Socially engaged art–marginal practices & critical utopias

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

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

Enough said.

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

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

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SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART – MARGINAL PRACTICES AND CRITICAL UTOPIAS

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

[I must not research.]

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

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

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

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

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

The directions of research will not.

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

HYPOTHESIS: Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.

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

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

THEORY: Deeply complex. Interdisciplinary.

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

Critical Utopias offer infinite potentialities.

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

Mountains of field notes.

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

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

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

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

We’re all (self) propagandists nowadays.

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

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

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

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

ART AND INEQUALITY

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

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

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

THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE, they say.

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

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

Because, after all…

We’re all consumers nowadays.

Ours is a material world.

Capital is everything.

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

… Oh, and CUTS!

Austerity is such a terrible word.

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

Not if THOSE IN THE KNOW have their way.

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

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

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

So let’s put PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL…

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

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

Participation in the arts lacks real meaning.

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

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

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

I suggest participation lacks intent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeps the funders happy anyway.

IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW.

Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans.

FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION.

Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they?

They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes.

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

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

BBC GET CREATIVE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS SOCIAL PRACTICE?

Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

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

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

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.

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

Uncertain.

Always uncertain…

Messes of thread.

Thank you.

What is it socially engaged artists do? My reply to @caracourage

Cara Courage has asked socially engaged/ social practice artists a question: What do you do? This is my reply I shared with Cara on her Facebook post...

SOCIAL PRACTICE

Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

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

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

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.

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

Uncertain.

Always uncertain...

‘Pilots to Practice’–reflections about an ArtWorks PHF participatory arts conference

Yesterday, 9th September 2014, I attended Pilots to Practice at BALTIC – a ArtWorks North East conference about participatory arts.  I presented a PechaKucha entitled above ground level: old as new, new as old – social practice in a post-industrial port (see my previous post below for the presentation).  I also wrote a review of an ArtWorks publication about research into participatory artists’ practice for the #culturalvalue initiative.  I was a bit critical in the review.  I was (apparently) ‘provocative’ in my presentation.  This is my reflection about the day.  (Reflection is, it would appear, very big in participatory arts right now…)

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I’m just going to be brief.  My aim here is to attempt to scratch a niggling itch that developed at this conference.  I’ve felt it before.  It does not go away.  I think it is, in fact, growing…

The itch results from the appropriation of ‘participatory art’ and ‘participation’ by everyone for everything in which people are in some way involved in art.  There is nothing wrong with this.  People can call what they do whatever they want.  Most of the discussions here were about ‘loosely’ participatory, often artist or organisation-led, forms of participatory practice.  There were some nice examples of ‘community art’ used for obliquely political purposes and of anger at the system.  There was a good breakout session that briefly but effectively introduced ‘dialogic practice’.  I tried to be honest and differentiate forms of social practice.  People seemed to like it.  It stimulated a brief discussion about the de-politicisation of socially engaged or community arts practice, which was interesting.  But, nonetheless, the itch crept and crawled around me…

I think the scratchy itch is a product of artists who think social practice is about leading people, pied piper-like, into doing art their way, to their, sometimes seemingly narcissistic agendas; audience members having sudden epiphanies (echoed by the chair’s closing sermon, complete with mock-amens and ironic hallelujahs!); neutral research about the importance for space for artist reflection; a proposed participatory artist network called PALS; over-invested long-term project members hoping for further funding.  I won’t go on.  Scratch.  Scratch.

Don’t get me wrong.  Events like this (and there are many like this) are fascinating.  Stirring me to do my practice differently.  Fascinating for my research.  Initiatives like ArtWorks are, of course, useful.  They won’t change the (arts) world.  They can’t.  There are too many vested interests; too many believers.  My family were (are) evangelists.  I can spot preachers a mile away.  I know ‘preaching to the converted’ when I see it.

My problem is that the preaching is (unlike that of my Grandmother) weak and bland.  Not radical.  Not potentially emancipatory.  Blurry.  Fuzzy.  Safe.  Not a paradigm-shift.  Perhaps subtle elitism?  Rebuilding the ramparts of an old status-quo.  Be honest.  This will not change the world.

When’s the next one?

‘above ground level’ - old as new, new as old: grassroots social practice in a post-industrial port

This is my presentation for Paul Hamlyn ArtWorks North East ‘Pilots to Practice’ conference at BALTIC.  I gave this as a PechaKucha – using a narrative performance style of delivery.

It’s about dot to dot active arts’ current project, ‘above ground level’, taking place in Blyth, Northumberland.

Please make sure you use notes button at bottom right of window.  So you can see my narrative.

It was well received at the conference.  I’d love your comments and feedback…

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Click the pic or the link below to see the presentation…

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!18861&authkey=!ALznQ1K_jOArSG8&ithint=file%2cpptx

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

'northerngame' - review by Ron Moule

northerngame A child stands, face turned away from the camera, on a piece of ground somewhere near a small village in Northumberland. The ground seems marked, and marked out, as if for a ritual: possibly the celebration of a pagan god. The child is a question: a question of belonging, of tradition and masculinity, of the past and the future, its face turned away to the smouldering hills.

The image is part of “northerngame” at The Shed at The Whistle Art Stop, Haltwhistle, West Northumberland. The artist is Stevie Ronnie.

The works shown here re-deploy skills once-prevalent in these valleys: the joinery, the pit, the steelyard and the print-room. On one wall, a photoprint (fashioned by laser) turns a “blue” mud playing-pit into an almost starless sky. On another, the close-up of worn carpet covering the pit becomes a catafalque, a shrine. No wonder, then, that the source of the blue clay remains closed, protected, clandestine.

Between these works, as words do, wood-block communicates and re-frames the game’s local dialect into delicate blue memory. Clay, pit. Hob, HoY! When the quoit meets the ringing steel spur with a stunning ring of success, it reverberates both room and history. Suspended from shark-wire, a solitary quoit throws, in the middle of a sudden power-cut, deeper shadows against the pristine gallery wall. Its parabola throws perspective. When the lights return, the elegant gallery lighting echoes the square grid of the quoit pit.

The Blue clay pit, retrieved and reconstructed, fixes gravity in the centre of the space. Marks into its surface trace the play of random children, curious locals, astonished visitors. A quoit team, from host communities – and now artistic participants – bowl down the hill towards The Comrades Club. Their game, their northern game, which (one of three types) obeys precise rules against the lure of chance, is now artwork and community’s play.

The photographic prints could be larger – they could be massive – and still possess this unexpected tenderness. They are solitary, austere and luscious. Within them, colours, almost imperceptible, nearly forgotten, explode and multiply. As if invigilating a gripping final, you move closer still.

Put the clay between your fingers and its delicacy betrays the weight of digging it, the toil of carrying it, the effort of shaping it: a game that requires no stadia, and barely any commentary, only the commitment of its players and their shared quiet joy.

The child, standing at the pit, gives it both proportion and perspective. The question asked here is of tradition, its continuation and survival. Will boys play in the future (will girls?): how resilient are such pleasures against the rivalry of competing screens, tablet and phone?

But for a moment, lean forward, anticipate the feel of the metal in your hand, gauge the distance from here to there, its tribute and capture here.

A child asks a question: will you answer?

Ron Moule Saturday, 07 June 2014

Grassroots arts social engagement

northerngame

Working with traditional communities and contemporary exhibitions

This post is an initial attempt to describe an extraordinary socially engaged art commission I was lucky enough to co-create with artist Stevie Ronnie.  The work was participatory; the exhibition likewise.  The opening was Friday 6th June.  The work is on show until the end of July, so this is my reflection of our work up to the exhibition and what happened at the opening…

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Ring, Ringer, Wring, Case hardened steel Northumbrian quoit, wrought iron hob, shark wire, blue clay, found items, Stevie Ronnie 2014 (photograph, Stephen Pritchard)

 

Artist: Stevie Ronnie

Curator/ producer: Stephen Pritchard

Produced by: dot to dot active arts CIC

Commissioned by: The Whistle Art Stop

Location: pubs across South West Northumberland

Exhibition venue: Haltwhistle, Northumberland

Funded by: Arts Council England and Northumberland Arts Development

Project dates: April to June 2014

Exhibition dates: 6th June to end July 2014

 

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Appropriated image of spectators watching game at Cart’s Bog, Allen Valley Quoits League website

 

northerngame is a project that has really just begun.  It’s about going to pubs in rural locations, watching a traditional sport, chatting to the people taking part and spectators, drinking, trying things out for yourself, listening, observing, meeting people, and, most of all, learningnortherngame is also about socially engaged arts practice as grassroots community engagement and contemporary art spaces in (this case) rural places.  It’s about developing trust, being irreverent, going to odd locations, talking, thinking, making art that can be remade, and playing games as old as their even older hosts – the hills and dales of the North Pennines and South West Northumberland.

The project is about quoits – an ancient and traditional game with its own language, a strong sense of community, yet mysterious and little known outside the circles of those who play the sport.  There are strict rules, teams, league divisions, cups, local small business sponsors, individual competitions, festival ‘open’ games, and competition and camaraderie in equal measures.  The league games mostly take place in pubs and working men’s and conservative clubs; outside, in beer gardens and adjoining fields.  Some pitches are well kept, others a little ramshackle.  The overriding feeling is of ‘make use of what’s at hand – that’ll fettle it.’  The measurements are in yards: the pits one yard square; distance from hob to hob must be eleven yards.  Well, that’s the case for the ‘northern game’ as played in the Allen Valley Quoits League.  There are others, including the Scottish ‘long game’ with a larger throwing distance of eighteen yards and quoits that are twice as heavy!  There are also grass versions of the game (often played at local festivals and shows).  There is a strong sense of DIY.  This appeals to our creative ethos – independence, community, do-it-yourself (or with the help of others who fancy getting involved/ having a go).

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Ring, Ringer, Wring, Case hardened steel Northumbrian quoit, wrought iron hob, shark wire, blue clay, found items, Stevie Ronnie 2014 (photograph, Stephen Pritchard)

 

So what is northerngame really about?  It’s a socially engaged art project, plain and simple.  It’s about grassroots engagement with local people who don’t (on the whole) go to art galleries or understand contemporary art or socially engaged art or (for that matter) what we’re doing.  Or didn’t…  It’s also about helping a contemporary art gallery in the post-industrial town of Haltwhistle engage with new local audiences and participants in a way that’s simultaneously understandable and unusual.  We tried to be slow and sensitive; honest; organic.  The final works in the exhibition were unknown until days before the opening.  Artist Stevie Ronnie researched the sport and visited various locations and watched games; we took part in some too.  But, although Stevie had cameras and other equipment with him, we didn’t ever even suggest using them to document players or their stories.  It just wasn’t right at the time.  Conversation and participation were paramount.  We wanted to avoid exploiting people or constructing situations.  We felt playful.  We were welcomed.  We were privileged.

Stevie and I thought and talked long and hard about the exhibition – how it might look, what it could contain and what it couldn’t, and how it might be received.  The intention was that the space should be playful, interactive, inviting participation yet also free from instruction.  The hope was that visitors would make their own choices about what they felt comfortable touching, moving, banging, clanging, throwing – even cleaning!  The installation is in a white cube space.  It plays to the minimalist aesthetic of contemporary visual art and, at the same time, also jars against it.  It defies convention and reimagines traditions. Not art traditions.  Rural outdoor traditions.

The exhibition consists of one large white-framed letterpress piece, The Vocabulary of Chance Meetings on Blue Clay, containing words often used by quoits players but, perhaps, alien to outsiders, and three smaller white-framed Lambda prints produced by Stevie during a visit to a disused quoits pitch at Allenheads Inn entitled Blue Clay and Hob, The Covering of the Blue Clay Pit, and Here, Where a Team Stood on the Blue Clay.  These works are elusive and beautiful – perfectly aligned with contemporary visual arts convention.  Stevie’s other work Ring, Ringer, Wring mixes materials in a series of three linked installations comprising: a steel hob (stake) installed in a gallery wall with a brand new quoit suspended on shark wire swinging gently next to it; a centrally placed yard square reclaimed wooden box containing blue clay with another hob sitting proud of the surface and another brand new quoit; and a rough handmade stone bench with rusting bucket, scrubbing brush and beer towel – the bucket contains muddy water.

Ring, Ringer, Wring blurs boundaries between what is art.  That is the intention of the entire project.  We question the nature of art, white cubes, audience as viewer/ participant.  We do this because it is playful.  Because people who go to galleries will hopefully feel unsettled, uncertain of whether to touch or just look.  Because people who don’t go to galleries might feel the space is fun and interactive – maybe not recognising all of the works as works of art.  In this sense, northerngame is an experiment – risky.  Not an exploitative one, rather a participatory one.  The opening was it’s test.  People from the ‘art world’ came along with local people and their children, and most importantly, quoits players came.  The quoits players travelled from as far as forty miles away to have a look.  They brought unusual quoits.  They chatted, drank beer, threw some quoits in the gallery, talked a bit about art.  Children swung and banged and clattered the suspended quoit against the wall-mounted hob over and over and over again until the white cube wall surrounding the hob began developing indentations and muddy impressions – marks made by people having a go.  The gallery rang loud as one person after another swung the quoit against the hob then watched as it danced, drawn back towards the hob in an almost perpetual motion.  The lambda prints were no longer spirit level straight but that was all good – they found their own place again and again.  People threw the other quoit into the blue clay box, aiming for the hob, sticking it in the clay, holding it, even brushing and washing it – the muddy water spattering across the newly painted gallery floor and up the fresh white walls.  The project seemed to find something for everyone.  That is what we hoped to achieve.

Most importantly of all, the quoits players were a bit bemused by the exhibition but enjoyed something different.  They talked to traditional arts audiences and to local people and children animatedly about their passion for their sport.  They brought more objects that are now part of the installation.  They were surprised there were no photographs of them or other players in the exhibition.  This surprised Stevie and I.  We knew we hadn’t taken any images of them; hadn’t even really asked.  But now they seemed to be giving us an invitation…  Looks like there’ll be a return match!  Such is the nature of northerngame.

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northerngame exhibition title, Chalk on one yard square blackboard, 2014

The carnivalesque and critical pedagogy–radical socially engaged art for social justice?

This is the final section of my draft research which considers other disciplines relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) They are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; the carnivalesque and critical pedagogy. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.

This is the ninth and final post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The fourth and final post in this section briefly discusses themes around the carnivalesque, critical pedagogy and radical interpretations of social practice for social justice…

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The carnivalesque is another place where art and life are blurred - playfully disrupted by participation by everyone; an alternative world where rich may become poor and paupers, kings. It is a concept encourages radicalism and dissensus; a concept well-aligned to radical socially engaged art interventions. The classic definition of the carnivalesque appears in Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965):

‘Because of their obvious sensuous of character and their strong element of play, carnival images strongly resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval festivals often tended toward carnival folk culture, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus… belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself but shaped according to a certain pattern of play… it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators… Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people' (Bakhtin, 1984 [1965], p. 7).

Perhaps, then, the socially engaged art can benefit from a closer relationship to the carnivalesque and performativity of practice? When linked to critical pedagogical theory and practice, perhaps, socially engaged art can find a route towards social change, or, perhaps, more critically, to social justice? Helguera certainly offers and alternative, yet all-encompassing vision of socially engaged practice, that exemplifies a critical, cross-disciplinary perspective with radical pedagogy and the theatrical performance characteristics of the carnivalesque. His book, Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011), seeks to bring together art and education critically. His conclusion is that the carnivalesque as described by Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World represents a form of cultural inversion in which ‘social hierarchies are temporarily broken through satire, celebration, and chaos’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 67), a form of performativity ‘derived from the history of performance art’ he believes should be central to socially engaged art but avoidant of subservience to any ‘cause’ that may turn practice into pure entertainment (Helguera, 2011, p. 68). Helguera is certain that ‘an aspect of play’ must be present in socially engaged practice – the type of playfulness that ‘upsets, even if temporarily, the existing social values (Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque”) that room is created for reflection, escaping the merely hedonistic experience of spectacle’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 70).

Here then lies a critical perspective that defines socially engaged art as a form of sometimes temporal, always disruptive practice that learns and, therefore, benefits from interacting with the knowledge from other disciplines, including ‘sociology, education, linguistics, and ethnography – to make decisions about how to engage and construct meaningful exchanges and experiences’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. xii-xiv). Helguera is clear that, for him, ‘[t]o argue… that good socially engaged art creates constructive personal relationships is wrong: an artist’s successful project could consist of deliberate miscommunication, in upsetting social relations, or in simply being hostile to the public’ (Helguera, 2011, p. xv). He is equally clear in his conviction that ‘[a]ll art, inasmuch as it is created to be communicated to or experienced by others, is social’ but that this does not explain the different experience of taking part in socially engaged art as opposed to, for example, viewing an exhibition (Helguera, 2011, p. 1). He sees socially engaged art’s ‘uncomfortable position’ situated somewhere between art and other disciplines as being ‘exactly the position it should inhabit’ because:

‘The practice’s direct links to and conflicts with both art and sociology must be overtly declared and the tension addressed, not resolved. Socially engaged artists can and should challenge the art market in attempts to redefine the notion of authorship, but to do so they must accept and affirm their existence in the realm of art, as artists’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 4-5).

This is an important position of flux; a critical perspective that explains socially engaged art as operating alongside and within other disciplines, problematising and making ambiguous issues so that it can help create new ways of seeing that are situated within ‘current political and social affairs’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 5-7). For Helguera, understanding the different natures of participation is essential in understanding how to work with participants. He describes this as follows:

‘An awareness of the voluntary, nonvoluntary, or involuntary predisposition of participants in a given project allows for the formulation of a successful approach to an individual or community, as approaches for participants with different predispositions vary widely. For example, if a participant is willingly and actively engaged as a volunteer, it may be in the interest of the artist to make gestures to encourage that involvement. If a participant has been forced to be part of the project for external reasons, it may be beneficial for the artist to acknowledge that fact and, if the objective is engagement, take measures to create a greater sense of ownership for that person. In the case of involuntary participants, the artist may decide to hide the action from them or make them aware at a certain point of their participation in the art project’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 16-17).

This advice is not only useful to socially engaged artists but also as a means of differentiating ‘participation’ in future policy-making and academic research. Similarly, Helguera’s views that successful socially engaged projects are usually developed with local communities over a long period, so do not often ‘travel’ well (Helguera, 2011, p. 20), and that projects often ‘serve very specific audiences’, even when apparently open to everyone (Helguera, 2011, p. 22), are important points to consider when critically researching and devising any participatory project. He suggests that any project operates on three levels: ‘one is its immediate circle of participants and supporters; the second is the critical art world, toward which it usually looks for validation; and the third is society at large, through governmental structures, the media, and other organizations or systems that may absorb and assimilate the ideas or other aspects of the project’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 22-23). Likewise, socially engaged practice, whilst seemingly similar to social work and perhaps even operating in similar ‘social ecosystems’, is a critically different field because, whilst social work may be described as:

‘a value-based profession based on a tradition of beliefs and systems that aim for the betterment of humanity and support ideals such as social justice, the defense of human dignity and worth, and the strengthening of human relationships. An artist, in contrast, may subscribe to the same values but makes work that ironizes, problematizes, and even enhances tensions around those subjects, in order to provoke reflection’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 35).

Helguera is at pains here to distance critically socially engaged art practice from social work because (and this is essential to this research and to broader contemporary issues such as UK arts policy and government drives to install participatory art as a panacea for social ills):

'The traditional argument against equating SEA with social work is that to do so would subject art to direct instrumentalization, relinquishing a crucial aspect of art-making that demands self-reflexivity and criticality… [precluding] the possibility that art can be deliberately instrumental and intentionally abandon any hopes of self-reflexivity… [whereas the] stronger argument is that SEA has a double function that social work lacks… [By] not just offering a service to a community (assuming it is a service-oriented piece); we are proposing our action as a symbolic statement in the context of our cultural history (and/or art history) and entering into a larger artistic debate… [Yet there are] similarities between the forms… [such as understanding] the mutual respect, inclusivity, and collaborative involvement that are the main tenets of social work’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 35-37).

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Helguera is clear that, whilst critical pedagogy does not seek to make art, approaches such as those elaborated by Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), can offer ‘a path to thinking about how an artist can engage with a community in a productive collaborative capacity’ in which it is clear that socially engaged artists cannot ‘act as a neutral entity, an invisible catalyst of experience’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 52-53) because:

‘The expertise of the artist lies, like Freire’s, in being a non-expert, a provider of frameworks on which experiences can form and sometimes be directed and channeled to generate new insights around a particular issue’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 54).

From this perspective, Helguera develops the notion that ‘antisocial or antagonistic social action is a fundamental area of activity’ for socially engaged art; a place where confrontation involves ‘taking a critical position on a given issue without necessarily proposing an alternative’ – no answers, just new questions (Helguera, 2011, p. 59). Perhaps, then, Helguera’s marrying of critical pedagogy with socially engaged arts practice will not, like many other art forms, offer ‘accurate representation’, rather complicate ‘readings so that we can discover new questions’ because ‘it is when we position ourselves in those tentative locations, and when we persist in making them into concrete experiences, that interstices become locations of meaning’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 71). This idea, which Helguera develops as ‘Transpedagogy’, is unlike traditional conceptions of art as education – as interpretation or as learning to make art – but rather places ‘the pedagogical process’ at the centre of art-making, creating an ‘autonomous environment, mostly outside of any academic or institutional framework’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 78). This ‘expanded field of pedagogy’ frees art education (and, perhaps, broader forms of education) from traditional restrictions of teaching, connoisseurship and interpretation because, unlike the traditional field, it acknowledges education as a performative act, a ‘collective construction of knowledge, and an acceptance that knowledge is not ‘knowing’ but ‘a tool for understanding the world’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 80). This emerges in some forms of collective socially engaged practice as a ‘distancing… from art’; a ‘blurring of boundaries between disciplines’ indicative of ‘an emerging form of art-making in which art does not point at itself but instead focuses on the social process of exchange’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 81).

Perhaps, then, socially engaged art can, by incorporating approaches inherent in critical pedagogical and critical participation action research approaches, help people discover their own sense of understanding; their own independent forms of ‘expertise’? A position described by Horton, in conversation with Freire, as opposing many traditional approaches to social change in which:

‘Organizers are committed to achieving a limited, specific goal whether or not it leads to structural change, or reinforces the system, or plays in the hands of capitalists. The problem is confused because a lot of people use organizing to do some education and they think it's empowerment because that's what they're supposed to be doing. But quite often they disempower people in the process by using experts to tell them what to do while having the semblance of empowering people. That confuses the issue considerably’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 120).

Instead, Horton and Freire propose a position where ‘expertise is in knowing not to be an expert’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 128); explained by Horton as follows:

‘[E]xpert knowledge is different from having the expert telling people what to do… [which] takes away the power of people to make decisions… [so] there's no empowerment… no learning’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 130).

The position of Horton and Freire as outlined above, is central to Helguera’s Transpedagogical approach to socially engaged practice; a position also supported by Bishop, who reflects that critical pedagogy’s inherent ‘insistence on the breakdown of teacher/ pupil hierarchy and participation as a route to empowerment’ is analogous to contemporary with socially engaged practice (Bishop, 2012, p. 267). This positioning of learning as independent and democratic seems rather more suggestive of social justice than social change; a change of emphasis discussed recently by Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe who stated that socially engaged art needs a new language because:

‘Social practice has tried to take over the role of what it means to work socially in the context of a place but there’s no real place there. It’s social; it’s everywhere. That’s one of the biggest issues I have with social practice now is how it’s managed to take the context out of the meaning and the value out of the work. Almost in the same way as “social change” has taken the progressive impact out of things’ (Dela, 2014).

So maybe socially engaged art practice is better aligned to the concept of social justice? As Lowe recently asked Creative Time ahead of being presented with the Annenberg Prize for Art and Social, ‘why they call it social “change” instead social “justice,” which has a very specific meaning. “Change” is a little, well…what does it mean? Everybody wants change’ (Dela, 2014).

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Playing and reality – potential space for creativity

This section considers other disciplines that are relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) and are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; and the carnivalesque. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.

This is the eighth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The third post in this section briefly discusses playing and reality.

Notes on Participatory Art (2010) by Almenberg is gives an interesting and primarily historical perspective on participatory art. The author is interesting, not just because he coined the phrase for an exhibition of his work in the early 1980s, but also because he was a psychodynamic psychotherapist for more than twenty-five years. The book is not primarily about art as therapy but does contain a very interesting allusion to D.W. Winnicott’s theories of play and creativity. In participatory art, as Almenberg explains, ‘neither the object nor the beholder is the focus of the situation. Rather, the focus is the very act of creating. Participatory art is “the beholder in action” using personal choice and intuition as primary tools’ (Almenberg, 2010, p. 5). He relates this psychodynamic perspective to D.W. Winnicott’s ‘“discovery” in the 1950s of a third kind of reality, that is neither the inner nor the outer reality… Winnicott called this play and included it within the wider context of culture and art’ (Almenberg, 2010, p. 5). This is an area of psychoanalytic, object-relations theory that offers a completely alternative route to potentially understanding socially engaged arts practice from the perspectives of both participants and artists than those (cognitive behavioural psychology, neuroscience, etc.).

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Winnicott was a leading psychoanalyst who is well known in that field for theories including the true self and false self, the ‘good-enough’ mother, transitional objects, etc. But it is his works around playing, creativity and ‘potential spaces’ that are of particular interest to this research. Living Creatively, an essay in Home Is Where We Start From (1970), by Winnicott sets the basis for his seminal work, Playing and Reality (1971). In Living Creatively, Winnicott states his belief that:

‘To be creative a person must exist and have a feeling of existing, not in conscious awareness, but as a basic place to operate from… Creativity is then the doing that arises out of being’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 39).

Winnicott is clearly positioning creativity as distinct from cognition. He goes on to warn against the creatively stifling effects of excessive state controls on society when he explains that:

'By creative living I mean not getting killed or annihilated all the time by compliance or by reacting to the world that impinges; I mean seeing everything afresh all the time. I refer to apperception as opposed to perception’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 41).

Winnicott more fully develops these concepts in Playing and Reality, in which he explains ‘creative apperception’ as being the primary process ‘that makes the individual feel that life is worth living’ whereas relating to external realities dominated by compliance constructs a world ‘only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation’, creating ‘a sense of futility for the individual’ that can result in ‘the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 65). To Winnicott then, his theory is based upon ‘a belief that living creatively is a healthy state, and that compliance is a sick basis for life’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 65). He locates this place of living creatively and cultural experience as situated ‘in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object)’; he links this concept to play and early childhood experience, explaining that ‘[c]ultural experience begins with creative living first manifested as play… life experiences that take place at the early stages of the individual’s existence’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 100).

The postulating of a ‘potential space’ is particularly relevant, not just to child development, but also to the types of experiences that may frequently occur in socially engaged arts projects (including radical interventions). The concept could perhaps be further developed and theorised by further exploring this. As Winnicott explains, ‘For me, playing leads on naturally to cultural experience and indeed forms its foundation’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 106). He describes the characteristics of this theory as follows:

'The potential space between baby and mother, between child and family, between individual and society or the world, depends on experience [derived from play] which leads to trust. It can be looked upon as sacred to the individual in that it is here that the individual experiences creative living… By contrast, exploitation of this area leads to a pathological condition in which the individual is cluttered up with persecutory elements of which he has no means of ridding himself’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 103).

He explains the ‘third type of reality’ – potential space – as contrasting with external and internal realities by describing them as follows:

‘Looking first at external reality and the individual’s contact with external reality in terms of object-relating and object-usage, one sees that external reality itself is fixed… [Similarly] inner psychic reality… is to be seen as a fixity that belongs to inheritance, to the personality organization, and to environmental factors introjected and to personal factors projected.’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 106)

For Winnicott, the potential space an 'area available for manoeuvre in terms of the third way of living (where there is cultural experience or creative playing) is extremely variable as between individuals’ because this space is ‘a product of the experiences of the individual person (baby, child, adolescent, adult) in the environmental that obtains’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 107). The implications of this theory for future research in relation to socially engaged practice span the full spectrum, from collaborative working to understanding participant responses to interventions differently to perhaps developing democratic ways of living creatively, based as it is on the understanding that '... for creative living we need no special [artistic] talent’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 44).  Perhaps, then, practitioners and researchers can learn much by thinking of how to create a supportive space where art can be experienced as ‘play’ by participants in the sense described by Winnicott?

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?

Socially engaged art – an ‘arts’ perspective

This is the third post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my ongoing PhD research around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

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The field of contemporary socially engaged art theory is another hotly contested area. There are two main players regularly cited as offering extremes of participatory art practice and experience: Grant Kester and Claire Bishop. Indeed, Toby Lowe has developed a ‘spectrum of participatory arts practice’ based on his reading of the two protagonists’ different perspectives (Lowe, 2012, p. 3) – see illustration below.

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Are Kester and Bishop really as diametrically opposed in their readings of socially engaged art as this spectrum, and many other commentators, suggest? Rather like Matarasso and Merli, the ‘Kester/ Bishop’ debate has continued for more than ten years, during which time both academics have written extensively about their positions. However, this review focuses only on their most recent works to focus upon their most current perspectives: Kester’s The One and The Many (2011) and Bishop’s Artificial Hells (2012).

Kester situates the rise of socially engaged (or collaborative) art practice as a direct response to the current socio-political milieu dominated by ‘a powerful neoliberal economic order dedicated to eliminating all forms of collective or public resistance (institutional, ideological, and organizational) to the primacy of capital’ (Kester, 2011, p. 5). He sees this ‘as a time of both peril and opportunity, as the dominant political narratives used to explain and justify social and economic inequality, the distribution of resources and opportunities within society, and the relative responsibility of the state to the public at large, are being contested and destabilized’ – circumstances that, like previous moments in the history of modernism, have galvanised a ‘remarkable profusion of contemporary art practices concerned with collective action and civic engagement’ (Kester, 2011, pp. 6-7). Kester’s clear position is that contemporary socially engaged practice disrupts traditional notions of autonomy and the aesthetic but he is also concerned that ethical values are often displaced by some critics who favour techniques such as ‘distanciation and destabilization’ (Kester, 2011, pp. 9-10).

Kester is clear that art theory and criticism must adapt to meet the specific modes of production associated with socially engaged practice, utilising techniques from social sciences to assist in evaluating projects (Kester, 2011, pp. 10-11). Although he is wary of post-structuralism because its ‘concept of a textual politics (centered on a process of critical reading, or decoding)’ may insulate ‘the act of critique… from the exigencies of practice or direct action’ (Kester, 2011, p. 13). Political opposition, activism and site-specificity are referred to throughout The One and The Many as key factors behind the rise of socially engaged art in which practice is ‘centered on immersive interaction and a referential orientation to specific sites of social production’ to develop ‘challenging new collaborative art projects’ that ‘are located on a continuum with forms of cultural activism’ (Kester, 2011, p. 37). This results in multi-faceted practice that Kester believes is challenging to ‘many contemporary critics’ (Kester, 2011, p. 59).

Adopting a common standpoint when discussing development and regeneration policies, Kester expresses concern that authorities frequently link deteriorating infrastructure to economic and political ideologies of moral decline to the need for more control of the working class (Kester, 2011, p. 16). He is critical of international development aid and supportive of dependency theorists – a process he believes is driven by subordination to global capitalism, thereby decreasing autonomy in ‘developing’ countries (Kester, 2011, p. 117). A significant proportion of The One and The Many then investigates examples of ‘good’ participatory art projects (Dialogue, Park Fiction, Project Row Houses, etc.) that utilise ‘dialogic’ and ‘collaborative’ arts practice effectively to promote local autonomy, and examples of ‘bad’ practice (Superflex) where artists seem to reinforce Western superiority over developing countries with a missionary zeal.

The One and The Many also explores how community arts in the UK and Europe became institutionalised as part of 1990s urban regeneration strategy, resulting in the movement becoming ‘largely uncoupled from its roots in local activism’ (Kester, 2011, p. 197). Kester characterises Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? as the ‘bellwether expression of New Labour cultural policy’ that supported their ‘rhetoric of “social inclusion”’ by promoting “participation” in the arts as a tool for “self-determination” – a vehicle for social change ‘“planned” and administered by the state, on behalf of the disenfranchised’ - rather than instigated ‘by the constituents of the state, in response to their own demands and in resistance to the various complicities and interdependencies that define the state’s relationship to the market’ (Kester, 2011, p. 198). Kester’s implied support for social activism appears, however, to favour a soft and slow approach that recognises ‘there is no art practice that avoids all forms of co-option, compromise, or complicity’ (Kester, 2011, p. 2); concluding that socially engaged art should not seek to be revolutionary but should facilitate social change via a ‘slow process of learning and un-learning’ (Kester, 2011, p. 227).

Like many critics writing about socially engaged art, Bishop begins by sifting through the many labels ascribed to this mode of practice. She selects ‘participatory art’ – a term she believes to be less ambiguous than others – and defines the practice as one in which ‘people constitute the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theatre and performance’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 1-2). Unlike Kester, who does not favour participatory practices aligned to Bourriaud, Bishop makes it clear that many examples she refers to in Artificial Hells ‘have emerged in the wake of Relational Aesthetics’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 2). Bishop, like Kester and most other writers in the field, associates the ‘return to the social’ with a renewed focus on collaboration, project-based practice and participation; a continuum of ‘attempts to rethink art collectively’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 2-3). She defines key debates about contemporary participatory practice as situated in the ‘tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 3). Bishop is clearly concerned about forms of participatory art that often emphasise ‘process over a definitive image, concept or object’, preferring ‘to value what is invisible: a group dynamic, a social situation, a change of energy, a raised consciousness’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 6). Nonetheless, she concedes that the practice necessitates ‘new ways of analysing art that are no longer linked solely to visuality’ – an interdisciplinary approach - but insists that the aesthetics of ‘form’ and ‘reflections on quality’ must not be subjugated by policy-driven, outcome-based, positivist approaches (Bishop, 2012, p. 7). She underlines this position by stating that, whilst participatory practice should ‘channel art’s symbolic capital towards constructive social change’ it must also ‘discuss, analyse and compare this work critically as art, since this is the institutional field in which it is endorsed and disseminated’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 12-13).

In keeping with most other writing about contemporary socially engaged practice, Artificial Hells perceives New Labour’s cultural rhetoric as a means of justifying increased public arts expenditure by focusing on improving society and reducing social exclusion rather than encouraging ‘artistic experimentation and research as values in and of themselves’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 13). Of course, Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? again receives special treatment for making excessive claims to cure all society’s ills that ultimately led to participation in the arts becoming ‘a cornerstone of post-industrial economic policy’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 14). Bishop views the ‘social turn’ as creating ‘concrete goals in art, but also the critical perception that these are more substantial, “real” and important than artistic experiences’ and yet, as she thoughtfully points out, participatory projects are usually not compared directly with other social projects outside of the arts but instead often contested in terms of ‘ethical one-upmanship’ and ‘process over product’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 18-19). Bishop’s differences with Kester intensify with claims that he tends to compassionately identify with the ‘other’, favouring ‘a generalised set of ethical precepts’ over ‘the disruptive specificity of a given practice’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 23-25). Here, Bishop fears a normative stance, based upon consensus and respectful of difference, may become repressive towards social practices exploring ‘disruption, intervention or over-identification’ by labelling them “unethical”; the sceptical opposition to these narratives by critical theorists including Badiou, Rancière and Žižek may offer alternative perspectives, however (Bishop, 2012, p. 25).

Indeed, Bishop’s main argument in Artificial Hells would appear to revolve around a belief that socially engaged art should ‘operate in a space of antagonism or negation vis-à-vis society, a tension that the ideological discourse of creativity reduces to a unified context and instrumentalises for more efficacious profiteering’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 16) by redefining traditional notions of the aesthetic as ‘aisthesis: an autonomous regime of experience that is not reducible to logic, reason or morality’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 18). Her proposition that ‘unease, discomfort or frustration – along with fear, contradiction, exhilaration and absurdity – can be crucial to any work’s artistic impact’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 26) has profound implications for forms of participatory practice opposing instrumentalism. Focusing upon Rancière’s revision of the aesthetic as aisthesis (Ranciere, 2013 [2011]), Bishop finds a solution to socially engaged arts ‘disavowed relationship to the aesthetic’ in his interpretation of the aesthetic as autonomous experience (Bishop, 2012, pp. 26-27) and the implied ‘ability to think contradiction: the productive contradiction of art’s relationship to social change, which is characterised by the paradox of belief in art’s autonomy and in it being inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to come’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 29).

Despite concerns about socially engaged art in its ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ instrumentalised forms, Artificial Hells is supportive of participatory arts practice, albeit in more radical forms than envisaged by Matarasso, Merli or Kester. Like Kester, Bishop passionately believes that participatory art can offer emancipation; offering the potential of ‘a communal, collective space of shared social engagement’ and that neoliberal states have effectively harnessed much of the field of social practice for their own ends (Bishop, 2012, pp. 275-277). But she is more pessimistic and radical in her opposition to socially engaged practice that conflates anti-capitalism and ‘the Christian “good soul”’ because such an amalgam leaves ‘no space for perversity, paradox and negation, operations as crucial to aisthesis as dissensus is to the political’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 39-40). Like others, Bishop mourns the loss of the anti-elitism of the community arts movement and its associated ideology of participation in the arts as a form of empowerment (Bishop, 2012, p. 177). The clear implication is that contemporary participatory art has a tendency towards self-censorship because ‘it is a difficult task to be countercultural while asking for state approval and support’ and a, perhaps unfounded, over cautiousness about participants’ abilities to comprehend ‘disruptive’ modes of practice (Bishop, 2012, pp. 188-190). For Bishop, ‘participatory art today stands without a relation to an existing political project (only a loosely-defined anti-capitalism) and presents itself as oppositional to visual arts by trying to side-step the question of visuality’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 284). A precarious situation of flux that Bishop perceives is only (partially) resolvable if those involved in the field:

'[P]roduce a viable international alignment of leftist political movements and a reassertion of art’s inventive forms of negation as valuable in their own right. We need to recognise art as a form of experimental activity overlapping with the world, whose negativity may lend support towards a political project (without bearing the sole responsibility for devising and implementing it), and – more radically – we need to support the progressive transformation of existing institutions through the transversal encroachment of ideas whose boldness is related to (and at times greater than) that of artistic imagination’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 284).

Undoubtedly, then, socially engaged art is ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19), shares many commonalities across specific practices and projects, and yet is riven by specific debates ethics, aesthetics and politics. Perhaps, in their recent books, Kester and Bishop may be moving towards a convergence of overall practice whilst maintaining specific differences that are perhaps better left unresolved. There is certainly renewed efforts by practitioners, academics and critics to define the history of socially engaged art and develop of critical language capable of better communicating the nature of this diverse field of practice – something lacking until now (Pasternak, 2012, p. 8). Perhaps a shared language for social practice will only really benefit policy-makers? Perhaps it is enough to experience the ‘symbolic gestures’ of socially engaged interventions to enable ‘powerful and effective methods of change’? (Thompson, 2012, p. 18)

Perhaps contemporary socially engaged art is ‘not an art movement’ in the sense that many critics attribute to the avant-garde movements frequently cited as its ancestors (Situationism, Dada, Constructivism, Fluxus, Conceptualism, etc.), but in fact ‘a new social order – ways of life that emphasize participation, challenge power, and span disciplines ranging from urban planning and community work to theatre and the visual arts’ that are ‘non-discipline specific’? (Thompson, 2012, pp. 19-21) Living as Form (2012) expounds the perspective of socially engaged practice as a ‘desire to merge art and life’ – linking this notion to previous moments within the history of the avant-garde (Thompson, 2012, p. 21). To Thompson, the blurring of any boundaries between art and living offer new possibilities that are both deeply interpersonal and essentially political in nature (Thompson, 2012, pp. 21-22). He believes that process-based practice moves the focus away from art as an essentially aesthetic experience but not to the extent to negate its importance completely (Thompson, 2012, pp. 22-23). To Thompson, critical analysis of socially engaged art is essential and offers the following questions as a starting point when attempting to assess such projects:

‘When is a project working? What are its intentions? Who is the intended audience? When is an artist simply using the idea of social work in order to progress her career? Are these socially engaged works perhaps a little too sympathetic with the prevailing values of our time and, thus, make themselves vulnerable to state instrumentalization?’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 32)

To Lind, socially engaged art ‘involves more people than objects’; its intention ‘social and political change’; better placed ‘outside traditional art institutions’ but ‘not entirely foreign to them (Lind, 2012, p. 49). She describes the practice as still a minor part of the arts ecosystem, ‘opposed to the spectacularized and comsumption-oriented mainstream institutions’ so as to retain its independence (Lind, 2012, p. 55). Cruz, also writing in Living as Form, believes the ongoing socio-economic situation necessitates a new, broader approach to artistic practice that includes other disciplines and ‘new conceptions of cultural and economic production (Cruz, 2012, pp. 57-60). In a similar vein to Bishop, he supports radical activism that produces ‘new aesthetic categories that can problematize the relationship of the social, the political, and the formal’ by a coupling of activists with autonomous artists (Cruz, 2012, pp. 60-61). Becker makes this argument in a more idealistic manner by claiming that artists are ‘creating microutopian interventions that allow us to dream back the communities we fear we have lost’ (Becker, 2012, p. 71).

To Holmes, socially engaged art should become one element in a ‘mobile force that oversteps the limits of any professional sphere or disciplinary field, while still drawing on their knowledge and technical capacities’ in a quest to ‘change the forms in which we are living’ (Holmes, 2012, pp. 73-74). His essay in Living as Form suggests this might be achieved using a four-pronged approach incorporating:

Critical research is fundamental to today’s movements, which are always at grips with complex legal, scientific and economic problems. Participatory art is vital to any group taking its issues to the streets, because it stresses a commitment to both representation and lived experience. Networked communications and strategies of mass-media penetration... because ideas and directly embodied struggles just disappear without a megaphone. Finally… the collaborative coordination or “self-organisation” of this whole set of social practices, gathering forces, orchestrating efforts and helping to unleash events and to deal with the consequences’ (Holmes, 2012, p. 74).

Jackson is more conciliatory. Her position makes clear that ‘there is no pure position for socially engaged artmaking’ (Jackson, 2012, p. 86); the question of ‘whether it should be “self-governing” or commit to governance by “external rules”’ is central to its future as a practice in which ‘[a]cts of aesthetic affirmation coincide with equally necessary acts of aesthetic refusal’ (Jackson, 2012, pp. 90-91). McGonagle, in Art of Negotiation (2007), identifies ‘[t]he emergence of another dynamic which hinges on negation and reciprocation, and not just production and consumption’ – an emancipatory move ‘to reconnect art and lived experience as social process’ from a ‘legacy of disconnection between contemporary art and society’ (McGonagle, 2007, pp. 6-7). He ascribes the role of the socially engaged artist as being ‘reconnected to a social continuum and also reconnecting the arts aesthetic and ethical responsibilities… the idea of artist as negotiator’ (McGonagle, 2007, p. 9). In the same book, Reiss further develops the notion of the multi-faceted position of socially engaged artists as straddling the fields of education, activism and research as well as their roles expanding to include becoming role-models and collaborators (Reiss, 2007, p. 12). She perceives ‘participation in the Beuysian sense where the “non-artist” becomes essential in the completion of the art work and in the negotiation of meaning and value in the art process’ (Reiss, 2007, p. 13) but is clear that the practice should remain separate from, and a challenge to, instrumentalist agendas (Reiss, 2007, p. 17).

The Art of Participation takes a much more traditionally arts-based approach when discussing socially engaged practice. Frieling is critical of participatory practice that seeks to create ‘lived’ experience by investing art ‘with nonart or political intent’ (Frieling, 2008, p. 34); particularly artists who make ‘(micro)utopian claims’ (Frieling, 2008, p. 48). Groys’ primary argument is with arts outsiders attempting to influence and ‘transform the fundamental condition of how modern art functions – namely, the radical separation of artists and their public’ (Groys, 2008, p. 19). Whilst, for Atkins, postmodernism has created a general sense of ‘highly individuated indifference, or channelled automatism’ that must be mediated by new forms of participation and new ‘critical perspectives that ensure the possibility of individual and collective engagement’ (Atkins, 2008, p. 64).

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative attempts to generalise the position of participatory arts practice as encompassing ‘the "signature" piece of an artist largely employing her/his audience as low-paid or even unpaid labour to the work of the artist fully integrated within her/his community where questions of ownership and authorship are largely irrelevant’ (Tiller, 2012, p. 7), whilst being equally at home ‘within accepted cultural policy frameworks e.g. schools, museums, galleries and other cultural institutions or working within a much more responsive and ad hoc practice reacting to the immediate needs of those on the very edges of society, e.g. in internal and crossborder conflicts, marginalised communities, with refugees and asylum seekers or development contexts dealing with issues such as sustainability, ecology and health’ (Tiller, 2012, pp. 8-9). ArtWorks’ report clearly seeks to extend participatory arts in every direction but tends, perhaps because many of its stakeholders work for arts institutions and academia, to favour working within ‘the wider context of social, political and economic change’ in an attempt to influence policy-makers (Tiller, 2012, p. 17). It was clear that ArtWorks’ supported an ‘all-inclusive’ approach to socially engaged practices during their 2013 conference, Changing the Conversation. Whilst the conference was not entirely consensual, provocations tended to excitedly promote ‘participation’ as ‘no longer confined to “marginalised” communities or institutional settings’ because ‘contemporary arts practices are re-defining the “participant”, breaking down distinctions between art forms and opening new forms of interactivity and engagement with different audiences, publics and communities’ (Nicholson, 2013, pp. 1-2). The main concern for this ‘participation for all’ outlook was to ensure projects were neither ‘simply taking existing metropolitan audiences to performance spaces they consider “edgy”’ nor using the ‘disadvantaged’ as material to further their artistic ambitions (Nicholson, 2013, p. 2).

Clements, in The Recuperation of Participatory Arts Practices, sees initiatives like ArtWorks as agendas to ‘widen participation’ by breaking down ‘barriers that affect engagement whether associated with class, age, gender, ethnicity, cultural knowledge or even the mythology that creativity is elitist and about special people’; he also acknowledges the practice is capable of being ‘a radicalising process which engenders transformation and emancipation as it can encourage resistance, democracy and citizenship’ (Clements, 2011, p. 19). Referring to 1960s and 1970s community arts movements as positive examples of collective cultural democracy, Clements laments their demise at the hands of state instrumentalism as contiguous to the loss of a ‘radical carnivalesque cultural activism and a broader spectrum of education which encourages self-determinism and cultural democracy’ (Clements, 2011, p. 19). Arguing that socially engaged art should ‘challenge the dominant ideological notion of individualised artistic intention which has traditionally determined engagement and understanding’ (Clements, 2011, p. 20), he criticises many cultural institutions and some established artists for ‘co-opting’ participatory ‘events’ as vehicles of ‘a vacuous mainstream populism and sometime celebrity spectacle de-radicalised as harmless fun’ (Clements, 2011, p. 28). Clements’ scepticism is supported by the rise in simple tick box guidance for those organisations seeking to implement participatory arts projects such as Getting In On the Act published by the James Irving Foundation in 2011 (Brown, et al., 2011) - referred to as ‘good practice’ in ArtWorks: International Next Practice Review (Tiller, 2012). This example of the hegemonic tendency to attempt to subsume counter-cultural movements appears to be directly at odds with the original aims of socially engaged art.

Perhaps, socially engaged practice should, as Gablik stated in 1984, ‘forgo the artifice of the gallery’ and ‘make art for [or with?] ordinary people instead of for other artists’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘discard the incestuous… “stylistic infighting” and begin instead to convey meanings… [for] the people rather than to a dwindling elite’ (Gablik, 1984, p. 28). This perspective, together with Gablik’s depiction of ‘radical art’ as a means to help ‘organise people who can speak for themselves, but lack the vehicles to do so’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 112) by social participation that involves ‘a significant shift from objects to relationships’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 7) may well offer as salient a description as any mentioned above – as relevant today as when first written. Gablik’s insistence that socially engaged practice must begin with community as a basis upon which to build ‘new modes of relatedness, in which the paradigm of social consciousness replaces that of individual genius’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 114) still resonates strongly with contemporary debates; a turning away from ‘competitive modes of institutionalised aesthetics’ that may avoid propagating today’s institutionalised ‘dominator system’ by ‘forgoing its rites of production and consumption as a model for making art, its mythology of professionalism and its power archetype of success’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 144).

Matarasso, Merli and the question of social impact

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There is a crucial debate that is often still referred to when questions of art and social change arise. It is essentially a disagreement about the potentialities of participatory art as a mode of effecting social change; predominantly a discussion about policy and methodology – two questions that are at the heart of much of the writing about socially engaged art and its practice.

Matarasso published Use or Ornament? in 1997 for New Labour think-tank Comedia. It quickly became the cornerstone of New Labour’s drive to increase the status of arts and culture in the UK; it made impressive claims about the many possible forms of social impact that participation in arts and cultural activities could achieve. The report seemed to present a compelling case to many policy-makers that participatory arts might be a panacea for all ills by claiming, very positively, that:

‘Participation in the arts does bring benefits to individuals and communities. On a personal level these touch people’s confidence, creative and transferable skills and human growth, as well as their social lives through friendships, involvement in the community and enjoyment. Individual benefits translate into wider social impact by building the confidence of minority and marginalised groups, promoting contact and contributing to social cohesion. New skills and confidence can be empowering as community groups become more (and more equitably) involved in local affairs. Arts projects can strengthen people’s commitment to places and their engagement in tackling problems, especially in the context of urban regeneration. They encourage and provide mechanisms for creative approaches to development and problem solving, and offer opportunities for communities and institutions to take risks in a positive way. They have the capacity to contribute to health and social support of vulnerable people, and to education’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 74).

The report continued by extending the claims for the efficacy of participatory art in achieving positive ‘social outcomes’ because it is different from and superior to other forms of arts experiences (Matarasso, 1997, pp. 74-79). Matarasso warned that projects must be ‘well-conceived and managed’ to achieve positive social impact or they could otherwise produce ‘negative outcomes’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 75). The report clearly suggested to New Labour policy-makers that the project of ‘social inclusion’ could be furthered by ‘a marginal repositioning of social policy priorities’ together with ‘a review of the cultural dimension of social policy by local authorities and other major agencies’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 79). It also provocatively suggested that art purporting to either conjure ‘demons of social engineering and Soviet Realism’ or romantic notions of the ‘neurasthenic anti-hero, whose artistic sensibility requires protection from the pollution of modern life’, were positions ‘used by people who should know better to frighten us into our places’ (Matarasso, 1997, pp. 80-81).

Although frequently criticised, the most critical response to Use or Ornament? by Paola Merli was not published until seven years later. Her approach focused on criticising Matarasso’s research as flawed, perhaps because of his ‘strong desire to be relevant and useful to the policy process and to contribute to decision-making’ (Merli, 2004, p. 17). To Merli, the research data did not support Matarasso’s conclusions reached. She claimed that:

‘Many of the 50 hypotheses are expressed as relationship between abstract concepts which are not observable, nor measurable. For example: participation in the arts "can give people influence over how they are seen by others", or "can help validate the contribution of a whole community", or "can help people extend control over their own lives", or "can help community groups raise their vision beyond the immediate”’ (Merli, 2004, p. 17).

Furthermore, Merli criticised Matarasso’s questionnaire because it was not systematic, nor formulated to test his hypotheses, nor did it consider or attempt to control social desirability bias; she also attacked him for failing to adequately explore the likely duration of the results obtained or the social groups his participants belonged to (Merli, 2004, pp. 17-18). But it was not just Matarasso’s highly suspect collection and interpretation of data that Merli found wanting, she also questioned his interpretation of social change, claiming that he, along with other policy-makers and intellectuals, shared ‘a particular philosophical attitude towards society’; a ‘benevolent’ vision of ‘"new missionaries", who play guitar with marginalised youth, the disabled and the unemployed, aiming at mitigating the perception which they have of their own exclusion’ (Merli, 2004, p. 18). Contrasting this ‘revival’ of participation with the community arts movement, Merli found that, whereas ‘the original phenomenon was a spontaneous movement… directed to the expression of conflicts’ and devoted to achieving ‘emancipation and liberation from any form of social control… by means of artistic creativity’, Matarasso’s vision was a form of soft social control prescribed by the rich to anesthetise the poor (Merli, 2004, pp. 19-20).

Merli’s proposed alternative to the prescriptive Use or Ornament? was itself, however, rather limp in its attempt to suggest areas for future research – many of which are still relatively unexplored by many socially engaged practitioners and projects to this day. Merli suggested that social impact assessment (an approach very much focused upon investigating the social effects of public policy), and interdisciplinary research (including the fields of psychology and sociology), could be useful methods of evaluating participatory art activities because they recognised the specificity of each intervention and offered a firm theoretical basis for future research in the field, as well as offering evidence about the effects creativity and perception on participants (Merli, 2004, p. 20). In Vygotsky and Sloboda, however, Merli chose to narrowly focus upon creativity based on contested social and cognitive psychological approaches with little to link them to creativity or the arts. She also described Bourdieu’s treatise on art as an elitist tool that reinforces social difference, Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception (1968), as ‘a grounding theory for interesting research on the social impact of the arts’ (Merli, 2004, pp. 20-21). Nonetheless, Merli’s suggestion to utilise detailed interviews rather than questionnaires because they can help the researcher ‘understand - and not simply to measure - the ideas and the feelings of the interviewee’ (Merli, 2004, p. 21) is certainly of relevance to methods used in this research.

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

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

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

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

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