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

The article is intentionally polemical.  It is based upon research that forms part of my PhD thesis which synthesises inter- and trans-disciplinary learning and methodologies.  This article is therefore rooted in radical art history, critical theory and critical urban theory.  It necessarily denies neutrality, is suspicious of empiricism and is grounded in an understanding of art as a social product and always political.  Radical art history places great significance on issues of class, race, gender and sexuality as well as opposing capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.  It is polemical, partisan and deeply aware of society, context and the limitations of academia.  As such, it argues that art history is always provisional, constructed and thereby revisable.  It proposes that theory can be liberated from academic conformity so it can contribute to social and intellectual movements for change.

The article therefore argues that we need to both look inside and outside specifically commissioned grey literature and attempts to empirically understand ideas such as social inclusion, community engagement, participation and diversity.  It argues that, to better understand socially engaged art, we must fully situate it within social, political and economic contexts and understand what doing so means.  We must look outside our fields of practice and research; look to the past to understand our present and instil hope for our futures.  Theory is often overlooked and underdeveloped these days.  And yet, we can learn much from our past.


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

The proliferation of projects seeking to increase participation in the arts can appear bewildering.  From Creative People and Places (CPP) to Education, Learning and Outreach teams sprouting from almost every arts and cultural institution across England, the race is on to engage as many people as possible in the arts – not just as audiences but also as participants (although audiences can frequently be participants and participants are often audiences).  Attempts to engage new people in new places or new people in old places can be spectacular (good for attracting large numbers of people); sometimes dressed-up as ‘grassroots’.  The troubles are two-fold: initiatives seeking to ‘democratise culture’ – existing state-approved culture – to encourage more people in more places to take part in existing state-funded provision; and, they always turn participants (people) into numbers, state-sanctioned categories – data for evaluations and reports that ‘evidence’ success at every opportunity.  People become numbers, places little more than coloured pins on territorial maps.

Initiated by the state via (not very) arms-length bodies, initiatives like CPP and the other institutional outreach activities are funder-initiated.  The terms of engagement are determined many miles away from the places where people don’t take part in the state’s authorised arts and cultural offer; in ivory towers that always reinforce class ceilings, by people who see, for deeply ideological reasons, the under-participating masses as in dire need of a good dose of ‘civilisation’.  Power in the hands of the few.  Not institutions who must, per funding criteria, tick boxes.  Not uncomfortable ‘new’ partnerships tasked with delivering art to new people in new places.  Not artists often paid less than recommended rates to carefully comply with increasingly prescriptive project briefs and outcomes that perpetuate division of labour and precarity.  Not people: the participants.  They have no power other than to choose whether to participate in a ‘trickle-down’ offer of what amounts to little more than the scraps from the table of our long-standing oligarchy, the English cultural elite.

Is this an attempt to colonise people and places? Another gilded Trojan Horse harbouring cultural agents armed with state-sanctioned wellbeing, inclusion, diversity and employability – creative ‘salvation’ disguising the sanitisation of the ‘masses’ with our nation’s soft power weapon of choice?  Are arts professionals, artists and a myriad of other partners performing as little more than depoliticising missionaries, mercenaries and middlemen (and women)?  This article seeks to reveal the limitations of state-initiated arts and cultural projects as well as spurious notions of ‘empowerment’ by examining them in terms of homogeneity, universality and technocracy.  Whose values really underpin cultural value?  Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘we’ trying to ‘engage’?  Whose culture are ‘we’ trying to (re)make and why?  Do ‘we’ need new infrastructure; more managers?  Perhaps people in areas of low cultural engagement have their own forms of culture that some may just not consider ‘cultured’?  Cultural democracy offers a different view of people power, so why is it loathed by the state?

State-sanctioned art has not only entrenched itself within existing as well as new buildings and infrastructures, but it has also expanded into almost every aspect of life; not everyday life but, rather, public, civic and corporate life – controlled life.  The institutions of art use outreach, education and participation to attempt to broaden their audiences and satisfy the state’s need for ‘evidence-based’ outputs and outcomes based on state social inclusion and wellbeing agendas that can exclude people[1].  The same organisations, along with increasing legions of precarious freelance artists, have also expanded their ‘partnerships’ to include swathes of activities from community engagement and empowerment to large-scale public-corporate regeneration schemes.

The arts have, I argue, effectively mirrored state and corporate agendas, utilising economic arguments and technocratic control to create a new centrality in which neoliberalism’s useful people (including arts organisations and artists) are permitted to stay so long as they, like everybody else in the centrality, comply.  Those who are deemed surplus to requirements or non-compliant (and again this includes arts organisations and artists) are relegated to the peripheries – marginalised (Lefebvre, 1996 [1975], pp. 161-162).  It can be argued that the creative industries form the centrality of art.  As such it must be analysed as part of a critique of capitalism in its entirety.  Art is not separate or different from society.  Rather, art is but one element within society.  Yet the creative industries turn art into another cog in the wheel of capitalist production; another form of alienated labour.

It is therefore important to thoroughly question social inclusion agendas and the role art does and does not play in society (Leslie, 2011, p. 190).  Additionally, this critique must also seek to address what Erich Fromm described as the ‘isolation and powerlessness’ that results in societies dominated by free-market social and economic policies.  In such societies, human relationships can be drowned in a sea of instrumentality and control (1942 [1941], p. 102).  Relationships between humans become the reified relationships of things and people – artists are an excellent example – sell themselves as commodities in the free market of precarity.  The pull of centrality is strong and participation is just one tool used by state-sanctioned art to disempower and disenfranchise the very people it claims to seek to ‘include’.  As Dave Beech wrote:

The social and cultural distinctions that prompt participation in the first place, which participation seeks to shrink or abolish, are reproduced within participation itself through an economy of the participants’ relative proximity to the invitation.  Outsiders have to pay a higher price for their participation, namely, the neutralisation of their difference and the dampening of their powers of subversion … Participation papers over the cracks.  The changes we need are structural. (2010 [2008])

Recently, the institutionalisation and instrumentalisation of art has been dressed up as socially engaged art, placemaking, engaging communities, community development, and a myriad of other fuzzy terms.  The messages emanate from the state: ‘social inclusion’, ‘social engagement’, ‘community development’.  This is the language of New Public Management and its legions of buzzword-loving consultants.  Yet this sudden urge to include the ‘excluded’ is no as benign as it may at first appear:

In Britain today, as elsewhere, culture is the wonder stuff that gives more away than it takes.  Like some fantastical oil in a Grimm fairytale, this magical substance gives and gives, generating and enhancing value, for state and private men alike.  Culture is posited as a mode of value production: for its economy-boosting and wealth-generating effects; its talent for regeneration, through raising house prices and introducing new business, which is largely service based; and its benefits as a type of moral rearmament or emotional trainer, a perspective that lies behind the ‘social inclusion’ model, whereby culture must speak to – or down to – disenfranchised groups. (Leslie, 2011, p. 183)

Art has, arguably, been instrumentalised to varying degrees by those in power for thousands of years (Belfiore, 2012, p. 104)[2].  But art was systematically instrumentalised in the service of inclusion agendas during the years of New Labour government.  It maintains its instrumental function today by attaching itself to other, better-funded elements of the state in the hope of profiting financially and politically by demonstrating the socio-economic benefits of the arts (Gray, 2002; Gray, 2008; Belfiore, 2012; Hewison, 2014).  Meanwhile art continues to categorise, ‘validate’ and thereby appropriate radical, marginal practices, drawing them into the centre and institutionalising them.  For example, an ongoing project, linked to CPP, is attempting to validate socially engaged artists from a perspective which is ‘beyond the gallery’ (Ravetz & Wright, 2015).

And yet social practice, from an avant-garde perspective, demands that art and life be merged through the radical transformation of both art and life.  Art must ‘seek to change the determining conditions of the social sphere’, not simply smooth existing conditions (Hutchinson, 2015, p. 60).  However, whilst some social practice can be radical, socially engaged art can (and, I argue, increasingly is) be safe and conservative.  For example, artist Mark Hutchinson distinguishes between ‘conservative social practice’ which accepts, reforms, modifies and extends the ‘existing terms and conditions of the social sphere’ and ‘radical social practice’ which demands change (ibid.).  Methodologies and materials may be identical, but conservative social practice tends towards utility and pragmatism, accessibility and participation, whereas radical forms are ‘divisive, antagonistic and concerned with [their] own actions’ (ibid.).

Community art was, I suggest, once a form of radical social practice: a marginal arts practice that sought to change society before eventually becoming depoliticised (Matarasso, 2013); ‘a form of cultural activism’ (Kelly, 1984, p. 30).  Eventually, it became ‘just one more worthy branch of whatever … the [Conservative] government chooses to leave of the welfare state.  Meals on wheels, homemade scones, inflatables and face painting: the kindly folk who do good without ever causing trouble’ (Kelly, 1984, p. 1).  A description that, I argue, resonates as strongly in relation to much of today’s participatory and socially engaged art activities as it did in the mid-1980s.  Initiatives such as the Arts Council England (ACE) initiated CPP programme as well as a myriad of other state- and foundation-funded projects tend towards celebration (common) or disorientation (more challenging).  They follow state agendas, like social inclusion or ‘social action’ or ‘civic role’.

So, like community artists in the 1980s, participatory and socially engaged artists today are often effectively told what to do and how to do it by people who are less interested in transformative social change than in measuring social impact.  There is little room for radical social justice.  Instead, artists today, like their community art predecessors, are increasingly cast in the role of ‘foot soldiers’ for the state, local government, funders and even property developers.  Tellingly, community art’s failure to construct a theoretical framework with which to analyse its work or situate it politically, led to the imposition of an officially sanctioned language by the state and funders – the ‘language of bureaucratic community work’ – that encouraged artists to align their practices with edicts handed down from on high (Kelly, 1984, pp. 3-29)[3].

Like artists involved in CPP today, community artists were increasingly directed by the aims of funders towards working with ‘the disadvantaged’; with those unable to access or ‘enjoy the arts’ who were encouraged to take part in the arts ‘for their own good’ (Kelly, 1984, pp. 3-29)[4].  I argue that seemingly benign state-funded community and participatory initiatives like CPP are, in fact, acts of oppression.  By attempting to work with under-engaged communities these programmes impose their own directives, their own missions and the state’s approved forms of culture on participants.  Cultural policy is designed and delivered by a tiny elite.  It is not open, nor democratic.  Rather, cultural policy represents the imposed ideologies and values of one dominant group upon the rest of society.

Cultural policy in the UK today therefore seeks to democratise state-sanctioned culture – the cultural values of the establishment.  It devalues, marginalises and ‘Others’ many traditional cultures by simply ignoring them or by attempting to appropriate them within a narrative such as ‘Everyday Creativity’ (64 Million Artists, 2016).  It does not allow for the alternative perspective of cultural democracy which disrupts and rejects the state’s cultural offer.  In its place, cultural democracy encourages ‘uninvited act[s] of disobedience’ and acts of freely creative, often conflictual expression (Hope, 2011).  Yet the state, local authorities, charitable foundations and, increasingly, private interests, control access to most funds for artistic activities.  This creates what is effectively a monopoly: a niche market or a controlled public sphere which necessarily excludes communities.

There are many institutions and artists working in communities today that, often under the subtle (or direct) influence of state cultural policy directives, seek to use art as a means of ‘empowering’ (usually ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘disenfranchised’) communities.  For example, the title of CPP’s 2016 conference was both enlightening and unsettling: ‘People, Place, Power: Increasing arts engagement’.  It aimed to offer ‘an opportunity for Creative People and Places projects to share learning from their different approaches, and for other researchers and practitioners to share perspectives on arts engagement and related issues of participation, community decision making and sense of place’ (Creative People and Places, 2016).  Whilst its intended audience was CPP projects, arts organisations, socially engaged artists, and academics.  It was not for community members.  It was not for participants.

CPP’s aims and outcomes are, I contest, indicative of an undoubtedly well-meaning yet top-down vision of improving cultural engagement in ‘excellent art’[5].  These outcomes come from ACE and, ultimately, from state social and cultural policy.  It is therefore important to quote at length ACE’s description of CPP’s mission:

Evidence demonstrates that some communities are engaging very little with the arts. This may be through lack of opportunities to attend and participate or because of barriers like socioeconomic factors, physical accessibility, or a limited offer. We believe that everyone has the right to access the arts and we want to transform the opportunities open to people in these places … Our vision for Creative People and Places is to support the public in shaping local arts provision and, in so doing, to increase attendance and participation in excellent art, and existing Creative People and Places consortia are working to a 10-year vision to achieve this. (Arts Council England, 2016, p. 4)

This is the language of the democratisation of culture; the narrative of centrality.  The artistic outputs and ‘processes of engagement’ must, as a recent report entitled ‘“What it does to you”: Excellence in Creative People and Places – Thematic Research’ (Consilium Research and Consultancy, and Mark Robinson, 2016)[6], also be ‘excellent’.  The title of this report affirms, I suggest, a ‘we know what’s best for them’ attitude that dominates at least the top levels of the CPP hierarchy.  As an attendee of ‘People, Place, Power’ – a director of an art organisation based in Manchester – later stated: ‘Mainly we discussed a problem called Excellence’.  Fenton was mostly positive in his reflections but was concerned that many attendees seemed unaware that participants were not present at the conference, only quoted in presentations.  He also reported that CPP project members and research partners were not from particularly diverse backgrounds and that this was hardly discussed (Fenton, 2016).

Participants at the conference were excluded, whilst those from marginalised cultures and classes were not fairly represented.  This mirrors research conducted by Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor which suggests that there is a class-bias within arts and culture overall.  Audiences and workforces are predominantly middle-class, there is a gender pay gap between men and women and diversity in general remains a major problem for UK arts and culture (O’Brien & Taylor, 2016).  Other reports have also highlighted the longstanding inequalities in arts and culture which extend beyond audiences and workforces to include participants (O’Brien & Oakley, 2015).  Meanwhile, O’Brien and Oakley also argue that more research into cultural consumption and production is needed to better understand the relationship between culture and social inequality (O’Brien & Oakley, 2016).  Andrew Miles and Lisanne Gibson recently went as far as to suggest that, because of failures by both policymakers and academics, metropolitan arts and heritage agendas continued to dominate cultural funding and cultural participation, causing unrest within the broader cultural sector.  Crucially, they asked: ‘what and whose culture is at stake in these disputes; and what are the effects of variations in valuation and support?’ (Miles & Gibson, 2017). Their Understanding Everyday Participation seeks to address some of these concerns.

It is beyond the scope of this article to expand upon these debates in detail.  Clearly, however, a focus on artistic excellence and segregated audience/ participant demographics are, unfortunately, common problems that continue to beset UK arts and culture.  Perhaps this reflects a perception that the cultural class somehow ameliorate disenfranchisement with the ‘well meaning [sic] rhetoric of aesthetic “empowerment”’ (Kester, 1995).  Artificially and unfairly mapping and labelling certain areas of the UK as in need of empowerment and lacking ‘cultural engagement’ is a problematic factor with CPP must deal with[7].  People in the places are identified as lacking in cultural, economic and social terms.  And, as discussed above, the arts organisations, their funders and the artists employed to deliver their intended outcomes are often socially and culturally ‘different’ from these excluded and marginalised people and places.  I argue such a categorisation reinforces superiority and difference, effectively ‘othering’ and disempowering the intended ‘beneficiaries’.

Programmes like CPP can undertake their calling with an almost missionary zeal.  The belief that art can be emotionally, morally, even spiritually, beneficial has formed a central tenet of the West’s intellectual orthodoxy since the Enlightenment and the ‘invention of aesthetics’.  It is this little-changed faith in its benevolent properties that still propels the instrumentalisation of art today.  Indeed, John Carey’s description of the Victorian ‘mission of the arts’ still rings true today:

In the 19th century it became a widespread cultural assumption that the mission of the arts was to improve people and that public access to art galleries would affect this.  It was felt in particular that if the poor could be persuaded to take an interest in high art it would help them to transcend their material limitations, reconciling them to their lot, and rendering them less likely to covet or purloin or agitate for a share in the possessions of their superiors.  Social tranquillity would thus be ensured. (Carey, 2005, pp. 96-97)

I contend that CPP aspires to exactly this mission: the reproduction of a bourgeois social system that ‘exploits the authority of art to glorify the present social system and its priorities’ (Carey, 2005, p. 106).  The belief that art is beneficial to everyone can also harbour the possibility that it may be harmful to some individuals.  For example, socially engaged art interventions may claim to address issues of social justice whilst valorising authorship, individuality and forms of competition (Graham & Vass, 2014, pp. 11-12).  Indeed, socially engaged art has been all but completely decoupled from its historical roots in revolutionary avant-garde praxis (Roberts, 2013).

Creative placemaking recently became a fertile ground for socially engaged artists, further distancing this form of contextual art practice from its broader, often more politicised roots (Wilbur, 2015, p. 96).  Cara Courage described this shift towards creative placemaking as reflecting the sudden interest of the art world in the practice (Schumerth, 2015).  I argue that, just as there is nothing new about artists exploring place, there is also little new about other sectors using artistic practices for their own benefits, whether community organisers or the state, arts funders or corporate property developers.  What Courage and Wilbur identified is nothing more than a rebranding exercise.  There are also obvious parallels between creative placemaking and CPP (Bunting & Fleming, 2015; Donagh, 2016).

Crucially, creative placemaking can subtly move socially engaged art practice into the creative industries, not only ensuring it becomes a tool for community development and regeneration agendas but also enshrining the practice within neoliberal governance.  Neoliberalism is a form of discourse that has become so hegemonic that it has pervaded every aspect of how we think about, live in and comprehend our world, restoring class power to the hands of a tiny (Harvey, 2007, pp. 23-29).  I argue that, in keeping with the wider Creative Industries, CPP represents ‘creative’ free-market enterprise and neoliberal governance with a human face.  The cumulative effects of the neoliberal centrality on the arts and artists, on people and communities, on places and spaces, and on the redistribution of power, serve to simultaneously draw people into increasingly narrow public and corporate sector agendas whilst also callously casting out the ‘others’ – those in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time – to the margins, the peripheries.

Rosalyn Deutsche explained in 1988 how the ‘[n]eutralizing concepts of diversity … are wielded to defeat genuine diversity’ so that individuals become a homogeneous category – ‘The public’ (or in CPP’s case the ‘People’); public space becomes excluded space by ‘expelling specific differences’ in efforts to re-establish the ‘social harmony’ of place.  Similarly, positive notions of ‘community’ are perpetually celebrated by the very same property developers and local councils that are destroying ‘community, as both territory and social form’ (Deutsche, pp. 11-20).  Whether described as creative placemaking, socially engaged art project or CPP initiative, the cumulative effect of the neoliberal instrumentalisation of art practices that were once part of social movements for radical change is both depoliticising and disempowering for artists and local people alike.

Similarly, categorising some areas as being of low cultural engagement creates what Rob Shields called ‘marginal peripheries’ – places ranked by their perceived cultural status.  Marginal regions, towns and places are deemed to have been ‘“left behind” in the modern race for progress’; places of ‘nostalgia and fascination’, they are ‘the Other pole to a great cultural centre’.  By focusing on areas of low cultural engagement, CPP is, I argue, an attempt to work with ‘Other’ places on the social and cultural peripheries – places of ‘Low culture’, the culture of marginalisation.  The notion of people and places of ‘Low culture’ can be dialectically opposed to those of ‘High culture’, raising issues of class difference alongside many other possible tensions.  For Shields, the othering of these marginal, Low cultures is simultaneously ‘despised and reviled in the official discourse of dominant culture and central power’ and ‘constitutive of the imaginary and emotional repertoires of that dominant culture’ (1991, pp. 3-5).  It can be argued that CPP’s hierarchy perhaps reflects just such a tension.

It is important to acknowledge that as well as being places and spaces of exclusion and oppression, margins can also become ‘a position of power and critique’, exposing the ‘relativity of the entrenched, universalising values of the centre’ and ‘the relativism of cultural identities which imply their shadow figures of every characteristic they have denied, rendered “anomalous” or excluded’ (Shields, 1991, p. 277).  Therefore, if CPP projects are only deemed appropriate on the cultural peripheries, in marginal communities, they can be perceived of as civilising missions undertaken by cultural colonisers – the artists and institutions of art and their other ‘partners’.  The arts – a critical component of the new centrality – work to police the centre, develop and redevelop spaces within the centre, and to reach out to the peripheries – to the ‘excluded’.  When art moves to colonise new cultural frontiers, it reinforces entrenched resistances to difference by claiming to embrace diversity; marginalises people by attempting to work at the peripheries; disempowers people by attempting to empower them.  Cultural empowerment only serves to reproduce and thereby reinforce the exclusivity of the status quo.  For, as Pablo Helguera wrote, the contemporary art world is ‘distinctively about exclusion, not inclusion’ and is based on ‘a repertory of cultural codes, or passwords, that provide status and a role within a given conversation’ (2011, p. 22).

I contend that CPP, like other state-funded arts programmes, is enmeshed in state politics – part of the aestheticisation of politics and the ‘political spectacle that enforces passivity’ (Leslie, 2011, p. 188).  This is nothing new, as I have attempted to illustrate.  The dominant ideology of the centre has, I argue, extended its roots beyond Establishment culture through acts of appropriation and co-option which are often attached to financial incentives, expanding into new areas, (re)colonising the working class and other marginalised groups by attempting to ‘convert’ it to accept the dominant culture over their own ‘inferior’ culture.  This High cultural expansionism is writ large in Arts Council England’s strategy framework (2010-2020): ‘Great art and culture for everyone’ (2013)[8].  But whose ‘great art’ is Arts Council England referring to, and what is great art?

CPP, like the creative industries overall, is technocratic; fascinated by professionalisation.  It is little wonder then that the words used in so many of today’s arts and cultural strategy documents, reports, project briefs, etc. echo those of business, of management, of economics; likewise, its strategies and models.  They function to reinforce and reproduce the dominant neoliberal ideology.  Esther Leslie explained that art ‘cannot in itself recover from a situation intrinsic to industrial capitalism, whereby it has been made an adjunct of the political, for which read economic’ (2011, p. 188).

The creative industries have, since the New Labour era, been an essential element of an urban regeneration programme that marries culture to the economic, social and spiritual (re)development of the nation.  For example, Chris Smith, New Labour Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (1997-2001) wrote in his book, ‘Creative Britain’, that ‘no government can stand idly by’ in the face of a resurgent creative sector capable of uplifting ‘the people’s hearts’ and simultaneously generating ‘a major economic return to this country’ (1998, p. 6).  Yet, this ‘third way’ approach brought culture, state and corporate interests closer together.  Indeed, I argue that CPP represents the latest incarnation of New Labour inspired, third-way centrality.  This third-way approach merges the hard language of economics with the soft dialogue of art, culture and community participation.

Of course, socially engaged art tends to favour dialogic, pedagogic and deliberative methods of practice.  It presents itself as a democratic art form.  Often, however, the practice favours artist-led approaches backed by creative producers and arts organisations, who tend to misunderstand that participants can think and act ethically and artistically.  They also tend to underestimate that human life – being and living – cannot be reduced to employability, skills and education.  However, this creates a paradox in which greater democracy creates less openness (Chukhrov, 2014).  This is because, as Dave Beech explained, ‘participation cannot deliver what participation promises’.  Participation imagines ‘social reconciliation’ but lacks a way to enable transformation; it ‘hopes to provide the ends of revolution without the revolution itself’; and it aims to merge art and life ‘without the need for any messy and painful confrontations’ (Beech, 2010 [2008]).

Many arts programmes, arts organisations and artists working in the social see participation as a panacea for all society’s ills.  Others, however, are aware of the difficulties of avoiding complicity with state agendas and seek to challenge it wherever and whenever possible.  Nonetheless, I argue, ACE see participation and community engagement as a panacea for social problems, not, however, because they believe it but rather because they are told to believe it.  Unless careful, CPP projects can assign participants to a specific role within accepted parameters predefined by project organisers, thereby inviting them to participate in very specific terms and in very specific ways.  It is, of course, possible to avoid such issues with care and attentiveness.  Yet, even so, it is critical to understand that participation does not always include or activate people; it can also exclude and pacify.  I suggest that it is essential to analyse programmes such as CPP within local, national and global contexts that extend beyond art world and into broader state and corporate agendas.

I argue that CPP should by analysed using critical theory.  I also believe there are numerous alternatives that can enable ways of living creatively without being instrumentalised or puppets for whatever quirky state policy that comes along next.  Critical theory and radical (re)readings of art theory, particularly that relating to community arts and cultural democracy, can rekindle art as a force for truly positive change in which people are encouraged to experiment with and challenge, to push boundaries and define themselves, their way.  We can learn much from our past and we must apply to the present so we can take control of our individual and collective futures.  Critical theory offers hope.  But it is essential that we see the trip wires of instrumentalism and control.  CPP projects must see through these obstacles and make their own rules; rules emanating from local people and places.  These will be necessarily different and that is a good thing.  Consensus is not a positive outcome.  It always silences those most easily silenced.  Dissensus and disobedience lie at the heart of art and creativity.  Bureaucracy, hierarchy and instrumentalisation have no place in art or creativity.  They are unnecessary; unwanted.  They kill creativity.

Any attempt to create new instrumental infrastructures for community development ignores Lefebvre’s assertion that space is socially produced, contested and conflictual.  It attempts instead to neutralise existing people and communities before excluding them.  CPP then may be an attempt to supplant everyday creativity, socially produced spaces and, most importantly, local cultural practices that may be incredibly important to existing (yet perhaps invisible to some observers) community bonds and ties, with a homogenous, compliant and falsely neutral notion of place as a middle-class ideal – the urban pastoral.  One thing is clear: power in many CPP projects cannot be in the hands of the people and notions of place are often unclear or reliant upon nostalgia narratives to construct them.  It is possible to conceive of art as part of living creatively, as part of everyday life, as local cultural democracy.  It is not, I contest, possible to achieve these ideals via a state-conceived system which creates a further tier of arts administration that can only but further disempower local people at best and marginalise their own forms of unofficial cultural activities.

The arts are essentially humanistic and social.  It is, I feel, time that we started to think of the arts as such rather than instrumentalise them in the name of conformity or financial gain, or reduce them to numbers and evidence-based functions in the positivist conceits of measurability and accountability.


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[1] The validity of much of art’s ‘evidence base’ is deeply questionable.

[2] Belfiore writes: ‘If we look historically at the idea that the arts can have an impact in a range of areas – such as, for instance, psychological well-being, health, moral education and behaviour, educational development,

political and social empowerment and emancipation, the forging of individual and group identity – we can only come to the conclusion that “instrumentalism” is in fact 2,500 years old.  Contemporary British cultural policies, then, might seem merely the latest embodiment of longstanding ideas that have become progressively normalised and, from the late eighteenth century onwards, institutionalised and embedded within powerful cultural and educational organisations, national curricula and public sensibility’ (2012, p. 104).

[3] As Kelly explained: ‘We were, in effect, inviting people to let one branch of the state send in a group of people to clear up the mess left by another branch of the state, while at the same times denying that we were working for the state’ (1984, p. 30).

[4] For Kelly, The state … assumed the role of “director” of [the] national culture through its ability to emphasise or constrain activities by means of funding allocations and licensing restrictions.  This ability enables it to construct a specific dominant culture, while apparently dealing even-handedly with all cultures and favouring none (1984, p. 43).

[5] Experts, of course, determine what is and what is not ‘excellent art’.

[6] To read the full ‘What it does to you’: Excellence in Creative People and Places report (2016), see:  http://www.creativepeopleplaces.org.uk/sites/default/files/What%20it%20Does%20to%20You%20-%20Excellence%20in%20CPP_0.pdf.

[7] And many other similar projects.

[8] To read Arts Council England’s key strategy document, see: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Great%20art%20and%20culture%20for%20everyone.pdf

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