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?

Postdevelopment & Participatory Action Research

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 seventh 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 second post in this section briefly discusses postdevelopment theory and participatory action research.

Postdevelopment theory can be seen to also chime closely with critical theory and post-structuralism in terms of its interdisciplinary nature which ‘borrows from postcolonial analyses of the uneven balance of power in the world, and poststructuralist rejections of modernization theory and its paradigms of “progress”’ and its focus on development as perpetuator of ‘uneven distribution of power, legitimacy, knowledge, and capacity, thereby undermining the very project of producing a better (fairer, more egalitarian) global community’ (McKinnon, 2007, p. 773). Postdevelopment theory is deeply critical of ‘ways in which indigenous knowledges, livelihoods, and economies of the “Third World” are delegitimized, devalued, stolen, and subjected to the dominance of “the West” under a banner of ‘international development’ that masks an agenda ‘of domination and control’; constructing ‘the Third World as “deficient” and “backward”’ (McKinnon, 2007, p. 773).

As McKinnon explains:

‘Using the idea of development-as-politics as a starting point, new postdevelopment approaches and strategies might be formulated around Laclau’s understanding of hegemonic politics. At the core of these new strategies would be a recognition that there is no point where the process of hegemonic struggle can cease and one hegemonic formation becomes complete. The incompleteness of any hegemonic formation presents both opportunity and challenge. On the one hand it allows us to see the weaknesses in the systems we may struggle against; as a hegemonic formation, global capitalism, for example, must always be viewed as an incomplete and ever-transforming entity [but also… [posits] that incompleteness applies equally to the hegemony that proponents of participatory development might be working for. Taking incompleteness as a grounding condition for any such movement for social change necessitates an explicit acceptance that there is no end point to the work of development and no perfect tool that can ever bring such an end into being’ (McKinnon, 2007, p. 782).

Whilst this perspective is a contribution to ongoing discussions around participatory postdevelopment, it is also an outlook that could equally apply to social inclusion agendas in Western countries and to future directions for socially engaged art in both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ places.

Participatory action research (PAR) is another approach that is often used in both ‘developing’ countries as well as in ‘disadvantaged’ communities in the West, particularly in the US. It is founded on a desire ‘for a sustained critical social psychology that engages in interdisciplinary discussions of and inquiry with social movements and solidarities, group relations, and dedicated interdependence; a social psychology that challenges the dominant belief that self-interest and self-protection are basic human motives’ (Fine, 2012, p. 417). PAR seeks to ‘reenter critical discussions of what could be and resist reinscribing what is’ (Fine, 2012, p. 417); it is a form of social psychology that positions itself as being capable of researching ‘the complex and circuited lives of persons nestled within global and local inequality gaps… to generate compelling evidence relevant to social theory, policy, and social movements’ by offering community-led alternatives ‘to the dominant narrative of motivated self-interest, defensive identity politics, and the inevitability of inequality gaps’ (Fine, 2012, p. 418). Fine’s description of an exciting interdisciplinary PAR project that often utilises artistic practice to achieve public recognition – the Public Science Project – perfectly illustrates the PAR approach as:

‘Rooted in the social psychology of justice studies… our research projects are designed collaboratively to document, contest and reimagine the social psychological dynamics and consequences of circuits of dispossession and privilege: the policies, ideologies, institutional relationships, and social dynamics that move across place and over time to redistribute and naturalize the upward consolidation of wealth, control, and class power while undermining, destabilizing and containing low-income communities of color… In order to theorize how these circuits move through and across young bodies and communities, our research projects aim to be deeply historic, theoretical and participatory, committed to the study of circuits (not just “victims” or “perpetrators”) of injustice and resistance, designed in collaboration with activists, organizers, interdisciplinary colleagues, and youth, who gather evidence for reconstructing theory, informing policy and feeding social movements and organizing campaigns’ (Fine, 2012, p. 429).

Participatory action research doesn’t recognise its connections with socially engaged arts practice as fully as it perhaps should. The Public Science Project’s work with Illuminator, a mobile outdoor projection ‘activator’ and associate of the Occupy movement, together with the participant-led data collection and analyses involved in the collaboration, are an exemplary case of critical interdisciplinary participation with radically democratic results.

Critical theory

Other disciplines that might further develop socially engaged art practice

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 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…

The first post briefly discusses critical theory.  My research is based around this approach and its methodologies.  I use the term un-capitalised because my work is informed by a critical theory beyond that attributed solely to the Frankfurt School.

critical theory cartoon

Critical theory is at the heart of this research. It is, in its broader and narrower senses, an approach that provides ‘the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms’ (Bohman, 2013). For Horkeimer, Critical Theory is emancipatory, seeking ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’ (Horkheimer, 1982, p. 244). It is a critically interdisciplinary approach which, as, Bohman explains:

‘Critical Theorists have long sought to distinguish their aims, methods, theories, and forms of explanation from standard understandings in both the natural and the social sciences. Instead, they have claimed that social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach… permits their enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather… seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression. This normative task cannot be accomplished apart from the interplay between philosophy and social science through interdisciplinary empirical social research’ (Bohman, 2013).

Critical theory must meet three criteria continuously: ‘it must be explanatory, practical, and normative’; it must ‘explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation’ – a task only achievable ‘only through interdisciplinary research that includes psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as institutional forms of domination’ (Bohman, 2013). As Horkheimer explained, capitalism must become more democratic so that ‘all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus’ (Horkheimer, 1982, pp. 249-250); Jürgen Habermas continues to critically explore such forms of cooperative, practical and transformative action today. There is a reawakening of critical theory at present. In responding to:

‘a period in which philosophy cooperates with empirical sciences and disciplines, Critical Theory offers an approach to distinctly normative issues that cooperates with the social sciences in a nonreductive way. Its domain is inquiry into the normative dimension of social activity, in particular how actors employ their practical knowledge and normative attitudes from complex perspectives in various sorts of contexts. It also must consider social facts as problematic situations from the point of view of variously situated agents… This kind of normative practical knowledge is thus reflexive and finds its foothold in those ongoing, self-transforming normative enterprises such as democracy that are similarly reflexive in practice’ (Bohman, 2013).

Bohman roots this resurgence of interest in critical theory as a response to the ‘pernicious ideology’ presently at work in suggesting there is no alternative to our present way of living; a time when ‘the social scientifically informed, and normatively oriented democratic critic’ can suggest ‘novel alternatives and creative possibilities in place of the defeatist claim that we are at the end of history’ (Bohman, 2013). Critical theory can, perhaps, be seen as a solution to the call for a critical postmodernism that responds to and suggests alternatives to ‘scepticism concerning the transformative and critical powers of art, aesthetics, knowledge’ by seeking individualised alternatives that ‘end of any simple faith in what have sometimes been called the “grand metanarratives”’ (Hebdige, 1992 [1986-7], p. 337); creating ‘a postmodernism of resistance, including resistance to that easy postmodernism of the “anything goes” variety’ in so doing (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], p. 336). As such, critical theory can be considered as aligned to post-structuralism’s ‘refusal to grant structuralism its premise that each system is autonomous, with rules and operations that begin and end within the boundaries of that system’ (Krauss, 2011, p. 40), yet, perhaps, it is also different from post-structuralism in terms of its goals.

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?

Cultural policy

This is the fifth 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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The academic discourse surrounding how and, indeed, if the arts might influence social change and the ‘intrinsic’ versus ‘instrumental’ questions (outlined in previous posts), cross into policy discussions about culture and value that perhaps shift the focus even further from the practice of socially engaged art and, for that matter, the arts in general. This section begins by returning to Matarasso’s later work as an illustration of how present policy discussions centre on the concept of ‘cultural value’ rather than ‘social impact’ or ‘social change’.

In 2012, Matarasso wrote On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’ in response to the burgeoning ‘cultural value debate’. He is critical, in his essay, about ‘value’ being perceived as ‘good’ even though ‘human beings do not agree on what is good’ and, if there is no definition of good, potential value cannot be measured (Matarasso, 2012). This ‘slipperiness’ about cultural value, for Matarasso, creates opportunities for tacit positions to go uncontested. Differing in emphasis from his position in Use or Ornament?, Matarasso extols arts and culture as ‘necessarily experiential’, existing ‘only in the intertwined experience of creator (artist, performer, author, maker) and re-creator (audiences, readers, viewers and listeners)’ (Matarasso, 2012). He believes that the ambiguity of the arts means it cannot be considered to have any ‘universal character, method, purpose, meaning or even existence’ and therefore ‘no universal value (good), unless one associates it with a universal deity’; cultural value cannot therefore ‘be measured against a universal scale’ nor can the effects of culture ‘be tested or replicated, except in certain limited terms’ (Matarasso, 2012). In this essay, Matarasso is stating a direct opposition to a policy position he was once demonised for supporting, if not creating: no longer the champion of instrumentalism; now a firm believer in art’s intrinsic nature.

The ‘cultural value debate’ has continued developing apace since Matarasso wrote the aforementioned essay. There are new initiatives appearing in the UK almost every other month at present. A brief overview of the stated aims and objectives of the key current initiatives around cultural value is therefore essential to understand how socially engaged art relates to this debate and its broader future policy implications.

The AHRC Cultural Value Project is clear in adopting a structural approach to ‘experience’, stating that it:

‘seeks to establish a framework that will advance the way in which we talk about the value of cultural engagement and the methods by which we evaluate that value. The first part of the framework will be an examination of the cultural experience itself and its impact on individuals and its benefit to society. The Project will take as its starting point the different forms of cultural experience, such as, for instance, the aesthetic and cognitive dimensions of our cultural encounters… In giving priority to the cultural experience itself, the Cultural Value Project will take the lead in developing a rigorous approach to what many see as the most important aspect of art and culture’ (AHRC, 2013).

The #culturalvalue Initiative, created by Belfiore, celebrates the new opportunities in this field and wishes to broaden the debate beyond economics. It states that:

‘the very existence of a set of cultural policies is predicated on the notion of cultural value, and the belief in the social importance of its preservation and nurturing… Yet, although how to articulate value is a central concern for cultural organisations in receipt of public funding… the sector finds it difficult to have a serious and honest discussion on the issue. As a result… the public debate on the value of the arts and culture has been intellectually colonised by the discipline of economics, at the expense of the humanities and social sciences’ (Belfiore, 2013).

The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value is led by many senior figures from across arts and culture as well as economics, public policy, sociology, etc. It has identified four trends to investigate and report upon in coming years: Investing; Valuing; Education; and International Trends. The overarching mission is to:

‘explore the “DNA” of the cultural landscape in England from both sector and public perspectives and imagine how it might be better connected and understood using the metaphor of an ecosystem… What kinds of investment do we need to ensure the future of culture and how can we work to ensure that all forms of culture are inclusive and accessible for all?’ (UoW, 2013)

Economics is central to most discussions about cultural value. UNESCO recently reported that the culture sector creates two types of impact: non-economic and economic; the key motive for renewed state intervention in the sector is apparent in UNESCO’s claim that:

‘[t]he growing interest in cultural industries and their rapid acceptance as a fairly general model for addressing development problems at the economic and political level, have contributed that cultural industries become a key component in the formulation of economic policy and strategic development planning.’ (UNESCO b, 2012, p. 7)

Alongside UNESCO’s research into measuring the economic benefits of arts and culture sits Measuring cultural participation (2012). It aims to develop ‘a conceptual foundation and a common understanding of culture that will assist the measurement of a wide range of cultural expressions – irrespective of any particular economic and/or social mode of production’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 8); it points to the ‘scientific measurement scale, the psychological general wellbeing index’ as a long-existing tool for measuring positive impacts of arts participation, irrespective of ‘artistic competence’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). But surely these are big claims to make, especially as the PGWBI is a generic psychological tool for measuring perceived wellbeing that does not measure any specific responses to either cultural activity or participation. Indeed, UNESCO go on to conclude that any attempt at even local standardisation will be difficult ‘[g]iven that most active participation tends to happen in a dispersed and uncoordinated way through small, often predominantly social, organizations that are neither recognised nor funded by governments as sustainable “institutions”’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). Is this international recognition that participation is independent and, if so, a territory to be colonised by new forms of instrumentalism? Certainly, the report’s authors identify ‘a disjuncture between three coexisting but fundamentally different sets of values – intrinsic, instrumental and institutional’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 10) and are perplexed by linguistic problems not just between different international interpretations of ‘participation’ but also between its active and passive forms of meaning (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 19).

Measuring cultural participation makes clear that UNESCO are not interested in artistic quality nor ‘[o]pposed concepts and cultural hierarchies (active/passive, high/low, professional/amateur)’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 20). The report is also clear that participation can only be understood ‘in a meaningful, wider context’ by investigating ‘a range of issues which can be understood only by using qualitative methods’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 49). The report concludes that no single ‘standard’ model will be able to describe ‘[t]he inter-relationships between cultural participation, participation as a whole, social inclusion and civil society’; attempts to measure participation in cultural activities must therefore use local ‘lenses and tools’ based upon ‘[s]cientific findings’ presented ‘in the best and widest possible way to encourage effective policies’ (UNESCO a, 2012, pp. 73-74).

A crisis of the legitimacy of cultural value was identified back in 2006 by Holden. He argued this could only be addressed by creating a democratic consensus through better and broader arguments about the value of culture that politicians could understand and support (Holden, 2006, p. 9). He explained that cultural value has three forms – ‘intrinsic value, instrumental value and institutional value’ – and is ‘created and “consumed”’ in ‘a triangular relationship between cultural professionals, politicians, policy-makers and the public’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). The solution lay, for Holden, in creating ‘a different alignment between culture, politics and the public’ that nurtures ‘greater legitimacy directly with citizens’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). But it would appear that, since then, cultural policy and cultural value have, in fact, moved further away from people outside a very narrow sphere of the arts, into a highly professionalised world of ‘cultural leaders’ and ‘public policy-makers’.

O’Brien’s 2010 report to the DCMS, Measuring the value of culture, warned that ‘the cultural sector will need to use the tools and concepts of economics to fully state their benefits in the prevailing language of policy appraisal and evaluation’ (O’Brien, 2010, p. 4). His report argues for increased state instrumentalism as well as an adoption of economic measures delivered ‘using the language of public policy and cultural value’ because only can ‘funding decisions… be made that are acceptable to both central government and the cultural sector’ (O’Brien, 2010, p. 5). Whilst acknowledging the value of narratives as useful in articulating cultural value, O’Brien warns they ‘fail to represent the benefits of culture in a manner that is commensurable with other calls on the public purse’ (O’Brien, 2010, p. 9). His stringent solution: find a way of fitting ‘the unique aspects of culture, outside of the social and economic impacts, into the economic language of the welfare economic paradigm suggested by the guidance in Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the Green Book’ (O’Brien, 2010, pp. 16-17). He concludes by requesting that the DCMS ‘rectify this issue by producing detailed guidance on measuring cultural value with stated preference techniques, making it clear that this will be the standard approach to valuation for central government’s consideration of policy for the cultural sector’ (O’Brien, 2010, p. 48). The voice of public policy abounds.

Public arts policy-maker and funder, Arts Council England (ACE), were surprisingly late in joining the ‘cultural policy debate’, publishing The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, in April 2014. Their report has been much maligned since publication because of its drive to increase instrumentalism and its poorly conducted research. ACE make their position clear from the start, describing the intrinsic value of arts and culture as being ‘in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers’, whilst stating that ‘[q]uantifying the [instrumental] benefits and expressing them in terms of facts and figures that can evidence [their] contribution… is something that arts and culture organisations will always have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4). They reinforce their drive towards measuring instrumental values by stating:

‘When we talk about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world… But while we do not cherish arts and culture because of the impact on our social wellbeing and cohesion, our physical and mental health, our education system, our national status and our economy, they do confer these benefits and need to show how important this is… on different scales – on individual, communal and national levels – so that we can raise awareness among the public, across the cultural, educational and political sectors, and among those who influence investment in both the public and private sectors… to help people think of our arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource… [and] to see where the impact of our work is felt, and where we don’t yet reach’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4).

The remainder of the report, which should perhaps be titled The Value of State Support for the Arts, gives very little in terms of ‘evidence’ of instrumental measures. Beginning with five ways in which arts and culture might lead be economically beneficial – ‘attracting visitors; creating jobs and developing skills; attracting and retaining businesses revitalising places; and developing talent’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7) – the examples descend into exceptionally tenuous realms. The published examples directly relating to participation in the arts and social change include statements such as:

‘Those who had attended a cultural place or event in the previous 12 months were almost 60 percent more likely to report good health compared to those who had not, and theatre goers were 25 percent more likely to report good health’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7).

‘People value being in the audience to the arts at about £2,000 per person per year and participating at £1,500 per person. The value of participating in sports is about £1,500 per year.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7)

‘High-school students who engage in the arts at school are twice as likely to volunteer… and 20 percent more likely to vote as young adults… Employability of students who study arts subjects is higher and they are more likely to stay in employment… There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)

‘Schools that integrate arts across the curriculum in the US have shown consistently higher reading and mathematics scores compared with similar schools that do not… Participation in structured arts activities increases cognitive abilities… Students from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree…’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)

So, apparently, going to ‘a cultural place or event’ makes you healthier; it is more valuable to watch a cultural event than participate creatively or take part in sport; art at ‘high-school’ makes young people really ‘good’ all-round citizens; integrated art teaching improves literacy and numeracy; structured art arts improves (structured) thinking; and, amazingly, by participating in school arts, poor students are much more likely to gain a degree (presumably in any subject). Is this a (re)turn to state instrumentalism in the mode of Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? It would certainly appear so with ACE themselves concluding that:

‘We know that arts and culture play an important role in promoting social and economic goals through local regeneration, attracting tourists, the development of talent and innovation, improving health and wellbeing, and delivering essential services. These benefits are “instrumental” because art and culture can be a means to achieve ends beyond the immediate intrinsic experience and value of the art itself’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 11).

The report does, however, warn that there is little evidence to support claims that ‘preventative interventions which use arts and culture to reduce the need for other public services’ do not, in fact, ‘demonstrate the associated reduction in public spending’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 23).

This review also briefly considers the role of art in regenerating public spaces as part of public policy. The Art of Regeneration (1996), written several authors including the ubiquitous Matarasso, identified the increasing role of the arts in urban regeneration which, whilst initially mainly focused upon expensive, large-scale capital works, was becoming increasing interested in ’participatory arts programmes which are low-cost, flexible and responsive to local needs’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). This was a clear policy change – ‘a shift in emphasis in regeneration strategies towards seeing local people as the principal asset through which renewal can be achieved’ with arts activities becoming ‘effective routes to a wide range of social policy objectives’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). Here, perhaps, lies the seeds of Use or Ornament? This participatory approach to regeneration led to a movement, particularly strong in the US, and now growing in the UK, known as ‘creative placemaking’, which the NEA defines as:

‘In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired (Nicodemus, 2012).

Bedoya is more cautious about the motives behind creative placemaking. His essay, Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging (2012), reminds practitioners to ensure they apply an authenticity and ‘ethos of belonging’ when working in this area to ensure residents ‘achieve strength and prosperity through equity and civility’ (Bedoya, 2012). Bedoya warns against a ‘build it and they will come’ culture based upon speculative economics as ‘suffocating, unethical, and [supportive of] a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place”’ (Bedoya, 2012). He is at pains that creative placemaking must not become ‘a development strategy but… a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities and sites of imaginations’ (Bedoya, 2012). Clearly then, creative placemaking, with its routes in policies aligned with regeneration and participation, may well always be a form of ‘instrumentalism-lite’ at best; a means of gentrification and state interventionism at worst.

Belfiore’s 2012 essay, “Defensive instrumentalism”, offers a thoughtful evaluation of the question of instrumentalism as cultural policy. She argues for a more nuanced, ‘philosophical approach to the notions of “impact”, “instrumentalism”, and the underlying assumption that the arts can be used as a tool to effect real transformation on individuals’ sense of self, place, belonging, morality, etc., and ultimately on communities and society’; describing UK cultural policy as being, for more than a century, dominated by increasingly normative forms of institutionalisation now ‘embedded within powerful cultural and educational organisations, national curricula and public sensibility’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 104). The result, contends Belfiore, is the present UK arts funding system in which ‘the recipients of the largest grants, which account for a very substantial portion of the available funding, have changed little since Keynes, and:

‘the exquisitely ideological question of making the (political) case for the arts has been translated in the rather more technical (and therefore apparently neutral) issue of arts impact assessment, with the focus firmly on the methodological problems of evaluation rather than on thorny questions of cultural value, and the political problem of how to address the as of yet unresolved issue of widening access and participation to the publicly supported arts’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 107).

Linking the current cultural policy situation with that under New Labour, Belfiore unveils a ‘new guise of economic instrumentalism’ – a form of ‘“defensive instrumentalism” that leaves no room for a positive and constructive vision’ (Belfiore, 2012, pp. 108-109). Perhaps, then, debates about cultural value and instrumentalism reflect the complete ‘commodification of public policy’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 110). Yet none of these debates and policies ever mention socially engaged arts practice; participation is mentioned fleetingly and often incoherently.

Art as Social change

This is the fourth 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?  The other posts are below.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

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Whether art, or any other activity for that matter, can ever change contemporary society, has been and remains a source of much discussion. Whilst the arts perspective has been reviewed previously, other fields such as sociology, politics, philosophy, etc. have increasingly (perhaps because of state interventionism discussed previously) become interested in discussing this question from an arguably more academic perspective. This section reviews some of the key works about art and social change, starting with a deeply critical essay, Art and Social Change (2005).

In Art and Social Change, Dillemuth et al. criticise many contemporary cultural and education institutions as being ‘nothing more than legal and administrative organs of the dominant system’; by taking part in these activities, we ‘internalise their values, transmit their ideologies and act as their audience/public/social body’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 378). The socially accepted façade of these institutions purports to represent our society but hides the ‘dysfunctional relics of the bourgeois project’, encouraged by neoliberalism to ‘become even more obscure, more unreliable and more exclusive’; indivisible from the state (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 378). The authors contest that the cultural and education sectors have betrayed their responsibilities to society that once claimed to be based upon ‘transparency, accountability, equality and open participation’ in favour of survival by submission to the state (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 379). Their solution is self-organisation; their manifesto culminating in a call for a fluidly flexible, agile ‘non-identity’ that is ‘[m]utually reinforcing, self-valorising, self-empowering, self-historicising and, as a result, not compatible with fixed institutional structures’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, pp. 380-381). This is, perhaps, social change, radically reimagined.

When Wolff categorically states that ‘[a]rt is a social product’ and that ‘it is not useful to think of artistic work as essentially different from other kinds of work’ (Wolff, 1993, pp. 1-2), she dissolves art into life. She confidently claims that ‘the sociological study of the arts has done a good job in exposing many of the extra-aesthetic elements involved in aesthetic judgement – the values of class, or the influence of political or moral ideas, for example’ (Wolff, 1993, p. 7); that the artist has never ‘worked in isolation from social and political constraints of a direct or indirect kind’ (Wolff, 1993, p. 27). But surely, this is an overtly sociological position which, as is typical of much of this type of research, avoids discussing many (or any) examples of specific artistic practice in relation to presented hypotheses. Adopting a similar tenet, Belfiore and Bennett, in The Social Impact of the Arts (2008), focus on developing the notion of instrumentalism as being at least 2,500 years old; not a contemporary phenomenon driven by the need to secure arts funding from the state (Belfiore & Bennett, 2008, p. 194). Their historical review concludes that:

‘the “negative tradition” – that is, the view persisting over time that the arts have a negative influence on individuals and society as a whole – resounds as strongly as the “positive tradition”, which maintains that the arts are “good for you” and which can be seen as predominant in today’s debates over cultural and educational policy’ (Belfiore & Bennett, 2008, p. 191).

This sociological approach to appraising contemporary arts (and socially engaged) practice as being part of a long continuum is useful on the one hand, narrowly reductive on the other. Many works around cultural regeneration and place take a similarly neutral stance. For example, Erasing the Traces, Tracing Erasures portrays the cultural regeneration of Newcastle/Gateshead as a project whichby attempting to re-make the region’s image and, simultaneously, key into networks of mobile capital by courting the tourist market and disposable income of locals’ helped create a new arts landscape in which buildings like The Sage ‘simultaneously erase and evoke, eradicate and re-inscribe notions of cultural memory and belonging as it pertains to contemporary cities’ (Thompson, 2010, p. 56). Such viewpoints stem from Bourriaud’s oft criticised theory of relational aesthetics which disparages radical ‘[s]ocial utopias and revolutionary hopes’ and ‘everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies’ because any position ‘that is “directly” critical of society is futile, if based on the illusion of a marginality that is nowadays impossible, not to say regressive’ (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 31).

Neutralising sociological perspectives such as those of Wolff, Belfiore and Bennett, Thompson, Bourriaud, et al. stand in stark contrast to the critical postmodernist perspective of ‘a postmodernism of resistance, including resistance to that easy postmodernism of the “anything goes” variety’ (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], p. 336). Huyssen’s call to ‘abandon that dead-end dichotomy of politics and aesthetics which for too long has dominated accounts of modernism, including the aestheticist trend within poststructuralism’ clearly aims to increase ‘the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’ (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], pp. 336-337). This position perhaps relates more to contemporary discussions about socially engaged art by practitioners than by many sociologists; offering alternative ways of envisioning art and social change rather than historicising it. It also links with critical theory (discussed in more detail in a forthcoming post.)

The Gifts of the Muse (2004) is a classic report about funding the arts as a means of ‘serving broad social and economic goals’ alongside an increased emphasis on the need for institutions to demonstrate the value of the arts; discussing potential instrumental and intrinsic benefits; recognising that intrinsic values are often neglected in favour of outputs and goals, even though they have a ‘central role… in generating all benefits deriving from the arts’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, pp. xi-xii). McCarthy et al. make a coherent case that the arts are not valued by audiences and participants for their instrumental benefits but because they create meaning, pleasure and satisfaction which can lead indirectly to broader individual and community benefits (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. xv). Sustained access to and involvement is essential to the report’s findings, as are three stages of access to the arts: ‘gateway experiences’ which are ‘most conducive to future arts involvement if they happen when people are young (that is, of school age, particularly pre-teen)’; ‘fully engaging’, high quality follow-on experiences that help ‘change individual tastes and enrich subsequent arts experience’; and ‘the intrinsic worth of the arts experience’ described as vital for long-term involvement in the arts (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. xvii). The report’s authors contrast this perspective with the aforementioned list of instrumental benefits purported to ‘be an antidote to myriad social problems’, economically important, etc., critiquing the arts for using ‘the language of the social sciences and the broader policy debate’ as justification for their continued existence (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 1).

In fact, McCarthy et al. are deeply scathing about evidence-based research on instrumental benefits, expanded beyond economics to include ‘cognitive, attitudinal and behavioral, and health benefits at the individual level, and social and economic benefits at the community level’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 7), noting that this research does not explain how participation in the arts generates these supposed benefits, nor does it ‘specify the circumstances in which benefits accrue, the populations most likely to benefit in such circumstances, and the level of arts involvement needed to generate benefits’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 21). They go on to suggest that methodological problems mean that many of the claims ‘about the arts’ instrumental benefits are unsubstantiated’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 33). In contrast, the authors explain that the intrinsic effects of the arts cannot be investigated using ‘the more objective view of the social scientist’ – a politically-driven ‘social science model that focuses on measurable outcomes’; the intangibility of intrinsic benefits being difficult (if not almost impossible) to accurately define (McCarthy, et al., 2004, pp. 37-38). The report also suggests that the modernist notions of aesthetics and ‘art for art’s sake’ has made art seem, to many people, ‘remote, esoteric, and removed from life’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 38).

The Gifts of the Muse, also places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of introducing children to arts and other creative activities early in their lives (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 54); the authors contend that ‘most of the claimed learning and behavioral benefits are generated by arts experiences in schools’ (McCarthy, et al., 2004, p. 71). The importance of creative experiences to children is a point discussed further later in this chapter in relation to the works of D.W. Winnicott.

So is social change achievable, measurably or even desirable?  Are the arts any better equipped than other fields to support social change?  Who drives change anyway?  Is social change always a concept of the state – driven by instrumentalism?  Is social justice different, more democratic?  More to follow…