability.  This approach is about accepting life cycles.  Old fires will eventually die out.  Adding new fuel to them can keep them going but not indefinitely.  New fires in new places can be worrying - they may spread - they may get out of control!  But I am not suggesting anarchic arson here.  No bonfire of the vanities.  But starting different fires can bring renewal to every part of a system (dare I say 'ecosystem').  Indeed, this is how many of today's established organisations began - as one time radicals who introduced new ways of working.  Obviously, there are many different ways in which new approaches to arts and society can develop and some may be highly threatening and completely unsustainable - further unbridled neoliberalism being a prime example.  This is not what I mean.  I am talking about new ways of working that involve everyone and are for everyone; that do what people want; that might help support and build communities from within.  This is not audience development, this is true participation.  It is a way of being and doing that shares ownership, that listens, that does what people want, that stops doing some things and starts doing other things when people want.  It is a society where art, sport, work, place, play, etc. are all part of social activity.

So perhaps art is most sustainable when it acknowledges life cycles and lets some parts die but supports (and, yes, I mean financially as well as more broadly) new ideas and forms of DIY working, networked non-hierarchies, individual artist initiatives and true participation that can reinvigorate the entire art world.  Perhaps they could share these new structures with old organisations?  Undoubtedly, the new models will (just like their predecessors) the old models, the blueprints, toolkits, et al. of tomorrow.  They will no doubt die at some stage too or reinvent themselves in the wake of other new ways of working we may not even have thought about yet.

And perhaps if art was better integrated into community activities, it would be less threatened and more sustainable too?  We must remember that the constant segregation of 'things we do' and 'creative things we do' is to some extent a modern construct.  Necessary so our systems of government can measure things, fund things, cut funds to things, etc. - yes - but this can lead to unsustainable approaches to making art driven by economics, social outcomes, aesthetics, etc.  This systematisation of art can separate it from society (or certain sections of society) which, whilst good for some, is not good for most people (artists included).

So perhaps sustainability is about realising things become unsustainable eventually and that only perpetual rebirth and renewal can ensure long-term sustainability?  Lots of new little fires to complement the older bigger fires.  Constant regeneration not catastrophic destruction.  This can be exciting.  It is difficult to measure and predict.  But then so is life (really...)

In terms of my bigger question: 'Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?'  I guess I am suggesting at this point that social change must be sustainable in the sense that it must always seek to keep changing - responding and developing to new challenges life will throw at us - keep renewing itself.  I am also proposing that participatory art, when led by participants and supported by artists and new organic creative structures, can be sustainable as an artistic mode of working because it is specific to the needs and life span of each action.  Perhaps then this way of working can support future social change in positive, time-limited ways so art and creativity again become part of the lives of everyone?  This is the subject of future blogs however and I've gone on far too long already...

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

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Participatory arts or, more precisely, socially engaged arts practice is resurgent. Participation in the arts is, like many times in the past since the Victorian era, being promoted as a panacea for many of the issues facing our communities.  New initiatives such as ArtWorks, Cultural Value Project and Participation & Engagement in the Arts seek a sea change in UK cultural and educational settings.  Research around if and how socially engaged art can ever be truly sustainable at grassroots levels within the communities it seeks to serve is, however, a bit more thin on the ground.

A key value of arts participation is its ability to stimulate creativity within communities developing social capital in so doing.  There are many examples of socially engaging arts projects that, having achieved short-term success, were not sustained.  Clearly, attempts to create social change in communities must focus on both people and places.  As Roberto Bedoya explains so well, participatory art needs to find ways to embed creativity within communities and engage the many disparate elements that define them but UK research in this area is limited and, where existent (like in the recent RSA project in Peterborough), localised.

I believe we need to explore new ways in which participation in art, creativity and place can link to become part of people’s everyday lives, integral to our communities, encouraging long-term social change.  To do this, it may be necessary to completely rethink our current structures for arts provision, to engage people in new ways, to relinquish control, to trust communities more, and a whole lot of other things too.  Sustainability has different meanings and there are many ways to attempt to stimulate sustainable ways of doing things.

This is what I will write about in a series of posts in the coming weeks.  I will ask a number of questions and propose some ways forward.  My immediate thoughts are that participation in the arts may be able to support broader social change in constructive and sustainable ways and that creativity of action and thought may somehow become integral to the futures of people, places and communities.  How this can be developed is uncertain and probably controversial.  We shall see…