This article was first published in print in Sluice Magazine and then on their website in 2017. I’ve decided to publish it on my website because I hope its content still resonates in 2018. It addresses issues of instrumentalism in the arts, artwashing, living creatively and cultural democracy. As I wrote in 2017, I believe “it is still possible to conceive of art as part of living creatively, as part of everyday life, as local cultural democracy, as artistic autonomy.” It’s time to talk about how…
Artists and arts organisations have always skirted the edges of gentrification. Like pretty moths, they have happily fluttered around the naked flame of accumulation by dispossession, quietly spinning intricate little cocoons in decrepit capitalist disinvestment. Precision migrants, they move on the favourable wind of financial investment, astutely drawn by the tiny new bright lights of frontier navigation beacons. Intention is everything in this cyclical and cynical gentrification dance, and artists can no longer play the role of innocent victim. They nibble away the decaying fabric of working-class community; part of a complex, multi-scalar global infrastructural web spun from the fine silk of state investment by transnational agents: property developers, investors, banks, big brand retailers, managed wealth funds, NGOs and the Creative Industries. But, whilst there are few strings attached for corporate regeneration ‘partners’, the Creative Industries willingly trade state funding and cultural status in exchange for increased state instrumentalisation, partial privatisation and new civic responsibilities. And, cajoled by the state into ever-deepening relationships with the private sector, arts organisations and artists discovered new value in the intangible worlds of ‘community development’ and ‘community engagement’.
From community arts to creative placemaking, some artists and arts organisations coalesced under socially engaged art’s catch-all, falsely ‘homespun’ banner. Quickly and quietly depoliticised, they became, I argue, Social Capital Artists: specialists in artwashing. These pioneering foot soldiers of gentrification use pretty bunting as camouflage, face paints and old lifestyle magazines their weapons of choice. Their ‘meanwhile spaces’ operate as ‘enterprising’ pop-up façades for venture capitalism; shared precarity loyally performed with smiling faces and colourful workshop games. Social Capital Artists are specifically employed to carry out artwashing by (at least in the case of urban regeneration) unholy neoliberal alliances of local councils and property developers. For them, artwashing functions as a cheap, preliminary form of community pacification by indiscriminately ‘harvesting’ the social capital of soon-to-be-displaced people whilst simultaneously offering good PR, photo opportunities and even a piecemeal ‘community archive’, ready-sanitised for future museumification. This new wave of social capital art silently turns the benign into the terrible; interpersonal relationships and dynamics into global statistics and generic standards; people reduced to little contributions to the financial bottom line and pretty pins on simulated maps.
Social capital is an insidious term. It turns community bonds and ties – immeasurable relationships, personal and interpersonal narratives and memories, family histories and more – into intangible economic value; into assets. Social capital monetises our lives, our most sacrosanct forms of being and living. It converts people and communities into free market economics, instilling the divisive spectre of neoliberalism into our very hearts and minds. In their rush to pray at the font of social capital (underpinned, of course, by financial capital), socially engaged artists become its missionaries. Anointed by capital, they transform into clapping harbingers of redundancy, displacement, social cleansing, colonialism and racism. Their aesthetic and participatory practices celebrate the empty and falsely unifying notions of ‘culture’, ‘people,’ ‘place’, ‘community’, ‘the public’, ‘the civic’. Their feigned participatory democracy and dialogues are nothing but apparitions. Their workshops administer free doses of culture as depoliticising functionalism exactly as prescribed by the vested interests of corporate, financial and state power.
Like socially engaged (or social capital) artists, ‘creative placemakers’, I suggest, peddle the ideology of domination ‘creatively’ played out in ‘public spaces’ to neutralise existing people and communities before excluding them: a conceit that ignores Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that space is necessarily socially produced, contested and conflictual. Creative placemaking works to replace socially produced experiences of the city and home with a homogenous, compliant and falsely neutral notion of place as a middle-class ideal – the urban pastoral. Creative placemaking is the institutionalised Creative City one-coat gloss that repaints utopian hopes for democratic community building with the hip retro colour scheme of gentrification and impending regeneration-by-social-cleansing. And yet what gives anyone the right to think that ‘we’ might want to (re)‘make’ a place for ‘them’? Don’t places already exist; already have communities? Who are ‘we’ (as artists) to become embroiled in the sinister depths of urban planning?
Instrumentalism dressed as ‘participation’ lies at the hearts of socially engaged art and creative placemaking but it extends way beyond this into almost every form of funded arts project in the UK today. From Creative People and Places 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); often masquerading as ‘grassroots’. These initiatives dream of ‘democratising culture’ – existing state-approved culture. They want to encourage more people in more places to take part in existing state-funded art. But they also want (as part of the drive to derive as much social capital as possible) to turn participants (people) into numbers, state-sanctioned categories – data for evaluations and reports that ‘evidence’ success at every opportunity.
Initiated by the state via the (not very) arms-length quango Arts Council England, initiatives like Creative People and Places 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’ – who 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.
This is, I argue, 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: Art. In the service of instrumentalised arts and culture, arts professionals become middlemen and artists become the state’s missionaries or mercenaries. Their claims of ‘empowerment’ mask homogeneity, universality and technocracy. Cultural value is the state’s cultural values; their agendas; their ideology. Artists and arts organisations working in the service of the state must forgo autonomy and must never engage with the big political issues of the day. State-sanctioned art is entrenched within existing and new citadels and complex infrastructures. It has also expanded into almost every aspect of life; not the everyday life of the radical avant-garde 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. 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.
Independent, individual and collective autonomous and political art practices have been virtually (although not completely) eradicated in recent years; swept away by the incessant drone of the Creative Industries; increasingly wedded to an art market of billionaires and their pet hedge funds. This is not a funding issue. It’s ideological: a product of the division of artistic labour engineered to bring the arts in line with an all-pervasive neoliberal free market hegemony. UK arts and culture are now almost completely one-dimensional – totally administered – unless self-organised and self-funded. The crude appropriation of the dystopian concept of the culture industry presaged by Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno and many other critical theorists reflects a knowing post-modern irony on behalf of the state’s cultural administrators and their coterie of economists, policymakers, universities and businesses. Arts and culture offers ‘investment opportunities’ … for some; for those fluent in Creative Industries Newspeak. They are building new citadels whilst reinforcing long-held bastions of the elitism and privilege endemic within Art. Cultural institutions now frequently make Faustian pacts with ‘philanthropic sponsors’ for whom a small ‘investment’ in culture reaps big returns in the forms of enhanced perceptions of corporate responsibility and free PR. Exchanging culture and community for capital is a deeply ideological act: cuts to state funding replaced by ‘benevolent’ capitalist surplus – derivatives of the division, oppression and exploitation of people and nature.
Artwashing, creative placemaking, the Creative People and Places programme and, indeed, much of the state-funded system of art and culture, increasingly shores up the bastions of a truly one-dimensional and totally administered UK official culture, reinforcing culture’s centuries-old role at the heart of a political system built upon elitism, privilege, subjugation and colonialism. Categories, rules, policy and financial investment leads to compliance. Compliance kills creativity. 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. Placemaking. Creative placemaking. Money. Money. Money! COMPLIANCE. Social capital voraciously feasts on all these things, carving up our most intimate acts, feelings, meanings; neatly shrink-wrapping them as money.
Artwashing often receives its funding from private sources – it is the work of mercenaries. But the state encourages arts organisations to hoover up funding with their all-boxes-ticked approach and “fun” appeal. State funding lights thousands of little candles and, like moths to the flame, artists and arts organisations are drawn towards them. Their scent is not sweet. They reek of instrumentalism. Many hold their noses, mesmerised; quickly acclimatising themselves to the state’s new rules. The effect is to (intentionally) further exclude truly autonomous art and community work, marginalising professional arts practices and many community groups and local people already deemed peripheral by the state, its quangos (like Arts Council England), and the NGOs and philanthropic foundations who are increasingly employed by and aligned with the state. In their place are the investment-friendly yet false, limited and middle-class notions of “fun”, “diversity”, “community”, “art”, “culture”, “empowerment”, “participation” and “place”. Dangerous façades that mask close compliance to state (read Tory) agendas. This is all part of an attempt to destroy autonomous, dangerous, critical and challenging art and community work. Their intention is deliberate. Socially engaged art burns enticingly. It’s fun workshops and happy outcomes should fool no one. This is state instrumentalism delivered, kumbaya-style, to a small, willing and malleable section of a certain element of certain communities (the “least engaged”, the “social housing tenants”, the “homeless”, etc.). No critique allowed. No political position other than some Third Way ideological centrism underpinned by the false hope of Habermassian deliberative democracy. Instrumentalised art doesn’t light a way forward; it offers us no hope. It offers only the eternal fiery torment of compliance. It incinerates our creativity.
We are facing today humanitarian crises on a global scale – displacement, oppression and exploitation on every street of every city in every nation. We are facing the fascism of Trump. And all the while property developers (and let’s not forget Trump is a property tycoon) eye their next brownfield targets, social homes plotted as black dots on pretty maps, people’s security and wellbeing cast aside in the rush for profitable gentrification. Our rights and liberties are being eroded at every level, everywhere by states and by state-sanctioned capitalism. Art today, like everything, like even our memories, is all about money – capitalism. Neoliberal governance marketises everything. We do not want it to be this way but we are trapped by the global greed of transnational corporations and powerful nation states. And yet, it is still possible to conceive of art as part of living creatively, as part of everyday life, as local cultural democracy, as artistic autonomy. I see hope in collectives such as Platform London, Ultra-red, the Rebel Clown armies, Illuminator 99% and many other groups and individuals who challenge the system, often using anti-aesthetic, anti-art and tactical media interventions. In short, activist art based around reimagined radical avant-garde principles. John Roberts’ excellent Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde (2015) is a good place to start, as is Gregory Sholette’s Dark Matter (2010). For a shorter read, I suggest There is no alternative: The Future is Self-Organised – Parts 1 (2005) and 2 (2012).
We must resist the system – the neoliberal status quo with all its contradictions and complexities. We must demand alternatives, make our own alternatives, tiny alternatives. It is impossible to be revolutionary if you feed from the crumbs of neoliberalism. The establishment knows this. It is how they kill creativity and restrict our freedom to be individuals, to achieve self-realisation. We must prepare for liberation; imagine a post-capitalist world that we build from the rubble of our present exploitation. We must say no! It is not, I suggest, possible to achieve these ideals via a state-conceived system which reproduces crap new tiers of Kafkaesque arts administration that serve only to further disempower both artists and local people.
The future is self-organised.
And we must self-organise.