THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO – three provocations at Arts Council England national office

What a week.  A great week.  A deeply challenging week.  A week which saw me invited to Arts Council England’s HQ in Bloomsbury Street, London, thanks to CidaCo and Anamaria Wills in particular, to present a resilience lab to almost thirty people from arts organisations from Birmingham and South East London.  I co-presented the afternoon with the lovely Sue Ball.  We were encouraged to be challenging, provocative.  I presented three provocations.  They were:

  • THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO
  • COOPERATION AND COOPETITION: OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES
  • SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS: SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES?

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First, I briefly like to say what a lovely, super hi-tech place ACE national office is.  Superb facilities.  Coffee was a bit weak though…

Anamaria introduced me as a ‘loud, pick-a-fight-with-anyone Geordie’…  She ended the afternoon claiming I was a Marxist (I’m not)…

Anyway, the three presentations are available online (by clicking the pics or links below) for comment, criticism, sharing, whatever…  The first presentation features An Introduction to the Arts – a poem by the brilliant Luke Wright who kindly gave his permission and good wishes for my endeavours.  Thanks Luke.

Please view them with notes (bottom left corner) enabled so you can read my provocations (most of my slides are just pictures).

THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO

THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28485&authkey=!APZLpyaJ8f9w1mQ&ithint=file%2cpptx

COOPERATION AND COOPETITION: OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES

COOPERATION AND COOPETITION - OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28486&authkey=!ABKQuwAXk7O5EyA&ithint=file%2cpptx

SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS: SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES?

SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS - SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28484&authkey=!AN5U5rmFv5DX754&ithint=file%2cpptx

A bonfire of the vanities: is resilience & sustainability in the arts simply adding new fuel to old fires?

http://colouringinculture.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/cab58-moneychanger.jpg

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 doctoral research 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?

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

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?

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…