social practice & social change – my thoughts - an unpublished interview transcript

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This blog post is a transcript of an interview that was never published.  The interviewer asked five questions.  I answered.

 

Can art be an effective way of bringing about social change? If so, any examples? In what ways can it improve people's lives?

There are many in the arts world who believe art can deliver social change. Arts Council England recently published The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: an evidence review (April 2014), an attempt to make the case for art and culture in terms of benefits to the economy, health and wellbeing, society and education. They’re following a trend in arts and culture towards ‘cultural value’ – attempting to measure and evidence the instrumental values; this is similar to their discussion of intrinsic values described in their Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences: a literature review (July 2014). There are many actors involved in the broader cultural value debate including AHRC, The RSA, The University of Warwick Commission, etc. Meanwhile, Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative and AHRC’s Connected Communities are two examples of the many academic collaborations with arts organisations and artists to also investigate the social value of the arts. In short, the debate about art as a vehicle for social change is as vast as it is fluid.

However, it’s not a new debate. Francois Matarasso is perhaps best known for fathering the idea of ‘art as panacea for all society’s ills’ in his influential text Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (1997). His report led to a dearth of New Labour initiatives attempting to use arts and cultural projects as cures for everything from run-down urban streets to the unemployed; from rehabilitating offenders to improving the grades of low-performing inner city school children. New Labour’s promotion of arts and culture as integral to their ‘things can only get better’ utopian dream collided with their embracing of technocratic forms of governance underpinned by a positivist scientific measuring and evidencing of every aspect of society. The resulting target-driven, cost-benefit culture meant that Matarasso was criticised for not producing enough (or any) evidence to underpin the many claims he made for the role of arts and culture as a mechanism for positive social change…

So, here we are in 2014. There’s renewed interest and belief in the power of the arts and culture to be recognised as an effective engine for social change. Not just in the UK, but worldwide. Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a key aspect of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation. The problem with this perspective, for me, is three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby fraught with political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental; beautifully crafted, state-funded tools, imposing the type of soft power that typically underpins neoliberal agendas. Secondly, there is the question of ‘what is social change?’ Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shift. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism. Thirdly, artists, participants, audiences and people who do not engage with the arts are usually not consulted or placed at the heart of policy-making of any kind, including cultural policy. This means that they are often left disenfranchised by cultural policies ‘done to them’, not ‘with and for them’. For me, notions of social justice offers more interesting perspectives about fairness and equality. It leaves space for self-organising, radicalism and reimagining.

In some senses, my answer may seem negative or evasive. It is not. I’m merely voicing my concerns. I am wary of grand narratives, of positivism, of state control… The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state. I also know that people who engage in arts and cultural activities (whether ‘high’ or ‘popular’ culture) on every level gain insight and experience that is essential to living. Everyone is an example.

Do artists have a responsibility to respond to the social issues that people are concerned about?

An interesting question that immediately prompts memories of the old debate about ‘art for arts’ sake’ versus ‘art as social’. Artists respond to whatever intrigues them in whatever way they see fit. This is an essential element of their quasi-autonomous position in our world. In some cases, artists respond directly to political issues as radical activists, whilst other artists respond to social issues in ways that support political positions and policy. Others are happy painting watercolour seaside themes ad infinitum. Nothing wrong with any of this. All are matters of individual choice and circumstance. No artist has a duty to respond to social issues, although because artists are situated within society, their art is always to one degree or another socially constructed.

Anyway, ‘social issues that people are concerned about’ sounds like another grand narrative. What are these issues and who are concerned about them?

What are the most challenging aspects of working in the area of socially engaged art?

Socially engaged art is, for me, a very freeing mode of working with people and art. Social practice often takes place outside of galleries and in public places; its emphasis is on process and experience rather than aesthetics and autonomy. But this way of working creates positives and tensions. It’s a challenge to self-organise with little money; a challenge to not know who will turn up or what might happen; a challenge to not impose (or, more realistically, to minimise) positions of power within the dynamics of a socially engaged intervention so that the participants can develop a process their way. Social practice is about risk and uncertainty. It’s fun to be able to work independently but also a constant struggle. These challenges (and, probably, many more) are what makes the field so liberating for practitioners and (hopefully) participants.

Is there a way that artists can ensure they create meaningful relationships with local communities?

Tough question. Many practitioners, policy-makers and academics tend to believe that meaningful relationships with communities need to be developed slowly and carefully. I believe that short-term grassroots interventions can create ‘meaningful relationships’ (difficult to define) within communities. I also firmly assert that long-term embedding of artists in communities can be dangerous and not necessarily conducive to fostering creative independence within communities. I’ve been accused of ‘parachuting in’ many times – whether the intervention lasted a day or three months. Interestingly, these accusations always come from other local artists and arts organisations, never from local people who take part. This leads me to conceive of the role of the socially engaged artist as always that of ‘outsider’ (unless the person actually lives in the area, in which case, there are a whole load of other problems likely to arise). As outsiders, we must always be aware that we are privileged and that we can only help others find and make new potential spaces in which they may discover something about themselves that they can hopefully feed into their communities. We do this by being open to the new and by being ‘grassroots’ in our approach – never elitist or aloof. We develop close affinities, often in very short periods of time, and hopefully retain memories that remain with us, but we will always leave. We must…

How is socially engaged art perceived in the art world as a whole?

Many see the practice as ‘not art’ or as amateurish or political or radical or as an instrument for soft state control. All these condemnations are, sometimes, undoubtedly true. The field of socially engaged practice as ‘participation’ is broad, spanning everything from face-painting to Occupy. This is both a strength and a weakness. Also, the interdisciplinary nature of some practices means that boundaries are often blurred between art, science, politics, environmentalism, etc., etc. I think this inability to neatly box socially engaged art is exciting for practitioners but threatening for many traditional arts organisations and artists; it is also confusing for many policy-makers and academics. People taking part do not care what we call what we do. We don’t label our work. For participants, we’re us – people who listen and help them do creative stuff, or challenge people to think differently, to think more…

In my view, any attempt to accredit or institutionalise socially engaged art means it’s no longer ‘socially engaged’ but ‘participatory’. It’s socially engaged art’s ability to challenge status quos, even work with others to radically challenge the state, from positions independent from the state that makes the practice interesting and attractive to more and more artists as a viable way of making art with people rather than for organisations.

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?